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Marine Sgts. Christopher Merkle, left, and Jose Rodriguez — infantrymen with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines —ducked doctors, hitched rides, begged for gear and even thought about stealing a Humvee to return from a shock trauma center in Iraq to their unit after getting injured in a truck accident.

Marine Sgts. Christopher Merkle, left, and Jose Rodriguez — infantrymen with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines —ducked doctors, hitched rides, begged for gear and even thought about stealing a Humvee to return from a shock trauma center in Iraq to their unit after getting injured in a truck accident. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

SOUTHERN IRAQ — Sgt. Christopher Merkle and Sgt. Jose Rodriguez weren’t going to let a little truck accident stop them from finishing what they’d started.

Merkle and Rodriguez, affectionately known as Mojo and Mad Dog to their fellow Marines, might have pulled off the biggest caper of the war in Iraq. They ducked doctors, begged rides and did everything short of stealing a Humvee to return to their unit, despite suffering injuries when a truck overturned with them in the back.

Merkle and Rodriguez, infantrymen with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, returned to their unit late on March 30. Merkle’s helmet bobbled on his head and the flak jacket he wore was too small to close around his chest. His camouflaged chemical suit was torn down the leg.

Rodriguez didn’t look much better. His flak jacket also was the wrong size, and a bag of grenades hung from his side. The two had just completed a remarkable journey, dodging medical evacuation to Kuwait to return to their unit for the remainder of the war.

“There was no way we were going to the hospital,” Merkle said. “It seems like it was a suicide mission to come back, but we couldn’t go back to the States and look these Marines in the eye knowing they were out there while we were eating ice cream.”

‘Just wanted to get looked at’

Merkle and Rodriguez were riding in a truck with about 20 other Marines at night last month in lights-out conditions during a dust storm. The driver lost sight of the road and careened over the edge of a small bridge.

Some Marines sustained serious injuries, including a broken pelvis, broken legs and back injuries. Merkle and Rodriguez were among those with less serious injuries.

Merkle compressed his spine and neck when he landed directly on his head. Rodriguez also suffered an injury to his back and strained his left wrist.

“I just wanted to get looked at” by medical personnel, Merkle said. “I didn’t know we’d end up going that far back from the front.”

The Marines were shuttled between medical aid stations — from battalion to regiment and, finally, to a shock trauma center about an hour away via Army Black Hawk helicopter.

There, they joined Marines who’d been injured in other accidents and in combat. The ward was filled with 54 injured troops. Merkle and Rodriguez quickly realized that all of them were to be evacuated to Kuwait Military Hospital.

“We knew if we were going there, we weren’t going to be coming back,” Rodriguez said. “They had two C-130s ready to take everyone out.”

A way back north

That’s when the two got desperate. They knew they wouldn’t be released from the hospital unless a doctor cleared them. Merkle could hide his back injury, but his neck injury was too serious to fake.

“I found a sympathetic doc who understood we wanted to get back and gave me a shot of some kind of muscle relaxer. I felt great,” he said. “I touched my toes, and they told me Patient 101 was cleared.”

“I just told them I was right-handed,” Rodriguez said. “I told them I was good to go, and I’d just get looked at back at my unit.”

To keep from being caught, the two Marines busied themselves among the ambulances, pretending to work, until the planes took off for Kuwait.

“Then it was too late,” Merkle said. “They gave us a cot and a space blanket, and we spent the night there until we could try to find a way back north.”

Two possible rides never appeared, so Merkle and Rodriguez headed out to the main supply route and began flagging down vehicles heading north. When they told drivers they wanted to go beyond Nasiriyah, where fighting was still heavy, some told them they were crazy. But all said they weren’t going that far.

“Everybody had the intentions, but not the means to help us out,” Rodriguez said.

They finally caught a ride to a nearby airfield, but their luck didn’t change there. The pilots sympathized with them, but couldn’t take them without orders. The Marines finally made their way to the Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters, where their hopes were raised.

Until this time, the two had been traveling around a war zone without the slightest bit of protection. One Marine gunnery sergeant listened to their story and offered his flak jacket. Another gave them helmets. Still, they had no weapons.

“We went over to the ammo supply point and talked to the Marines there,” Merkle said. “They couldn’t give us any rifles, but they did give us something else.”

Five anti-tank rockets and 30 grenades heavier, the two Marines continued their frantic search for a ride north.

Becoming legend

A truck unit took them as far as it could, but a promise of further help from a sergeant major fell through. Their reputation soon preceded them. They became a popular battlefield rumor.

“It kind of caught me by surprise when we were trying to explain ourselves and people told us they’d heard about us,” Rodriguez said.

But not everyone was convinced they were who they claimed to be. One Marine master gunnery sergeant doubted they were even Marines when he spied Merkle’s torn uniform and Rodriguez’s unshaven face.

Finally, they happened upon a Marine helicopter pilot who had a soft spot for the two. Merkle pulled out a map of Iraq he bought at Barnes & Noble before deploying and showed his unit’s expected location. The pilot happened to be headed north and took the two along on his flight.

“We walked off the helicopters and noticed the lack of hospitality,” Merkle said. “That’s when we knew we were back with the grunts.”

Back to the front

They were welcomed back to their unit with open arms. Many had doubted they’d see the injured Marines again. But for others, the sudden appearance of Merkle and Rodriguez was no surprise.

“Particularly with those two Marines,” said Gunnery Sgt. Scoby, company gunnery sergeant. “It shows their character. They’re not in it for themselves.”

Merkle and Rodriguez said they still feel a little tender. They’re taking it as easy as field life allows and are still trying to gather up their gear that was quickly “borrowed” by Marines in their platoons.

“There was no way we weren’t going to come back,” Rodriguez said. “We even thought about stealing a Humvee for a while. We were checking which ones had the most gas, but knew it would be stupid because we had no weapons.”

It was duty calling once again. Their job, they said, wasn’t to kick back and take life easy just because they happened take a ride over a bridge that wasn’t on the map.

“I had a sense of responsibility to finish the mission,” Rodriguez said. “I made a personal promise to myself to bring everyone of my Marines home, so I had to come back to take care of them.”

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