Wounded soldiers describe Iraq ambush
March 28, 2003
LANDSTUHL, Germany — Army Staff Sgt. Jamie Villafane discovered the meaning of perfidy on a bridge south of An Nasiriyah, Iraq.
The treachery of Iraqi troops dressed as civilians nearly cost Villafane and his gunner, Sgt. Charles Horgan, their lives.
Villafane, 31, of Long Island, N.Y., doesn’t remember some of what happened, even though the whole fight on Saturday morning took just 10 minutes.
Villafane and Horgan, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, from Fort Benning, Ga., had been ordered to clear half-dozen “unruly” civilians from the bridge over a branch of the Euphrates River.
The Iraqis, wearing black Bedouin robes, were congregating on one bridge, and a few more were on a bridge not far down the river. The Army troops were supposed to secure the bridge and block it, so no one could continue to a nearby airfield.
“We had no idea they were going to ambush us,” said Villafane, who spoke to journalists Thursday at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where he was taken for treatment. “I didn’t expect it to escalate to what it did.”
Horgan, 21, of Helena, Mont., was manning a .50-calibre machine gun in the Humvee’s turret. Villafane was in the passenger seat.
As the soldiers approached the first bridge, the Iraqi men scattered. Some ran to the team’s left, and some scurried down an embankment under the bridge.
“There was something wrong with them, they appeared jumpy or edgy,” Horgan said. “One had a rifle so I turned the turret. It was just like in the movies.”
Villafane and Horgan both heard the rocket-propelled grenade coming. Someone shouted out “RPG!” But it was too late.
“I heard a whizzing noise, and said to myself, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die,” Horgan said. “No sooner than I said it, it blew me off the truck.”
The RPG apparently had come from the second bridge.
The blast ripped Villafane from the Humvee as well, and somehow he managed to get up and go back for his M-4 rifle. He had just stood back up when he saw a wire-guided rocket whiz in front of his face.
“It came pretty close,” Villafane said. “I could see the wire as it went by.” The rocket hit an armored Humvee that was working backup for the squad. No one inside was seriously hurt.
As Villafane started firing at the Iraqis, Horgan, whose legs were numb, tried to crawl toward cover.
“I looked down and saw I still had my legs,” Horgan said. “I was pretty relieved about that.”
Then Villafane went under the bridge.
There, he found one Iraqi civilian cowering near a pillar. When the Iraqi saw Villafane, he dropped his assault rifle and put his hands up. Then, three more Iraqis came around a corner and they surrendered, too.
“They were terrified,” Villafane said. “I was not necessarily scared. I was just really annoyed that this was happening to us.”
Later, the men took off their black robes to reveal they were regular Iraqi army troops. One was an officer, based on the stars in his uniform. One was an enlisted man.
“I was disgusted,” Villafane said of the ruse.
Meanwhile, gunfire was still popping around the bridges. Villafane managed to bring the four POWs up onto the road, where they were taken into custody by a crew of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Villafane rushed back to Horgan and found the gunner with a gaping wound in his foot. He picked up the gunner and helped him hop to the Bradley. Once inside, Horgan used a knife to cut open Villafane’s sleeve. Horgan used his field bandage to wrap up the softball-sized hole in Villafane’s arm and his damaged hand.
As Villafane spoke Thursday, wearing his blue hospital gown and slippers, his left arm was heavily bandaged.
He’ll carry the scars from the battle of the bridge for a long time. He’s got pieces of shrapnel lodged in his elbow and had to have a nerve moved from his arm to his hand so he could have feeling around his ring finger.
Horgan said he’s not sure how long it will be before he gets off his crutches. A “sizable” chunk of his foot was blown away by the RPG, he said.
Both are going next to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where they will get extensive physical therapy and, perhaps, more rehabilitative surgery.
The Army soldiers shared the podium with Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Menard of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Menard got shot in the hand while in a different skirmish near Nasiriyah the day after Villafane and Horgan were wounded.
Villafane, who is married with three children, said the fighting confirmed for him that he means to finish his Army hitch and get out. Although he and Horgan both said they wish they were there to help their fellow troops who helped them, they both have no desire to get in the line of fire again.
“We decided that it wasn’t so bad getting shot at,” Villafane said. “It was getting shot that sucked.”