Pfc. Jeremy Church had been driving trucks in Iraq for just over a month. But he had quickly learned to listen to a new little voice inside that warned him when something wasn’t right.
On April 9, 2004, things went just about as wrong as they could go for the 724th Transportation Company. Church had just enough time to hear the voice say one thing.
“This can’t be good.”
The voice was right.
Church’s 26-vehicle convoy was about to encounter the most organized ambush, arranged along the longest “kill zone,” ever set up by Iraqi insurgents against U.S. forces.
A 27-year-old, self-described “laid-back and humble” Wal-Mart security guard from St. Louis, Church had been in the Reserve for about five years before his Bartonville, Ill.-based unit deployed to Iraq in early 2004.
It was about 11 a.m. on a pleasantly warm day when Church and 1st Lt. Matt Brown, the convoy commander, spotted a disabled vehicle beneath an overpass near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad.
Brown halted the convoy, which was on an emergency fuel run from Balad to Baghdad International Airport, while another unit investigated the obstacle.
That’s when Church’s voice started talking.
“I can’t put my finger on it; it just wasn’t right,” Church, who has been promoted to the rank of specialist, said in an April telephone interview from New York City.
Brown felt it, too.
“Traffic went from heavy to light … to just gone,” said Brown, who joined the interview.
“I turned around to [another NCO in the Humvee] and said, ‘Hey, Sergeant Holly, I think we’re in trouble here.’ He said, ‘Yes, sir, I think we’re going to get hit.’ And two or three seconds later, we started taking fire.”
Insurgents were firing “heavy machine guns, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], mortars, the full gamut,” Brown said. “There was so much fire you couldn’t even hear the radios.”
Both Church and Brown began shooting back, with Church steering with his left hand and firing his M-16 though the driver’s side window with his right.
Five minutes into the attack, a small arms round struck “two centimeters from the brim and shot my Kevlar right off of my head,” Brown recalled.
The concussion caused Brown’s brain to bleed and swell against his skull, as well as popping his left eye out of the socket.
But the young officer was still alive, and even conscious enough to follow Church’s directions to close his window.
“I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, I’m hurt.’”
Church yanked his combat bandage off his shoulder, opened the brown plastic with his teeth, and fumbled to press the cotton against his commander’s head, while continuing to steer the Humvee.
An improvised explosive device blew out a tire. Church fought for control and kept driving on the bare rim, looking for help.
After about 15 minutes, Church ran into a perimeter secured by the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment. He led the convoy into the gates, screaming for help for his lieutenant.
After dumping Brown into the arms of several medics, Church started rallying the 12th Cavalry soldiers “to get out there and help” the trucks that were now hopelessly trapped in the kill zone.
After quickly collecting as much ammunition as he could from his own company’s trucks as they limped in the gate, Church jumped into a 12th Cav up-armored Humvee that was pulling out to join the fight.
“Specialist Church went far beyond the call of duty,” Brown said. “There was no expectation, whatsoever, for him to go back into the kill zone.”
Church and his new mates fought their way to a disabled Humvee where 10 seriously wounded U.S. soldiers and contractors were huddling for protection against the maelstrom.
Ten minutes after the last person had been evacuated and sent back toward the 12th Cav’s perimeter, an RPG hit the vehicle.
“It’s very possible that if [Church] had not gotten there as soon as he did, those people would all be dead,” Brown said.
Church said that that while he’s honored to receive the Silver Star, “I don’t think I deserve it.
“I’m just glad I didn’t get shot,” he said.