Servicemembers in Iraq recount their narrow escapes
November 25, 2004
Wrong place becomes right
Not long ago, Capt. John Trylch, 30, the lanky, redheaded commander of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment’s Troop B “Bulldawgs,” issued a stern butt-chewing to one of his Bradley fighting vehicle crews for parking on the main road of Forward Operating Base MacKenzie, Iraq, instead of 40 yards away in a marshaling yard, the proper spot to line up for the afternoon convoy.
Trylch thought about moving the Bradley and several Humvees to the yard but decided not to waste the time. Within five minutes, the commander and his troops heard the crack and the scream of an incoming rocket, followed by a deafening boom that sent everyone running for the safety of their armored vehicles.
“It was very quick, very loud and very close,” Trylch said. “We were scattering like roaches, running for cover.”
When the dust settled, Trylch and his men saw that the 107 mm rocket had landed just 40 meters away — precisely where the convoy should have lined up.
“It was literally a stone’s throw from where we were standing,” he said, shaking his head. “An angel was on our side that day.”
A landing and then a getaway
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Rob Carpenter, 37, of the squadron’s Troop E, had been flying his OH-58 Kiowa Warrior in the early-April uprising called the “battle of Baqouba” northeast of Baghdad.
Flying in support of the 1st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade, Carpenter and his co-pilot saw insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades toward them. Suddenly one hit their main rotor, knocking off four feet of one blade.
“We could feel the concussion,” Carpenter said. “It was very violent. I wasn’t thinking about anything else because I had about seven seconds before I hit the ground.”
In a crowded city neighborhood, they happened to come down — hard but safely — in the only open field around: a neighborhood cesspool. They could hear angry mobs and small-arms fire in the distance.
“We knew we needed to get away,” Carpenter said. “I didn’t want to leave the helicopter, but I didn’t want to get strung up on a bridge, either.”
Carpenter and the co-pilot ran through the muck and commandeered a civilian car, but they didn’t know where to go. Then the “cavalry” rode to the rescue. Along came a convoy of troops from the 1st Squadron, 6th Field Artillery.
“I saw Humvees screaming around the corner,” Carpenter recalled. “I said ‘God bless America!’”
No April fool
Capt. Steven Janko, a military lawyer assigned to the 1-4 Cav, keeps a reminder of his closest call sitting on his desk.
On April 1, as he walked back to his office from the command bunker at MacKenzie about 7 p.m., a shower of rockets rained down on the base.
“We just started running into the bunker. Four or five rockets had come down already,” said Janko, 32, of Honolulu.
He felt a spray of gravel hit his helmet. He looked behind him and saw a 107 mm rocket nose down in the parking lot, about 10 feet from where he stood. An 8-foot plume of smoke spewed from its tail — but the rocket didn’t explode.
Janko ran into the office he shares with the squadron’s chaplain, Capt. Gary Fisher, and his assistant, Staff Sgt. Ed Baptist.
“I said ‘Guess what, there’s a rocket outside!’” Janko said, “but nobody would believe me because it was April Fools’ Day.”
No safety in ambulance
It’s a good day when you hit a bomb and your only casualty is a bottle of iced tea.
Pfc. Jihoon Ham and Sgt. Anthony Troche, medics with the 557th Medical Company, learned as much in September, when a roadside bomb hit their ambulance as they convoyed from Mosul to Tikrit.
The vehicle in front of them spotted the bomb, but Ham and Troche’s ambulance had rolled just past it when the unseen insurgent detonated it.
“I was kind of surprised,” said Ham, 24, of Flushing, N.Y., who was driving. “It was a pretty loud boom.”
The explosion flattened both tires and spun the ambulance three-quarters of the way around. A cascade of shrapnel pierced the patient compartment in the rear, but no one was there.
One jagged piece of metal penetrated the cab four inches from Troche’s head. Another shattered a container of iced tea between them in the front seat.
“The whole vehicle was smelling like peach iced tea,” said Troche, 28, of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico.
The stunned medics looked at each and realized neither had been hurt.
“I said, ‘Whoa, that was close!’ ” Troche recalled. “After that, we could say we survived that one. We’re good to go.”
Sometimes close calls come in bunches.
That’s a lesson Spc. Joshua Burgess, 25, of Arlington, Texas, learned Aug. 1 on Main Supply Route Grape, a highway east of Samarra that was frequently attacked during the summer when insurgents controlled the city.
The patrol of three Humvees from Company B of the 1-4 Cav left that morning to check the route for roadside bombs: one of the most dangerous jobs on one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq.
Then his patrol found one.
A powerful “daisy chain” bomb made of three 155 mm artillery rounds tied together exploded underneath one of the other Humvees about 11 a.m. One soldier died instantly, and another lay mortally wounded, his legs blown off by the force of the blast.
“Your world just goes to [expletive] when that happens,” Burgess said.
Burgess, in the next Humvee, blacked out briefly and suffered a concussion.
But the patrol regrouped. A call went out for a medical evacuation helicopter for two injured soldiers, and to the “Bulldawg” troop headquarters for help.
Capt. John Trylch led a relief convoy that included three M1 Abrams tanks. They recovered the bombed-out vehicle, packed up, and rolled back toward their camp, FOB MacKenzie.
Trylch decided to try a trick a sergeant first class from an engineer platoon had suggested to him that morning. He ordered the almost indestructible tanks to drive along the edges of the road, where insurgents typically bury the bombs. The sergeant said a tank would bury a bomb enough to limit the death and destruction even if it did blow.
The trick worked.
An even more-powerful bomb, this one with four 155 mm shells, exploded under a Humvee 10 minutes after they rolled out. The driver and a passenger suffered only minor injuries.
“The tanks saved those guys,” Trylch said later. “Even though it was a tragic situation, it was a lucky day.”