Battle heroes of Fort Bliss maintenance company remembered
By DIANA WASHINGTON VALDEZ | Stars and Stripes | Published: March 23, 2013
Pfc. Lori Piestewa, a member of the 507th Maintenance Company during the Iraq War 10 years ago, and the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military, was to be honored Saturday at a sunrise ceremony in Phoenix.
The late soldier's mother, Percy Piestewa, said several former soldiers who served with her in the Fort Bliss unit are expected to attend.
Eleven soldiers were killed March 23, 2003, in an ambush in Nasiriyah, including nine members of the 507th. Five others were wounded, and six of them were taken as prisoners of war.
Piestewa was first taken a POW and later died.
Two of the soldiers, Sgt. Donald R. Walters, who was killed, and Pfc. Patrick Miller, who was taken prisoner, emerged as battlefield heroes and were recognized with the Silver Star Medal for valor.
"We need to honor all the veterans and soldiers who put their lives on the line for us," Percy Piestewa said. "If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have the freedoms we have today and that many people take for granted. I am thankful to others who came home. We are very proud of them."
Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Joe Buccino said the Army no longer has a unit called the 507th Maintenance Company and has no plans for an anniversary memorial.
"It was redesignated (renamed) at one point, and then it was disbanded," Buccino said. "The post will have a memorial service in the summer to honor all the fallen soldiers of the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Marine Sgt. Curney Russell, 28, one of the Marines who rescued five of the 507th POWs on April 13, 2003, said Americans should not forget the POWs.
"I believe the nation should observe not only this anniversary, but there should be a day day set aside to honor all POWs -- ones that were freed, those with status
listed as still missing, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice," Russell said.
A decade after the attack, military officials, former soldiers and other experts said compounding errors, confusion and faulty equipment contributed to the deaths. In light of what happened to the unit, Army officials said, significant changes were made in training and equipment.
The public first learned of the attack when TV networks around the world aired a video of five POWs from the 507th within hours of their capture. Spc. Shoshana Johnson, Pfc. Patrick Miller, Spc. Joseph Hudson, Spc. Edgar Hernandez and Sgt. James Riley appeared dazed and bewildered. Hudson, Hernandez and Johnson were still reeling from fresh gunshot wounds.
The only information officials gave then was that the unit got lost and wandered into Nasiriyah, a city controlled by enemy forces.
The U.S. soldiers -- several armed with M-16 rifles that malfunctioned -- came under heavy fire from AK-47s, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Their vehicles were disabled by the barrage of mortar rounds and grenades.
Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who sustained serious injuries when a Humvee she was in crashed in the attack, was taken by Iraqis to a hospital in Nasiriyah, where she was held captive until her rescue on April 1, 2003.
Members of the 507th deployed from Fort Bliss on Feb. 17, 2003, with 82 soldiers who were drivers, medics, mechanics, clerks, technicians and cooks. They went as a support unit for Operation Iraqi Freedom. They first arrived at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, to join the ground coalition forces that were headed to Iraq.
The war began with the "shock and awe" aerial bombing campaign that U.S. forces and allies initiated on March 19, 2003. In addition to striking down high-value targets, officials said, the massive aerial bombing was designed to weaken Iraqi support for Saddam Hussein.
Plans for the ground war called for a major rapid advance from Kuwait to Baghdad led by the Army's V Corps and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which included Marines securing a crucial supply corridor that cut through Nasiriyah, a city of more than half a million people about 220 miles southeast of Baghdad.
On March 20, the 507th was to be at the rear of a miles-long 600-vehicle convoy, and its destination was a point called Objective Rams, which is southwest of An Najaf, a city about 132 miles northwest of Nasi ri yah. The plan to reach Objective Rams was to go around Nasiriyah, not through it.
But in the fog of war, things do not always go according to plan.
Maj. Troy K. King, the unit's relatively new company commander, was a captain then, and 1st Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, who was also fairly new to the unit, was the top-ranking enlisted member.
Maj. Gen. Heidi Brown, of El Paso, was commander of the Fort Bliss 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade during the push into Iraq. Although the 507th was under her command, she was involved with the bigger-picture battle and logistics plans. She was unavailable for comment for this series.
"The (507th) became isolated, as communications, already stretched to the limit, could not be extended to include them while they recovered heavy wheeled vehicles from soft sand and breakdowns along a cross-country route through the Iraqi desert," according to a 2003 Army investigative report. "Over a period of 60-70 hours with little rest and limited communications, human error further contributed to the situation through a single navigation error that placed these troops in the presence of an adaptive enemy."
A wrong turn
Because of numerous vehicle breakdowns, the 507th was falling behind and had to regroup. King sent the others ahead to catch up to the 3rd Forward Battalion, and he stayed back to lead the rest of the unit's convoy of 18 vehicles and 33 soldiers to Objective Rams.
The 2003 Army report said the 507th element traveled north on Iraqi Highway 8 and reached an intersection with Highway 1, where it was required to turn left to continue southwest of Nasiriyah. That highway would intersect again with Highway 8, known as route blue.
But the unit went north toward Nasiriyah instead of turning left to bypass the city.
By the time King and the smaller convoy arrived at the intersection, no one was manning a key traffic control point to direct U.S. military traffic in the right direction.
King asked other Marines in the area if that was the right way to route blue, but the Marines were unaware that King did not know which way the unit was supposed to travel and simply confirmed that it was indeed route blue, the one King believed he was supposed to follow.
The 2003 Army report said King reported that his military GPS device malfunctioned, and that he did not have an accurate map to check against the GPS waypoints (coordinates).
In preparation for the mission, the 507th soldiers had "received their basic combat load of ammunition for their personal weapons (210 rounds for the M-16 rifle, 1,000 rounds for the M-249 SAW (machine gun), 45 rounds for the M-9 Beretta)," according to www.globalsecurity.org, an online national security and military information website based in Alexandria, Va.
"The company commander (also) ordered issue of ammunition for the unit's crew-served weapons (.50-caliber and MK-19, 40 mm) prior to movement, however, all pyrotechnics, hand grenades, and AT-4 anti-tank weapons were consolidated and secured," the website said.
Johnson, a former Army cook with the 507th, said not having access to the grenades hurt her fellow soldiers, who tried to defend themselves and each other.
"It probably could have saved lives if we had been able to get to the grenades," she said.
When the 507th soldiers entered Nasiriyah, they noticed armed Iraqis in civilian clothes standing around. They turned out to be Fedayeen, Saddam Hussein's paramilitary forces. Later, the convoy encountered the Iraqi military, which also attacked them with tanks and other weapons, and used trucks to block the roads.
Officials said the Iraqi army was operating clandestinely out of a hospital in Nasiriyah, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
The convoy passed an Iraqi checkpoint without a problem and reported that some Iraqis even waved to the U.S. soldiers.
However, once King realized they were on the wrong route, he decided to have the convoy return by retracing its steps through the city. It was during this process that the convoy began taking small-arms fire and lost its way again, the Army report said.
Dowdy directed the convoy vehicles to drive faster. Because of the different sizes and weights of the vehicles, the convoy element had been divided into three smaller groups. Vehicles ranged in size from Humvees to 10-ton wreckers. The terrain was a combination of marshland, soft sand and mud.
According to the 2003 Army report:
King led the first group that included Sgt. Joel Petrik, Pvt. Dale Nace, Spc. Timothy Johnson and Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Pierce. The soldiers in this group returned fire while traveling at a high speed and managed to get away.
The second group, led by Sgt. Matthew Rose, included Spc. Jun Zhang, Pfc. Marcus Dubois, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Nash, Pfc. Adam Elliot, Sgt. Curtis Campbell, Cpl. Damien Luten, Staff Sgt. Tarik Jackson, Spc. James Grubb and Cpl. Francis Carista.
Luten and Campbell tried to fire their M-16 rifles when they came under fire, but their weapons jammed. Luten then attempted to fire the 507th's only .50-caliber machine gun, but it, too, jammed.
Several members of the second group were wounded in the attack, which lasted from 5:30 to 7 a.m. They were rescued later that day by Marines, who were notified by King about the unit's situation.
The third group, which suffered the most casualties, included Pvt. Brandon Sloan, Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, Pfc. Patrick Miller, Sgt. Riley, Spc. Edgar Hernandez, Spc. Shoshana Johnson, Spc. Jamaal Addison, Pfc. Howard Johnson II, Spc. James Kiehl, Sgt. Donald R. Walters, Pfc. Lori Piestewa, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 1st Sgt. Dowdy, Spc. Joseph Hudson and Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, as well as Sgt. George Buggs and Spc. Edward Anguiano, who were with the Army's 3rd Forward Support Battalion.
The third group couldn't move as fast as the others because its vehicles were all towing either a trailer or a disabled vehicle.
Sloan, who was in a vehicle driven by Miller, was struck in the head by an enemy round and died instantly.
Hernandez and Shoshana Johnson also came under fire and lost control of the vehicle driven by Hernandez.
Piestewa, Dowdy, Lynch, Anguiano and Buggs were in a vehicle behind Hernandez and Shoshana Johnson's vehicle. Dowdy was firing his M-16 at Iraqis from the vehicle window, while Anguiano and Buggs fired SAW machine guns out each side of the vehicle. Lynch, whose M-16 also didn't work, was sitting between them.
Then the five soldiers crashed into the wrecked vehicle that Hernandez had been driving, and Dowdy, Anguiano and Buggs were killed.
Piestewa and Lynch, both seriously injured, were captured by the Iraqis and taken to a hospital in Nasiriyah. Piestewa died a short time later of her injuries; Lynch remained hospitalized as a POW.
The Army report said Miller and Riley's vehicle, which was disabled, had moved toward Piestewa's vehicle to try to help.
During the intense firefight, Miller sought to protect the wounded soldiers, but his M-16 kept jamming.
Instead of being able to fire in automatic mode, he was forced to load the rifle one round at a time, and still managed to shoot and kill several Iraqis who outgunned him with AK-47s and other heavier weapons.
Miller, who was awarded the Silver Star Medal, became a prisoner of war with Shoshana Johnson, Hernandez, Hudson and Riley. After they were captured, the Iraqis repeatedly moved them to hide them from coalition forces.
The Army report said Riley, whose M-16 rifle also malfunctioned, decided that the five soldiers had to surrender or else they would all be killed.
Before that, Riley had tried to use Shoshana Johnson and Hudson's M-16s after the two soldiers were wounded by gunfire, but their rifles also failed to work properly.
Military officials said that the 507th soldiers lost sight of Walters early in the attack, and that he might have been the first one to die in action. They later learned that his death had been especially brutal.
A new military investigation completed nearly a year after the 2003 ambush found that Walters apparently used up his ammunition magazines while fighting the Fedayeen and providing cover for the 507th convoy.
Due to the unexplained injuries that Walters had received, his parents, Norman and Arlene Walters of Salem, Ore., said they requested an investigation.
"It turned out that he was the blonde who used up his ammo fighting like Rambo until the end," Arlene Walters said. "He was confused with Jessica Lynch, a blonde, when the Iraqis transmitted the information about my son by radio, and that somehow got mistranslated."
Because of this error, national media transformed Lynch into an instant celebrity and war hero. Lynch testified before Congress that she never fired a shot and that she was knocked unconscious when her vehicle crashed.
Before his death, Walters was shot in one of his legs and stabbed in the abdomen.
"This could have happened as he tried to escape," his mother said. "Officials from the Pentagon came to see us, and told us they took their time because they wanted to conduct a thorough investigation."
The parents learned that U.S. investigators had found Walters' DNA on a wall, and determined that the Iraqis had executed their son after taking him prisoner by shooting him twice in the back from a distance of about 20 feet.
According to the new investigation, an Iraqi ambulance driver told U.S. officials that he saw Walters alive on March 23, 2003, and that the Fedayeen were guarding him. But, later that day, the Fedayeen asked the same ambulance driver to transport Walter's dead body to a hospital.
He was found buried with the other dead soldiers whose remains U.S. forces recovered and returned to the U.S.
Norman Walters said he was not surprised by his son's actions. Although Walters was deployed to Iraq as a cook supervisor after re-enlisting in the Army, he had served previously as an artilleryman in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Walters was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Army's highest medal for valor.
Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the former commander of Fort Bliss, presented the medal during a 2004 ceremony at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where Walters is buried.
"We still want to know why the Iraqis executed him," Norman Walters said. "They didn't treat him the same as the other POWs who they didn't kill. They need to investigate who did this."
Three types of weapons failed the soldiers that fateful day: the M-16 rifle, the SAW machine gun and a .50-caliber machine gun. The Army report said this could have resulted from "inadequate maintenance in a desert environment."
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a medical doctor, has frequently addressed the problem of weapons jamming in the desert at critical moments during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said the weapons that tended to jam at the wrong times included the M-16, the M-4/AR-15 rifle and the SAW machine gun, and he has tried to get the U.S. military to modify these weapons or issue different ones.
Last year, Coburn told the Senate in a hearing that rifle malfunctions were responsible for the deaths of experienced combat soldiers during the July 13, 2008, battle of Winot against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"Believe it or not, do you know what killed most of us? Our own rifles," Coburn told the Senate. "Practically every one of our dead was found with his M-16 torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it. That's occurring now. Except it's not getting any press."
The U.S. military continues to defend the use of the weapons, which Coburn said average 25 years of age when they are issued to soldiers.
Capt. King's convoy also experienced radio communications problems when the 507th vehicle radios wouldn't work because the batteries had expired, and the soldiers had no way to recharge them. Military officials said they have provided soldiers with new radios.
The 2003 Army report regarding the ambush of the 507th said the soldiers followed procedures of the military's Law of War and Code of Conduct.
"They fought the best they could until there was no longer a means to resist," the report said. "They defeated ambushes, overcame hastily prepared enemy obstacles, defended one another, provided life-saving aid, and inflicted casualties on the enemy."
John Pike, a national security policy analyst and director of www.globalsecurity.org in Virginia, is familiar with the plight of the 507th in 2003. He said problems developed early in the Iraq war because the U.S. leadership did not fully understand the enemy.
"The intelligence was broken. They relied on human intelligence that was meant to influence instead of to inform," Pike said. "They did not have a good idea of how hard it was going to be and how long it would last. They expected to encounter the Republican Guard (uniformed soldiers), and that's not what they ran into always. The Iraqis had no front or rear guards. Our leaders assumed it would be a conventional war, and it wasn't."
"The Fedayeen was like a mafia that engaged in criminal activities," Pike said. "Saddam Hussein recruited 50,000 men for the Fedayeen, which knew it had no future apart from the success of the regime. Our leadership did not understand the roles of tribes and paramilitaries, and had been warned to stay away from the cities."
The U.S. government declared the war in Iraq officially over on Dec. 15, 2011.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a 2011 interview with the El Paso Times, said he did not recall details about the 507th in Iraq.
"War is an uncertain and a terrible business," Rumsfeld said.