Staff sergeant's suspicion of civilian led to evacuation of Iraq Internet cafe before blast

Staff Sgt. Martin Richburg


By MONTE MORIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 22, 2006

AL KISIK, Iraq — The camp was still on edge from a suicide bomb attack that morning.

The bomber had targeted an Iraqi army recruiting drive at the combined Iraqi and American forces base here in northwest Iraq. Although no U.S. soldiers were injured, soldiers from the 2nd, or “Gunners,” Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, out of Giessen, Germany, dealt with the aftermath.

“Imagine a dump truck filled with 40 bodies, some alive, some dead, some walking around with only a scratch,” said 1st Lt. David “Big Doc” Brickhouse, the physician’s assistant who oversaw the treatment and evacuation of victims. “It was crazy.”

So it was with no small amount of suspicion that Staff Sgt. Martin Richburg observed an Iraqi civilian pacing nervously near the camp’s crowded Internet cafe that same evening.

It was around 9 p.m. on March 27, and Richburg was sitting behind the wheel of his “bongo” flatbed truck in the parking lot, talking to his wife on a cell phone.

“I saw this guy duckin’ and peepin’ outside the Internet [cafe],” said the 44-year-old Baltimore, native. “I said, ‘Let me keep an eye on this guy.’ ”

Unknown to Richburg at the time, the man was an insurgent who had managed to get a job at the camp’s Iraqi army noncommissioned officer academy. Part of a cell that had planned a series of attacks, the insurgent had constructed a bomb within the camp after smuggling components in piece by piece.

Richburg, a heavy-vehicle mechanic assigned to the 142nd Maintenance Company, grew increasingly suspicious as the man peered into the cafe window, walked away, and then returned with a plastic chair and a package.

“I’m really watching the guy at this point, I’m watching his every move,” Richburg said. “I’m sitting right there and the guy never even saw me.”

The package looked like something bulky wrapped in a blue plastic shopping bag. Richburg’s suspicion grew to alarm when the man stepped onto the chair, placed the bag on top of the window’s air conditioning unit and then took off running.

Throwing down his cell phone — his wife was still on the line — Richburg dashed after the man and brought him down with a swift kick to the back of his legs. By this time, Richburg had drawn his 9 mm pistol and, holding the man down, called for another Iraqi he knew to translate.

“I asked him if he knew who this guy was and he said, ‘No,’” Richburg said. “I told him I saw him put a package on the air conditioner and asked him to find out what was in it. Then I charged my weapon to scare him.”

The man answered back quickly. He said he had placed a bomb on the air conditioner. Richburg asked how much time they had before it exploded. “Five minutes,” the man said.

Dragging the insurgent in one hand and waving his pistol in the other, the burly mechanic rushed to the cafe entrance and began shouting at everyone to get out.

Shocked by the sight of Richburg waving a pistol and swearing at the top of his lungs, a dozen soldiers and five civilians piled out of the cafe. The mechanic yelled at them to take cover behind a line of concrete blast barriers.

The soldiers braced themselves. After roughly 15 minutes, the package exploded with the noise of an artillery shell. The windshield of Richburg’s truck “crystallized” by the blast, and a Porta-John was flung into a nearby meadow. The window of the Internet cafe was destroyed, driving glass and shrapnel deep into the walls and computer booths.

Since the cafe had been cleared, nobody was injured.

“The bomb definitely would have killed some people,” said Maj. John Stark, a liaison officer to the Iraqi army. “It definitely would have killed the guy sitting next to the air conditioner.”

Richburg has since been awarded the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor, and has been nominated for a Bronze Star for his actions on that evening.

“I suppose anyone else would have done it too,” Richburg said of his actions. “It was the way the guy moved. If he walked away normally I might not have done it.”

Soldiers and workers at Al Kisik in Iraq examine damage caused a bomb attack on the camp’s Internet café on March 27. Staff Sgt. Martin Richburg's quick thinking is credited for averting deaths and injuries. No one was hurt in the blast.