Advanced Senior Member
Join Date: Feb 2004
Location: Bunnell, FL
Humvee Tragedy Forges Brotherhood Of Soldiers
February 22, 2005
Humvee Tragedy Forges Brotherhood Of Soldiers
Iraqis Persevere to Recover Dead Americans
By Steve Fainaru, Washington Post Foreign Service
BALAD, Iraq -- When the Iraqi troops arrived that morning, three American servicemen lay dead at the bottom of the Isaki Canal.
The body of a fourth, Sgt. Rene Knox Jr., 22, had been recovered from a submerged Humvee. Patrolling without headlights around 4:30 a.m., Knox had overshot a right turn. His vehicle tumbled down a concrete embankment and settled upside down in the frigid water.
During the harrowing day-long mission to recover the bodies of the Humvee's three occupants on Feb. 13, an Air Force firefighter also drowned. Five U.S. soldiers were treated for hypothermia. For five hours, three Navy SEAL divers searched the canal before their tanks ran out of oxygen.
What happened then, however, has transformed the relationship between the Iraqi soldiers and the skeptical Americans who train them. Using a tool they welded themselves that day at a cost of about $40, the Iraqis dredged the canal through the cold afternoon until the tan boot of Spec. Dakotah Gooding, 21, of Des Moines, appeared at the surface. The Iraqis then jumped into the water to pull him out, and went back again and again until they had recovered the last American. Then they stood atop the canal, shivering in the dark.
"When I saw those Iraqis in the water, fighting to save their American brothers, I saw a glimpse of the future of this country," said Col. Mark McKnight, commander of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which had overall responsibility for the unit in the accident, his eyes tearing.
The dramatic events offer a counterpoint to the prevailing wisdom about the nascent Iraqi security forces -- the key to the Bush administration's strategy to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. U.S. commanders have said repeatedly that when the Iraqi troops are ready to stand and fight, American forces will pull out.
To date, the reputation of the Iraqis among American soldiers has been one of sloppiness, disloyalty and cowardice, even though thousands of Iraqi soldiers, policemen and recruits have been killed by insurgents.
Many U.S. soldiers say they fear even standing near the Iraqis because of their propensity to fire their weapons randomly. At Camp Paliwoda in Balad, where Americans from the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment are training a new Iraqi army battalion, the soldiers work at adjacent bases but are separated by a locked gate, razor wire and a 50-foot-tall chain-link fence.
Pfc. Russell Nahvi, 23, of Arlington, Tex., a medic whose platoon was involved in the accident, said he arrived in Iraq this month with preconceptions about the Iraqi forces. "You always heard never to trust them, to never turn your back on them," he said.
The actions of the Iraqis that Sunday "changed my mind for how I felt about these guys," he said. "I have a totally different perspective now. They were just so into it. They were crying for us. They were saying we were their brothers, too."
A Missing Vehicle
The tragedy on Feb. 13 began when 11 soldiers from the 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, of the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, set out from Camp Paliwoda, 50 miles north of Baghdad, under a moonless sky around 3 a.m. Their four Humvees headed toward Balad's western outskirts, from where the Americans believed insurgents had fired rockets at the base. This account of what happened and what was said is based on interviews with the eight surviving members of the platoon, members of the Iraqi battalion and senior officers with the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry.
The platoon leader, Lt. Lamarius Workman, 30, of Brunswick, Ga., rode in the lead Humvee, code-named Blue 1. Behind him in Blue 2 were Knox, from New Orleans; Gooding, who manned the gunner's hatch; and Sgt. Chad Lake, 26, of Ocala, Fla., in the right passenger seat.
The convoy stopped at an intersection along a dirt road. Workman warned the platoon about the canal on the other side. He told the drivers to dim their headlights after making the turn and switch to night-vision goggles for stealth. But after Workman made the turn, he ordered the vehicles to turn around because he saw no visible escape routes in case of an ambush.
When the vehicles turned back, the second Humvee was missing.
Riding in the fourth Humvee, Staff Sgt. L.B. Baker, 38, of Shreveport, La., tried to make contact.
With growing concern, he repeated: Blue 4 to Blue 2. Blue 4-Blue 2, Blue 4-Blue 2. .
Sgt. Patrick Hagood, 23, of Anderson, S.C., yelled to the others, "Check the canal," he recalled. A soldier shined his flashlight toward the water.
The Humvee had settled upside down in the middle of the 50-foot-wide canal. The vehicle was under water except for the left rear tire, a three-foot section of the rear bumper and a sliver of the right rear tire.
Cursing, Baker yelled, "That's them!" He hurried down the 10-foot embankment, trailed by Hagood, Workman and Sgt. Stanley Brooks, 23, of Orangeburg, S.C.
Brooks stepped into the water. "Sergeant, that water's cold," Brooks recalled telling Baker, the platoon sergeant. Brooks paused.
"These guys got families, sergeant, let's get them . . . out of there," Brooks said. Baker dived in headfirst.
When Baker reached the Humvee he came up for air, he recalled, and screamed: "That water's cold! It's so cold!"
He dived underwater again and tried to open the driver's side door. It wouldn't budge. He came up for air, he said, and prayed: "Please, God, let me do this." Baker went back under and pulled. The armor-plated door opened this time, heavily, like a cracked safe.
Hagood arrived behind Baker and he, too, remembers praying, "Please, God, let me get these guys out of here." He dived underwater and reached inside the Humvee.
"I couldn't feel anything," he said. "I came up for air and then I went down a second time and I was feeling around, feeling around, and then I felt something. That was Sergeant Lake."
Hagood pulled Lake to the surface and handed him to Baker, who laid him against the left rear tire and began to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Hagood went down again. This time he found Knox. He handed him up to Workman, who by now was straddling the barely exposed right rear tire.
"I went down a fourth time and I didn't find anything," Hagood said. "By then I was freezing and I could barely breathe. So I held on to the top of the truck -- really it was the bottom of the truck -- and stuck my legs inside. I had my head half under water and I felt around with my legs until I hit something and pulled it up with my legs. That was Specialist Gooding."
None of the three soldiers appeared to be alive. But the platoon raced to get them out of the water.
Baker tied a line made out of cargo straps to Lake's bulletproof vest. Brooks stood along the embankment and tried to reel in the two men with his left hand. With his right he gripped a stretcher. Nahvi, leaning over the embankment on his stomach, held the other end of the stretcher while two soldiers clamped down on his legs to prevent Brooks from tumbling into the water.
As Baker, holding Lake, came within a few feet of the embankment, the strap broke.
Brooks lost his balance and fell in the water. Baker was now adrift in the surprisingly strong current. He desperately tried to hold on to Lake, who was weighted down with body armor and ammunition cartridges.
"I'm slipping! I'm slipping!" Baker cried out.
He lost his grip. Lake sank to the bottom of the canal, about eight or nine feet deep.
Brooks was near the embankment, but it was too steep and slippery to pull himself out. By now, Baker had been in the water for nearly 25 minutes; he could barely keep himself afloat.
As the rest of the platoon watched in horror from above, Baker and Brooks began to drift away in the current. Nahvi trained a light on the two men, then looked frantically down the canal for a way to save them.
Protruding from the embankment, about 100 yards away, was a drainage pipe. It curved into the water. Nahvi ran to the pipe and shimmied down to an indentation in the embankment, as if someone had flattened the concrete with a sledgehammer.
"Over here! Over here!" Nahvi yelled.
Brooks, with Baker clinging to him, swam toward the pipe. Nahvi helped both men out. He and another soldier, Cpl. Waylon Poitevint, 21, of DeBary, Fla., got Brooks and Baker back to the heated Humvees.
Baker was almost frozen, nearly delirious. He refused to remove his wet clothes, soldiers recalled. "Help them! Help them!" he yelled over and over.
Cursing, Sgt. Ernest Daniels, 29, of New York City, vowed, "I'm going in." He removed his body armor and tried to ease himself down the embankment. He fell in. Hagood and Workman, both exhausted, were still on top of the Humvee. Workman had frost on his eyebrows. Hagood was shaking uncontrollably as he continued to try to revive Gooding, about 30 minutes after he had pulled him from the Humvee.
"Dawg, I can't do it; I can't do it no more," Hagood told Daniels.
Daniels performed mouth-to-mouth on Gooding while Hagood weakly performed chest compressions. "We were doing that when I looked up and saw the birds," Daniels said.
'Take Off Your Gear!'
Two Black Hawk helicopters were descending toward the road. They carried Air Force firefighters from the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, dispatched from nearby Logistical Support Area Anaconda.
Two of the firefighters, Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez of El Paso and Senior Airman Phillip Quinn, of Sylmar, Calif., headed straight for the canal, the soldiers recalled. (Air Force officers declined to discuss details of the incident because of a pending investigation.) Within moments, the airmen were also struggling for their lives, the soldiers said. One airman began to drift in the current. The other lost his grip trying to extricate Gooding, who sank. Neither airman could get out of the canal; one clutched desperately at the embankment but couldn't get hold, the soldiers said. He slowly began to float away.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Ray Rangel, 29, of San Antonio, rushed down the embankment to assist.
Nahvi and the other soldiers watching from above recalled that they shouted to Rangel to remove his armored vest before he went in the water. "Take off your gear!" they yelled. "Take off your gear!"
Rangel entered the water wearing his vest, but it was unclear whether he jumped in intentionally. Daniels, who was watching from the Humvee, said Rangel "reached out his hand. He just lost his grip and fell in."
Weighted down by the armor plates, Rangel drowned.
Soon, the sun was coming up. The Charlie Company commander, Capt. Phillip Poteet, 30, of Lubbock, Tex., arrived to see Workman still on top of the Humvee, trying to secure Knox, to prevent the body from drifting.
As Knox lay in the water, the morning call to prayer wafted over the area from the nearby Jaafar Sadic mosque.
The 3rd Platoon was down to three soldiers; three were dead and five had been evacuated by helicopter to be treated for hypothermia. Another platoon was delayed after a Bradley Fighting Vehicle became stuck in the mud trying to reach the accident scene.
At that point, the Iraqi soldiers showed up, Poteet recalled. "They just appeared out of nowhere, about 30 of them, some walking, some running down the road."
Still in the Water
The Americans had not called the Iraqis for assistance. About 7 a.m., Sgt. Maj. Maitham Hadi Naouma of the Iraqi army's 203rd Battalion woke up to see U.S. Apache attack helicopters circling the western edge of Balad. He radioed the battalion commander, Col. Shujaa Jawad Hussein, and another officer, Maj. Mohammed Ali Abdul Mutalib.
The commanders gathered every soldier they could find and headed to the canal. When they arrived, Poteet explained that three American servicemen were still in the water.
Naouma and Abdul Mutalib, known to the Americans as "Major Mohammed," began to strip. Several Iraqi soldiers followed suit.
With no interpreter in sight, Poteet and the Iraqi soldiers began to argue in broken English, according to Poteet and other soldiers present.
"No, you can't go in there," said Poteet.
"Why? Why?" Abdul Mutalib pleaded, nearly crying.
"Because you'll die," Poteet said.
"No, I'm strong. I'm strong," Abdul Mutalib replied.
Abdul Mutalib, 34, a short, wiry man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and pale eyes, was in the Iraqi military before the war. But before the U.S. invasion, he said, he traded his AK-47 assault rifle for civilian clothes and went home.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he said, "I saw what American power is like. I didn't want to face it again."
Asked why he now felt so strongly about helping the Americans, Abdul Mutalib said through an interpreter: "These people come 10,000 miles to help my country. They've left their families, their children. When we get hurt, they help treat us and take us to hospitals. If we can give them something back, just a little, we can show our thanks."
Abdul Mutalib asked what the Iraqis could do to help recover the bodies. Poteet and Lt. Col. Jody L. Petery, the battalion commander, weren't certain.
The U.S. military was bringing in aircraft equipped with technology to detect metal in the water and "Navy SEALs with God knows how many millions of dollars worth of equipment," said Petery. "The Iraqis' solution was to go out and make a giant coat rack. And that's what worked."
While the SEALs combed the canal, the Iraqis went to a Balad auto repair shop and built their own piece of dredging equipment.
The tool they created looked like a 20-foot length of rusted bed frame, with 11 curved pieces of rebar hastily welded to it. Abdul Mutalib said the tool took about an hour to make and cost 60,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $40.
The Iraqi soldiers, all of whom grew up in Balad, said they had used similar tools as civilians. During the scorching Iraqi summers, they said, families swim in the canal and people sometimes drown in the deceptive current. The makeshift dredging devices are used to recover the bodies.
The Iraqis returned to the canal in the early afternoon and began working both sides of the canal in 10-man teams. They lowered the tool into the water with ropes, dredged, pulled up the tool, then dredged some more.
Plastic bags, car parts and pieces of clothing stuck to the dredging tool, but as the afternoon wore on none of the three Americans had been found. The Navy SEALs rushed back to base to warm themselves and refill their oxygen tanks. Abdul Mutalib had stripped to his long underwear; he refused to put down the tool, even when the Iraqis changed shifts.
It was about 4 p.m. when Gooding's body was found. Cpl. Nabeel Abdullah, 36, a veteran of ousted president Saddam Hussein's army, jumped into the water, wrapped himself around Gooding's leg and rode the dredging device to the embankment.
About 15 minutes later the Iraqis found Lake. This time Abdul Mutalib jumped in to secure the body. He jumped in again when the dredging tool recovered Rangel.
The Iraqis gathered atop the canal, smoking and shivering in the gathering darkness. The Americans helped cover the Iraqis with blankets and embraced them. A U.S. military truck pulled up with food for the rescuers. The Iraqis hadn't eaten all day. The U.S. soldiers lined up at the truck, heaping their plates with food. Instead of feeding themselves, they fanned out, distributing the plates to the Iraqis.
The Bill of Rights - guaranteed by the Second Amendment
You can trust the government - just ask any Indian