Support our mission
A soldier from the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery, looks into the crater left by a suicide car bomb. The blast on June 1, 2004, outside the front gate to Forward Operating Base Summerall killed 11 and injured 32, most of them Iraqi laborers who worked for a contractor making improvements to the base.

A soldier from the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery, looks into the crater left by a suicide car bomb. The blast on June 1, 2004, outside the front gate to Forward Operating Base Summerall killed 11 and injured 32, most of them Iraqi laborers who worked for a contractor making improvements to the base. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

A soldier from the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery, looks into the crater left by a suicide car bomb. The blast on June 1, 2004, outside the front gate to Forward Operating Base Summerall killed 11 and injured 32, most of them Iraqi laborers who worked for a contractor making improvements to the base.

A soldier from the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery, looks into the crater left by a suicide car bomb. The blast on June 1, 2004, outside the front gate to Forward Operating Base Summerall killed 11 and injured 32, most of them Iraqi laborers who worked for a contractor making improvements to the base. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

Field artillerymen from the 1st Infantry Division band together to assist and transport wounded Iraqis from the Task Force 1-7 aid station to medevac helicopters following the suicide car bombing on June 1.

Field artillerymen from the 1st Infantry Division band together to assist and transport wounded Iraqis from the Task Force 1-7 aid station to medevac helicopters following the suicide car bombing on June 1. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

Field artillerymen from the 1st Infantry Division band together to assist and transport wounded Iraqis from the Task Force 1-7 aid station to medevac helicopters following the suicide car bombing on June 1.

Field artillerymen from the 1st Infantry Division band together to assist and transport wounded Iraqis from the Task Force 1-7 aid station to medevac helicopters following the suicide car bombing on June 1. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

Soldiers at Camp Summerall line up injured Iraqis in the shade of some sand-filled barriers as they waited for medical treatment on June 1, 2004, following a suicide car-bombing outside the base’s gate. Eleven people died in the attack. The bomb blew a 4-foot crater in the road, destroying dozens of cars and trucks.

Soldiers at Camp Summerall line up injured Iraqis in the shade of some sand-filled barriers as they waited for medical treatment on June 1, 2004, following a suicide car-bombing outside the base’s gate. Eleven people died in the attack. The bomb blew a 4-foot crater in the road, destroying dozens of cars and trucks. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SUMMERALL, Iraq — Spc. Mychol Robirds stood behind a gun and a shield, sweltering in the turret of his Humvee, when he looked into the eyes of his would-be killer.

Robirds, 21, of the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, had spent the past hour scanning the desert from the trail vehicle in his six-truck supply convoy. Now it was just after 9 a.m. June 1, 2004, and the convoy had reached the serpentine front gate at Summerall, near Beiji, about 100 miles north of Baghdad. As they passed hundreds of Iraqi workers waiting in line to enter the base, Robirds looked forward to snagging some chow and calling his girlfriend, Ann, back home in Portland, Ore.

Then he noticed the dark sedan hugging his armored Humvee’s rear bumper. The driver wore a black button-down shirt, his dark hair thick and shiny. The man’s face, though, was what alarmed Robirds. He scowled, and his black eyes darted from side to side.

Robirds leaned down behind his homemade armor to tell his sergeant, who was sitting below in the front seat. That decision would save him from going home in a flag-draped casket.

“I wanted to let him know that something wasn’t right. I wanted to get clearance to fire a warning shot,” he recalled in an interview six months later. “I bent down and said, ‘Hey, this dude ...’ and then, boom!”

The terrorist’s bomb blew a 4-foot crater in the road, destroyed dozens of cars and trucks, and killed 11 people while wounding 32. No American troops died, and only two got hurt, so the attack drew barely a mention in the day’s news reports.

But the explosion seared June 1 into the memories of every soldier at Camp Summerall.

Artillerymen from several 1st ID units raced to the scene to put out the fires and rush the horribly wounded victims to the base’s tiny aid station. No one who was there will ever forget the carnage.

“I’ve seen some bad stuff in my time,” said Master Sgt. William Putnam, 41, of the 1st Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery, Summerall’s noncommissioned officer in charge for force protection. “But when I got out there, I was completely overwhelmed.”

It is the deadliest attack against a 1st Infantry Division base in the unit’s 11-month Iraq deployment. And it is the day the whole base pulled together as one. Afterward, troops knew for sure they could work well under fire.

“We were definitely at the peak of our game,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Weppleman, 32, one of the 1-7 Field Artillery medics. “That was our Super Bowl. We earned our money that day.”

‘Night of the Living Dead’

Just before the blast, Staff Sgt. Thomas Stowe, 27, of the 1-33 Field Artillery, stood 25 feet to the right of Robirds’ Humvee.

His job was to make order of the 300 to 400 Iraqis who arrived at the gate each morning to work on construction projects on the base.

About 100 meters from the entrance, Stowe would line up construction trucks needing entry to the base in one lane for inspection and U.S. military vehicles into another.

Like Robirds, Stowe too saw the dark sedan. The Beiji area had stayed fairly quiet since the regiments had arrived in March, but he had been warned to watch out for car bombs. He walked toward the car to flag it down.

“I was going to be an [expletive] and yell at him,” Stowe said. “I started raising my hand. When my arm went up, that’s when it detonated.”

He felt the hot crush of the blast without hearing it. In slow motion, he saw the car’s engine block fly by and kill a man standing next to him. The radiator flew toward Stowe and clipped his right leg.

“I’m kind of spinning around, like I’m in ‘The Matrix,’” he said, referring to the popular action movie known for its slow-motion explosion scenes. “Pretty much everyone around me was decapitated or killed.”

Putnam and Spc. Larry Casteel, 22, of London, Ky., raced in Putnam’s golf-cartlike vehicle called a “gator” about 100 meters from the guardhouse toward the inky tower of smoke. They saw dazed survivors, bloodied and burned, walking toward them.

“There were all kinds of people walking out of the fire,” Casteel said. “It was like something out of ‘Night of the Living Dead.’”

Near the blast crater, Stowe picked himself up off of the ground. His helmet had blown sideways and his glasses shattered. The explosion had blown out his eardrums, so he could barely hear.

Behind him a row of dump trucks burned, the drivers dead in their seats. Body parts and car debris lay around him everywhere. Injured Iraqis swarmed around the handful of Americans, shouting, “Mister, mister, help me!”

Soon dozens of soldiers from Stowe’s unit rushed out to help from their headquarters just inside the gate. Under Putnam’s direction, they put out fires and moved survivors behind barriers in case of another explosion. Combat lifesavers — soldiers with extra first-aid training and gear — treated them.

“There were people lying everywhere,” recalled Sgt. Robert Springstroh, 26, a 1-33 Field Artillery soldier from Appleton, Wis., who had been searching trucks near Stowe. “If they moved, we moved them. If they didn’t, they were dead.”

‘Feeling myself die’

Sprawled atop his Humvee, Robirds at first didn’t know what happened. The crude wall of armor he’d welded onto his turret had protected him against most of the shrapnel. But the force of the blast blew the mounted machine gun against his chest. His armored vest blew open; his helmet and goggles blew off.

Robirds’ head slammed against a metal plate. For a few minutes he lay there, hearing only buzzing in his ears. Everything seemed slow and far away. He felt nothing from the neck down.

“The whole time, I was feeling myself die,” Robirds said. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe he just killed me. One Iraqi, he beat me.”

His thoughts shifted — from dying, to being paralyzed, to losing a limb. He worried that he’d never see his girlfriend again, or that she’d find his maimed body repulsive.

But slowly Robirds found he could move a toe, then a foot, then his legs until he felt he could get up. He looked at the American flag patch on his right shoulder.

“It was hanging on by a thread, just like I was. That inspired me,” Robirds said. “I stepped out of the Humvee — stumbled out — and I grabbed my M4 [rifle]. I was going to make [the bomber] pay for what he’s done to me. I figured if I could survive a rocket going off in the turret, I could do anything.”

Then he looked around, saw the corpses and heard the screams. A medic, seeing him bleeding from the nose and ears, rushed up to help him. Someone loaded him into a gator for the two-mile drive to the 1-7 Field Artillery’s aid station. That’s when he woke up to the pain in his chest.

“Every time we hit a bump, it felt like my heart was exploding,” Robirds said.

Rivers of blood

Moments after the explosion, 1st Lt. Chad Cole, the 1-7 aid station commander, got a call on the radio. His headquarters told him to expect six casualties, a big day for his three-bed station. His own medics showed up promptly, and Cole called for help from the 1-33 Field Artillery and Division Artillery units elsewhere on the base.

One truck came and unloaded wounded patients, then another, and another. Cole’s medical team had treated some gruesome casualties after four months in Iraq, but they’d seen nothing like this.

“You could hear people screaming and crying,” said Sgt. David Flores, 25, a 1-7 Field Artillery medic from Simi Valley, Calif. “They looked like monsters almost.”

One man had his face burned off. Another had an engine bolt embedded in his brain. Many had lost limbs.

The blood flowed in rivers.

“When you opened the doors [to an ambulance], you could hear the blood slapping the ground,” said Cole, 33, a Persian Gulf War veteran from San Antonio.

Dozens of artillery soldiers and officers rushed to help. They lined up wounded Iraqis in the shade of the sandbag barricades, the combat lifesavers pumping bags of intravenous fluids into their veins. As medevac helicopters landed outside, majors and privates together hauled them on makeshift litters and loaded them into the back.

“People who weren’t even medics were all helping out,” said Spc. Nathan Smith, 23, a 1-7 Field Artillery medic from Breckinridge, Mich. “They didn’t argue. They just did what you told them.”

Inside, the medics worked furiously. They saved some patients and lost others. At one point, Lt. Col. Kyle McClelland, the 1-7 Field Artillery commander, stopped in and put his hand gently on Cole’s shoulder. He told Cole to expect at least 30 patients.

“It was just patch and plug,” Cole recalled. “After that, we just started loading them on birds — treating and loading, treating and loading.”

Through hard experience, the medics learned to avoid looking too closely at patients’ faces. It helped on this day that none of the badly injured were soldiers like them.

“You look at the pupils, and then from the neck down,” Cole said. “Once you make eye contact, that image is burned into your brain. You go to sleep, and you see that image. It’s horrible.”

Back at the gate, Stowe had pitched in with the rescue effort, grabbing fire extinguishers to fight a truck fire and organizing soldiers to carry injured Iraqis away from the flames. Except for his temporary deafness, he felt OK.

“It didn’t really faze me that I’d been hit,” he said. “The pain hadn’t set in.”

After awhile, though, his knee began to throb. He noticed it had swollen to twice its normal size. Shrapnel had torn his pants and boxer shorts, then lodged in his upper thigh. He’d been hit in the calf, forearm and neck as well.

Casteel and Stowe rode to the aid station together. While Stowe waited his turn, Casteel helped the medics by cutting the clothes off of injured victims. Until this day he had been squeamish around blood. When it was over, his desert uniform had been smeared with brain matter and matted hair.

“It was the bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Casteel said. “I had blood from head to toe.”

The medics patched Stowe up and loaded him aboard a helicopter for the trip to the 67th Combat Support Hospital in Tikrit. The doctors gave him morphine and anti-inflammatory drugs. They found his eardrums had not ruptured. They left the shrapnel in his body. Letting the chunks of metal work themselves out would cause him less harm than an operation to remove them.

Two days after the blast Stowe returned to duty. In mid-July, while in Germany on his rest-and-recuperation leave, he visited an audiologist who concluded he’d suffered a 20 percent hearing loss.

‘Angel armor’

Robirds said the incident changed him forever.

In the aid station, he grew pale and weak. When the medics hustled him aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk to Tikrit, his chest hurt so badly that even a gentle wind caused him mind-bending pain. For the first 48 hours, until he reached the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, nurses shot him with morphine every hour.

Robirds said a doctor later told him a large blood vessel near his heart had torn but had somehow healed itself in the hours after the blast.

He believes the battered Saint Christopher’s medal he had worn since joining the Army in June 2003 protected him. His close call boosted his Roman Catholic faith.

“My dad says he thinks I have angel armor,” Robirds said. “You see shows on TV about miracles and you think it can’t happen to you. But it happened to me.”

One month after the blast, he returned home to Oregon. While he was there, he secretly bought a ring for Ann. He placed it on her finger during dinner at an Italian restaurant and asked her to be his bride.

“We planned and got married in a church in four days — with a dress and everything,” said Ann, 21, who now lives with Robirds in an off-base apartment in Schweinfurt, Germany.

The blast left Robirds with lasting damage, though. He has needed surgery to repair his shattered eardrums. The huge bruise on his chest has faded, but the blow to his head still causes him to get sick and dizzy any time he exercises. His sleep is cursed with nightmares.

His physical problems are forcing him to leave the Army. He would stay in if he could.

“It kills me, knowing I’ll never be as good as I was,” Robirds said. “At least I’m here to teach the new soldiers who come in so they don’t end up where I am, or worse.”

He plans to go to college when he returns to the United States next summer. He hopes his head clears. An all-state football player in high school, he still dreams of playing for the University of Oregon.

Robirds knows his time as a soldier will always stay with him.

“Your injuries are a constant reminder of what you’ve been through,” he said. “Even though I left Iraq, Iraq will never leave me.”


Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up