War stories: Soldier's death leaves others thinking 'what if'
RUSHDI MULLA, Iraq — Spc. Anthony Owens was an easygoing kid with a thick South Carolina drawl. He had just joined a new platoon. And on the morning of Feb. 1, he was carrying a metal detector with a team of soldiers on patrol, conducting a routine search of a house.
Outside in the small farming village, Sgt. Chris Arnold knelt down on a dusty roadside, watching a sheepherder and a couple of tractors move past his security position.
“The next thing I know there were rounds hitting all around us. They were cracking over our head — tree branches were coming down on us,” Arnold, a 22-year-old squad leader and Illinois native, recalled.
As Arnold and other soldiers dove into the dirt, they braced for what would become a deadly firefight, a fierce toe-to-toe battle with well-armed insurgents who were ready to die fighting.
The fight took the life of Owens, the first casualty from his platoon in Company B, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Owens, 21, was one of six men killed in action from his company, which operates in a restive area about 25 miles south of Baghdad known as the “Triangle of Death.”
Initially, Owens was nowhere near the gunfire, which forced Arnold and Spc. David Shockey to leap for cover behind a berm.
“Each time I would try to sneak my head out and think about moving, the rounds would keep coming,” Arnold said.
Hearing the gunfire, Owens followed his squad leader, Sgt. Joe Welchell, out of the home and soon joined Arnold’s team trying to lay out suppressive fire and find where the insurgents were hiding.
Peering over the mud ledge, they saw a man dart across the street wearing body armor and a chest rack full of grenades. The man sprayed his Kalishnikov in the direction of the U.S. troops and then ducked into a nearby house.
Leaving Owens and Arnold on the street, Welchell told two other soldiers to follow him around to the backside of the house. In a crouched sprint, Welchell led Spc. Kirk Reilly and Spc. Jay Strobino through a row of backyards, passing piles of trash and several screaming children.
A moment later, they mounted a 5-foot mud wall and dropped into a courtyard, coming face to face with four insurgents strapped with body armor and battle gear, trying to load into a white Toyota truck.
The three soldiers aimed their M-4 rifles and fired three-round bursts, instantly killing three of the men.
The last remaining fighter ducked behind the building, reaching around the corner to spray 7.62 mm rounds.
Strobino stepped around the corner, trying to get a clear shot at the insurgent, but soon fell back with a wound to his leg that cracked his femur. He was also struck in the shoulder, back and arm, with one round that punctured his lung.
“Bino’s down, Bino’s down,” Welchell screamed into his radio.
Welchell urged Strobino, despite his wounds, to keep an eye on the corner where the insurgent was hiding.
“Point your weapon, point your weapon,” he yelled, in a frantic few seconds that blur in his memory.
Unable to see the remaining fighter, Reilly stepped up to the edge of the building, braced his rifle butt on his shoulder and began to “pie the corner,” slowly angling himself and his rifle around the brick wall.
“I saw a grenade fly out,” Reilly recalled. “I jumped down and I remember a very split second when I thought ‘Here it comes.’ ”
The explosion peppered Reilly’s legs and groin with shrapnel.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to walk anytime soon,” Reilly said.
Welchell was the only soldier still standing and he radioed for help.
“Get the hell down here — I need more guys,” he screamed, as a small shrapnel wound near his eye sent blood running down his face.
Welchell dropped down behind the truck, where fuel was pouring out of a punctured gas tank. He caught sight of the fighter’s foot stepping out from the corner and popped a three-round burst, inflicting a wound just above the fighter’s black tennis shoes.
Meanwhile, Reilly lifted himself off the ground and began dragging Strobino to safety.
Sgt. 1st Class Phil Blaisdale, the platoon sergeant, radioed for a medical helicopter, got the two over to the pickup zone about 200 meters away, where a Black Hawk carried them off to the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
The last remaining fighter was wounded and taking cover inside the house.
“I’m not Rambo, I wasn’t going to run in there by myself,” Welchell recalled. “I was thinking he’s probably trying to booby-trap the house and he’s waiting for us.”
Welchell paused as Arnold and Owens came up into the courtyard to back him up. Welchell pulled the pin on a grenade and threw it in the house, but the blast drew no response. An Apache combat helicopter began buzzing overhead.
“Requesting destroy,” Blaisdale radioed to the pilot, bringing down a series of 30 mm rounds into the house, blowing holes in the walls and sending plumes of smoke into the air.
As Arnold prepared to lead the team inside, they unleashed a barrage of gunfire, a “mad minute” they hoped would kill the remaining fighter. Another silent pause brought no movement or gunfire from inside.
With a burst of adrenalin, Arnold led Owens and Shockey into the front room, a small foyer with six sheet-covered doors leading off of it. For an instant, Arnold was disoriented by the layout, unsure where to move or take cover.
“I was just thinking ‘I’ve got to keep the momentum going, the longer we sit here the more we are a target.’ ”
Gunfire came in a spray from behind one doorway.
“I just saw little streaks of gold flying out by me. I don’t know how I didn’t get hit,” Arnold recalled. “I put my weapon around the corner and I was just firing rounds.”
Owens, just a few feet away, began screaming.
“I told him ‘You’ll be alright. We’re going to get you out of here,’” Arnold recalled.
Owens stepped outside and dropped to the ground, stunned by several bullet wounds. Blaisdale was just outside the door and radioed for a second helo. He grabbed Owens by a loop on his flack vest and dragged him out of the fight. As Blaisdale prepared Owens for his flight, he did not believe the wounds were fatal.
“He was breathing, he was responding. He wasn’t saying anything — but he was squeezing my hand and that’s why I thought he was going to be alright,” Blaisdale recalled.
Soon afterward, the Apache helicopter destroyed the house. The insurgent was found dead, riddled with bullets under a large pile of rubble.
That night, Blaisdale, Arnold and several others were taking turns sleeping on a nearby rooftop, keeping security. The dead bodies were rigged with suicide vests and a bomb squad had not yet arrived to defuse them. They kept watch in case other insurgents tried to recover the bodies. After midnight, Blaisdale called battalion headquarters.
“They said that Reilly and Shockey were [return to duty] and Strobino needs surgery,” Blaisdale recalled. “And he said Owens was dead. He was pronounced dead on arrival. There was nothing we could have done for him.
“It was a pretty somber moment,” Blaisdale said.
“It was all silent,” Arnold recalled. “I was thinking of all the different ‘what ifs?’ in my head.”
“It’s a horrible thing to say, but I felt responsible for it,” he said. “It’s something I still think about. I’ll probably think about it for the rest of my life.”
Some are still reluctant to talk much about Owens’ death.
“You just try not to think about it,” said Pfc. Jonathan Parker. “I pray when I go to sleep, and I pray when I get up. Every time I get in a truck I pray, and I just hope that God will protect us. What’s bad is you know something like that could easily happen to any one of us.”