April Fool’s Day: A brush with death

Veterans Voices

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) April 1, 2003 is a day I will always remember. It was the day I should have died on a battlefield in Iraq while covering the invasion for The Associated Press, but somehow I lived to tell the story of what happened.

On that day, Captain Sean Blodgett, the commanding officer of Charlie Company, one of three infantry companies in First Battalion, Fifth Regiment of the First Marine Division that invaded Iraq almost ten hours ahead of all other U.S. forces, called First Lieutenant Jeremy Stalnecker, the commanding officer of Counter Mech Platoon, the unit I was embedded with in Weapons Company 1/5 to a meeting.

Blodgett told Stalnecker he needed CMP’s eighteen heavily-armed Humvees to support to Charlie Company and Bravo Company in their drive to capture a bridge over the Saddam Hussein Canal which stood in the way of the battalion’s march to Baghdad.

After the briefing that took place on the hood of Gun-3, Stalnecker’s Humvee, the son of a Baptist preacher assembled his men together.

Gentlemen, we’ve worked hard. We’ve trained hard. We’ve done the right thing,” said Stalnecker, before his platoon sergeant asked the men to clasp hands.

It was mid-afternoon when we headed down a dusty road toward the canal. In the barren fields, I saw shrapnel from Iraqi artillery and mortar rounds. “We’re headed into an ambush,” I yelled, “The Iraqis have pre-registered their weapons.”

Corporal Jeremy Mahon, Gun-1’s vehicle commander, was unmoved. “Two klicks to go,” said the young Marine, as Lance Corporal Dominic Chevalier tightened his grip on a homemade crucifix that his girlfriend in California had sent him.

Minutes later we rolled up to the canal, and Chevy opened fire with his .50 caliber machinegun. Sitting in the backseat of “Fate’s Helper,” the nickname Mahon, Chevalier and PFC Reid Estreicher gave to Gun-1, I could see “Chevy” light up a Zeus 23-4, an Iraqi anti-aircraft battery down the canal that was swinging its gun barrels toward the platoon. I watched a steady stream of Slap-Two tracer rounds make Swiss-Cheese of the tracked vehicle. Suddenly, the gun position exploded in a shower of sparks as Chevy’s rounds reached an ammunition storage area behind the gun.

Feeling safer, I got out of Gun-1 to film the battlefield as everyone, tanks and amphibious assault vehicles known as “AAV’s” headed for a wooden bridge across the canal.

While panning my SonyCam from the bridge down the canal, an Iraqi mortar round hit the bank and exploded in my face.

I heard the blast and felt my body shake like a rag doll as I disappeared in a cloud of dirt and dust.

First Lieutenant Dave Denial, a platoon leader in Bravo Company who was standing in the commander’s hatch of his AAV at the bridge, turned to his driver and said, “We just lost the AP correspondent. He’s gone” as he counted 20 mortar rounds fall into Counter Mech Platoon. But miraculously, I and Staff Sergeant Bryan Jackway, the First Section Leader in CMP, who was standing 15 feet away from me, survived without a scratch.

“It was amazing that nobody was hit,” said Jackway, who suffered a concussion when he was blown off his feet by the 81mm mortar explosion. A recreation of the explosion after the war by the Marine Corps in California concluded that both Jackway and I should have been killed by all the shrapnel that was flying around.

The Iraqi battalion commander was killed trying to escape. But Jackway said, “He couldn’t outrun a bullet.”

The excitement wasn’t over. Minutes after crossing the canal, an Iraqi officer jumped up from some scrub brush and pointed his AK-47 assault rifle at Gun-1 inched along the shoulder of a road that led north to Baghdad. But a SAW [Squad Automatic Weapons] gunner was faster on the trigger and killed the enemy soldier before he could kill me and the young Marines with me. I didn’t see the imminent danger, nor did I see my guardian angel. I didn’t hear a burst of machinegun fire from the right rear bumper of Gun-1 and saw something explode in the brush.

When the brief battle ended with a battalion of Iraqi infantry, I went to where a fire was burning. There on the ground was the riddled body of a young Iraqi officer, his left foot roasting in a fire from the gas tank on his dirt bike that exploded when it was hit by tracer bullets from the SAW.

The fire was spreading to scrub brush behind the dead officer, but when I asked a passing Marine if he could get a fire extinguisher from his truck, he shook his head and said, “Let him burn.”

Corporal Travis Brosowski, the commander of TOW-6 who scored the first anti-tank missile kill of the war on the first day of the invasion in the Rumeila Oil Fields of Southern Iraq, had compassion on the Iraqi soldier and put out the flames with his fire extinguisher. It’s a good thing he did. When “Bizzo,” as his buddies called him sent me some pictures for my book, “To Baghdad and Back,” that came out six months ago, one of the pictures showed a massive ammunition dump a few feet from the burning dirt bike. It was sowell camouflaged. I couldn’t see it when I was standing almost on top of it.

The Iraqi battalion commander was coming down the road from a village when the battle began and was killed trying to escape. I recovered his diary in his bullet-riddled pickup. The last entry was poignant. The interpreter in 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment translated the entry. It read, “Am returning from a nearby villages with supplies for my men.”

Before we left to rendezvous with a supply train and replenish our supply of ammunition, Gun-1’s crew and its section leader posed for a hero picture.

Front Row L to R; SSgt Bryan Jackway and Cpl Jeremy Mahon. Back Row L to R; Pfc Reid Estreicher, Lcpl Domenic Chevalier and AP correspondent Ross Simpson

It wasn’t until the next day when I took off my body armor that I noticed a tear in the canvas that held the frontal plate. When I showed it to Cpl Mahon to see what he thought I learned I didn’t tear the canvas. “That was sliced by a razor-sharp piece of shrapnel from that mortar round that exploded in front of you and Jacko,” said Jeremy Mahon.

Ironically, the shrapnel hit the body armor that covered a New Testament bible that I carried in the left breast pocket of my fatigues. My father carried that Bible when he landed at Utah Beach during World War Two. I don’t believe in good luck charms or talismans, but I do believe God was watching over me on April Fool’s Day, 18 years ago this month.

A week later when I was caught alone on a deserted road after dark outside Baghdad, I met by guardian angel when he challenged me. “HALT,” said Corporal Wesley Rutledge, a SAW gunner from Charlie Co. Looking at me through his NVGs, night vision goggles, Rutledge said, “You’re the AP guy. I saved your bacon at the canal when I killed an Iraqi officer who getting ready to kill you and your crew.” Rutledge gave me some food to eat and insisted I sleep in his fighting hole until it was safe to return to Gun-1 after daylight with canteens full of water me and my friends desperately needed. The platoon had been without water for two days when I heard a Navy corpsman was treating water in a ditch with iodine.

When the War Correspondent’s Gallery at the National Museum of the Marine Corps finally opens, you can see for yourself. The body armor, helmet and other equipment I wore into Iraq will be on display.

A week after the close call at the Saddam Hussein Canal, I was caught after dark on a deserted road outside Baghdad while going for water that was being treated with iodine by a Navy corpsman, I met the Marine who saved my life when he challenged me.

“HALT,” said Corporal Wesley Rutledge, a SAW gunner from Charlie Co. Looking at me through his NVGs, night vision goggles, Rutledge recognized me and said, “You’re the AP guy. I saved your bacon at the canal when I killed an Iraqi officer who getting ready to kill you and your crew.” Rutledge gave me some food to eat and insisted I sleep in his fighting hole until it was safe to return to Gun-1 after daylight with canteens full of water that me and my friends desperately needed. We had been without water for almost two days.

When the War Correspondent’s Gallery at the National Museum of the Marine Corps finally opens, you can see for yourself. The body armor, helmet and other equipment I wore into Iraq will be on display.

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