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Hot, bloody fight proves soldiers’ mettle

Exhausted Apache Troop soldiers stem insurgents after truck attack

By ALLISON BATDORFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 5, 2007

FALLUJAH, Iraq

It was hot. Over 130-degrees hot, soldiers said.

When talking to members of Apache Troop about July 26, the heat is a character in the story in its own right.

The heat fried the precision of some memories, as they tell the story two months later at the dusty, no-frills Command Outpost Viking, where Apache Troop, 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry hangs its Stetsons and spurs.

But while the details and chain of events blur, the numbers remain static: three men died that day. Thirteen more were evacuated as heat casualties. And everyone got IVs, said outgoing troop commander Capt. Charles Randall Zipperer.

“Some things happen that you just don’t expect,” said Zipperer, 33, of Keystone Heights, Fla. “Our water truck got hit on the hottest day in Iraq in seven years. People were engaged in enemy fire with I.V.’s in their arms and bags strapped to their Kevlar. We didn’t expect that.”

What started as a routine sweep down both sides of a road near the village of Saqlawiyah turned bad early when a roadside bomb blew up one of the vehicles, resulting in an injury.

Red Platoon — on the other side of the canal — found another explosive device and snipped the wires before catching sight of three people about to detonate it, Zipperer said.

Soldiers captured the three men and were waiting to fly them to a detainment facility when someone realized they’d forgotten some evidence and the trucks went back for it, Zipperer said.

In the lead truck were Spc. Jaime Rodriguez Jr., a 19-year-old from Oxnard, Calif.; Spc. Charles Bilbrey Jr., a 21-year-old from Oswego, N.Y.; and Sgt. William Howdeshell, a 37-year-old from Norfolk, Va. They were also carrying all of the water — eight pallets — to last the duration of the troop’s operation.

Though other trucks had crossed that point three or four times already, the lead truck hit the pressure switch of a roadside bomb.

Rodriguez, Bilbrey and Howdeshell were killed instantly.

Pfc. Dylan Marrow, a medic, helped recover the men. The 21-year-old from Houston will be haunted by seeing his friends this way forever, he said.

“I think of it every day,” Marrow said.

But the living soon needed his attention, as the temperature rose and men collapsed. Water was scarce. Men started dropping like flies, shedding their body armor in the oppressive heat.

“All hell broke loose and everybody went down,” Marrow said. “I couldn’t decide who was worse off, so I treated them in order.”

Medics Pfc. Dave Marek, 33, of Madison, Wis., and Spc. Randy Gene Fink, 23, Beckley, W.Va., came from the back of the convoy to help and saw many soldiers suffering from heat exhaustion — a potentially lethal condition.

“There were 20 to 40 guys all lying on the grass without their body armor on,” Marek said. “Usually taking off your gear is a big ‘no’ but we had to do it. It was just too hot.”

Soon, the enemy had arrived and were shooting rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire from houses, reed lines and mosques, Zipperer said.

A Marine air unit evacuated the men from the landing zone and started dropping ice in ammunition cans, as well as “lighting up” the enemy, Zipperer said.

Seeing the insurgents get thrashed was “the morale booster” of the day, Fink said. And the men fought with IVs in their arms until 7 a.m. the next day.

“They’d go get stuck with needles and go back to the job,” Marek said. “It shows how dedicated we are.”

“We were all tired, we were all taking IVs, but we weren’t about to leave our fallen comrades,” Zipperer said. “We were going to get them home.”

The aftermath

Getting them home was also a job for squadron chaplain Capt. Mijikai Mason and Sgt. Ignacio Ortiz.

Mason, 37, of Mobile, Ala., has been with the squadron on the last two deployments. Beyond spiritual matters, he and Ortiz handle mortuary affairs.

“I would rather us see it than expose the rest of the team to that kind of trauma,” Mason said. “To me one of the most patriotic things you can do is honor a dead soldier.”

Mason and Ortiz have done this for six soldiers since January. Mason worries about post-traumatic stress disorder, as he has already seen it in some of the soldiers. And they still have six months to go, he said.

“We had about 65 percent come back with PTSD last time; I bet we’ll have 75 percent this time,” Mason said.

Fink agreed that it could be an issue, saying that the Army should mandate time for soldiers after something traumatic happens in the field, instead of making it voluntary, he said.

“Mental health doesn’t get to places like this enough,” Fink said, referring to COP Viking’s 10-latrine, outskirts location. Here, soldiers eat what’s served, and it takes five days to get a clean uniform.

Still, the rustic lifestyle makes for better bonding, said many of the soldiers.

And they are used to leaning on each other, Zipperer said, as most of them have known each other since basic training.

“They all went through boot camp together, they were in Fort Stewart together, they were in combat together,” Zipperer said. “I wasn’t around in Vietnam or World War II, but I’ve heard about the bonds that form and this group is like that. I hate to compare it to brothers, but really, it is that way.”

But that only makes the “blood bonds” between them stronger, Mason said. He defines “blood bonds” as the unbreakable ties that bind tight those who take and lose lives together.

“It is the strongest bond they may ever know,” Mason said.


Unit still seeing plenty of fight in rural Iraq

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Capt. Charles Randall Zipperer sometimes raises an eyebrow during meetings when everyone is sharing all of their “hearts-and-minds” projects.

He can’t help it. Though much of Anbar is peaceful, his men in Apache Troop of 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry, are still involved in the kinetic fight, he said.

“It may be the last place in Anbar left,” Zipperer said.

Some of that is due to the texture and lay of the land, he said. The largely agricultural area is thick with green reeds and desert. It rests along the major route between Ramadi and Samarra, home to the Golden Mosque bombing in 2006 that triggered an outburst of sectarian warfare.

The unit has come under indirect fire, small-arms fire and has found car bombs in the area, he said. But the worst are the roadside bombs, said 1st Sgt. Richard Black, 34, of Mount Juliet, Tenn. Black has spent three out of the last five years in Iraq. He carries the pressure plate with him that killed one of 5-7’s men this deployment. There have been six deaths since January, all killed by roadside bombs.

“The most dangerous part of our day isn’t clearing houses and it isn’t firefights,” said Black. “The most dangerous part of the job is driving on the highway.”

But progress is being made, Zipperer said. Fallujah still doesn’t have good water sources, but there are now solar-powered street lights, he said.

“It sounds corny, but it’s a start,” Zipperer said. “Our guys can see the improvements. But they’re not throwing flowers or parades for us yet.”

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