Business & Tech
Crime & Justice
|Fallen Civilian Agent Led by
By Kaukab Jhumra Smith
On April 15, Rick Ulbright’s high school in Boise, Idaho, will dedicate an 8-foot-tall, metal and granite memorial to alumni who died in service to their country.
Fourteen hundred students will file to the middle of the school quad for a 15-minute ceremony that begins with the national anthem and ends with the playing of taps. The school is arranging for the state National Guard to roar by in a four-plane salute.
Ulbright won’t be there for the ceremony, but his family will be.
A graduate of the class of 1973, Ulbright was killed by rocket fire last August at Kirkuk Air Force Base in northern Iraq. He was 49.
He is the oldest alumnus of the six whose names are on the war memorial.
Ulbright left behind a wife in Southern Maryland, two grown daughters, three sisters, a grandchild he’d yet to meet – and his parents, who live in Boise.
The unexpectedness of his death left family and colleagues stunned. They remember an upbeat, strong-minded man who cherished his family, planned to visit his new granddaughter in Australia after returning from Iraq, and who drove himself to be a role model to people around him.
His death was particularly shocking because he wasn’t involved in combat. A civilian agent who conducted lie detection tests for the military, Ulbright had put off a new teaching job in South Carolina to volunteer for a six-month tour abroad helping counterintelligence efforts.
Nearly four months into his Iraq tour, Ulbright finished conducting a polygraph test at Kirkuk Air Force Base and walked outside toward an office in a separate building to retrieve some paperwork, military sources said.
He had reached the building door when a rocket soared over the base’s walls, wounding him. He died on a military operating table on Aug. 8, 2004, three days before his 20th wedding anniversary.
Ulbright’s wife, Karen, continues to live at the Waldorf, Md., house they bought together two-and-a-half years ago. She has declined interviews since her husband’s death, directing reporters to talk to his colleagues at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The two met and married in the early 1980s in North Dakota, where Ulbright worked in helicopter maintenance at Grand Forks Air Force Base and took evening classes for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration.
More than seven months after Ulbright’s death, his wife’s answering machine continues to play an outgoing message in his deep voice. “You’ve reached Rick and Karen,” Ulbright says matter-of-factly.
His mother, Wanda Ulbright, has also saved recordings of her son’s voice on her answering machine, she said. Listening to them comforts her, she said.
Ulbright paid his own way through Boise State University for three years before enlisting in the Air Force partly because he needed the help with tuition, his mother said.
He moved every few years, shuttling between Air Force bases in the United States and abroad, first as an active duty employee and then as a civilian polygraph examiner. He continued working toward his bachelor’s degree, finally completing it in August 1986 while stationed in North Dakota.
When Ulbright volunteered to go to Iraq, his parents at first couldn’t understand why. He had just lined up a faculty job with the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute in Fort Jackson, S.C. -- the same institute where he’d trained to be a polygraph examiner and scored a perfect 4.0 grade point average 13 years earlier.
“He was quite driven to be excellent in this profession,” said Donald Weinstein, who taught Ulbright in 1992 at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute, then located in Fort McClellan, Ala.
And now here Ulbright was, talking about putting off this teaching opportunity to go into a war zone.
His mother describes how his father, Richard Ulbright, a Korean War veteran, asked his son why he would want to take such a risk.
“Dad, you would,” Ulbright said simply. “Wouldn’t you?”
“And my husband said, ‘Well, what could I say?’ ” Wanda Ulbright recounted sadly. “None of us wanted him to go over there, but he felt it was his duty.”
Deep down, a close colleague says, Ulbright remained a son who wanted to make his parents proud. “Even though conditions were bad over there, he would downplay that so that they wouldn’t worry,” said David Fuller, his colleague in Iraq.
Travels Through Danger Zones
Although he was based in Baghdad, Ulbright traveled all over Iraq as a polygrapher. He was helping a military unit in Kirkuk at the time of his death, Fuller said.
While most people only risked it once or twice, Ulbright regularly traveled the dangerous stretch of road between the Green Zone and the Baghdad airport – nicknamed Route Irish by the U.S. military – many times to get to other military bases, Fuller said.
Much of his work was shrouded in secrecy, said Wanda Ulbright.
“Lots of folks have trouble understanding what he was doing over there,” Fuller agreed. “I think when he was able to talk to his father about what he was doing over there, his father realized it really was an important mission, and he was very proud of him.”
He was excited about the birth of his granddaughter. Fuller described how his colleagues in Iraq cheered at the phone call announcing the baby’s birth.
On the phone, Ulbright immediately asked his exhausted daughter, Misty, to put the newborn on the line, according to Wanda Ulbright. Misty was calling from Australia, where she lives in Werrington with her Australian husband.
When Misty protested the baby was asleep, Ulbright demanded she rouse the baby so that he could hear her, Wanda Ulbright said.
“That was really something,” Wanda Ulbright said. “I guess she did wake up and cry for him.”
Although the Iraq war has claimed more than 1,500 American lives so far, Ulbright is the only fatality from his close-knit agency, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He is the fourth fatality in OSI's 56-year history.
That added to the shock of Ulbright’s death, said Fuller, manager of the OSI polygraph program, who accompanied Ulbright’s body back to the United States.
“The last person you’d think to get hurt was a polygrapher, because even though we’re in a combat zone we’re not out there on the front lines,” Fuller said.
They’d known each other for 12 years, and their living in the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace in Baghdad made Ulbright and he as close as brothers, Fuller said.
He and Ulbright would joke they were two old men involved in a young man’s war, Fuller said.
In Baghdad, Ulbright shared a trailer with another person and a bathroom with Fuller and two others. When others complained about the conditions, Ulbright would remind them they were lucky to receive hot meals and to sleep in trailers instead of tents, Fuller said.
“That’s the thing about Rick. I never heard the guy complain,” Fuller said.
Bringing Ulbright’s body back home to Maryland and speaking at his memorial service at the Andrews Air Force Base chapel were difficult, Fuller said.
“It was very emotional because I knew I had to turn around and go back,” Fuller said. He completed his tour in November and is now back at Andrews Air Force Base.
Ulbright would have turned 50 on March 8 -- a birthday he shares with his father.
The family has drawn strength from the letters of support they’ve received from all over the world.
“It’s been a help to know that he was thought of so highly,” Wanda Ulbright said.
Ulbright has been posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Outstanding Civilian Career Service Award and the Defense of Freedom medal.
His name will be engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., in May at an annual ceremony for fallen civilian officers.
His family will be there, too.
Copyright © 2005University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism