View Full Version : A clash of wills in Iraq

11-06-06, 07:31 AM
A clash of wills in Iraq

Marine squad monitors most dangerous intersection in the city of Ramadi

By Julian E. Barnes
Los Angeles Times
Posted November 5 2006

On July 4, a squad of Marines was ordered to the most dangerous intersection in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, called "Firecracker" by the U.S. military. The mission: set up a position to watch for people placing bombs and to fight insurgents.

For much of the squad, from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, this was their second combat tour in Iraq. But the fight at Firecracker was the fiercest they had seen. This is their story, told in their own words. The account begins with the squad leader, Cpl. Caesar Hernandez, 22, of Delray Beach and continues with Cpl. Justin Kaminski, 21, of Baltimore; Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Frank Sanchez, 20, of Los Angeles; and Lance Cpl. Greg Crans, 20, of Bath, N.Y.

The battle started at night, before Hernandez's squad reached the intersection.

HERNANDEZ: Right outside of friendly lines, it must have been about 10 or 15 minutes into my patrol, an explosion went off. I was at the front of the patrol, and it hit the rear of the patrol. …

I pulled my lead element of the patrol back and had them set up a 360-degree defense. I started asking on the PRR [patrol radio] if everyone was all right. My second-team leader, Cpl. Kaminski, he wouldn't roger up. So I immediately thought: "They got hit in the rear."

KAMINSKI: I am the last guy in the formation. One of my jobs is to make sure no one is behind us, no one is following us. So I was looking behind us. I turned back around, and Sanchez is about to turn a corner. So I was jogging a couple steps, trying to close the gap. That is when it went off. I saw the flash, the fire and the flame, just where he was standing. I remember little stuff hitting me and then being pushed back.

I was unconscious, then I woke up on the ground. There was still smoke in the sky, stuff was falling out of the sky. I stood up and remembered the flash of light right on top of him. I ran to where the smoke was, right where it hit. But he wasn't there. I started yelling his name and running forward.

SANCHEZ: The rest of the squad was around the corner. It was just me and Kaminski. I turned back to make sure he was still there. I took a step, and I saw a big flash of light in front of my face, and I felt heat coming up. And I heard the boom. The next thing I know, I was laying facedown on the pavement. I didn't know what was going on, all the dust was everywhere. I just assumed I was dead.

Then I heard Kaminski yelling my name. I couldn't hear out of my right ear, so I didn't know where it was coming from. I started looking around. I couldn't find my weapon. I was crawling around looking for my rifle. I found my rifle and tried to get up. From the waist down, the blast numbed me up. I couldn't feel my legs.

KAMINSKI: Cpl. Hernandez and Lance Cpl. Crans came running around the corner, and they were asking if anyone was hit.

I yelled, "Doc was hit." That is the first thing he [Sanchez] says he remembers, me yelling, "Doc was hit." He mumbled, "I'm all right."

I helped him up, and we helped him get his weapon, which was probably two feet in front of him. We pushed around the corner where everyone else had pushed around, and he fell immediately.

SANCHEZ: My legs gave out. I was trying to put a tourniquet on my leg, trying to stop the bleeding. I was freaking out. But it was water. Luckily, I had the day pack full of water. That stopped most of the shrapnel from hitting my back. When I got to Charlie surgical, I emptied my pack. The bottom water bottles were torn up. There was shrapnel. But the water bottles stopped it.

I had shrapnel all over me. [The bomb] … tossed me 10 feet. That kept most of the shrapnel away from me.

In a house

The squad went back to base, sent Kaminski and Sanchez to the surgical station, then set out again for Firecracker. They arrived shortly before midnight at the house they would occupy. Some of the homes around Firecracker were abandoned, but many, including this one, still had families living in them. The squad ushered the Iraqi residents into a back room, where they would be protected from an attack. Meantime, the Marines took up fighting positions on the roof and in some of the second-floor rooms.

The next day, fighting broke out in the early afternoon when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the side of the house. Cpl. Joseph J. Zigler, 23, of Stow, Ohio, and Lance Cpl. Daniel Turczan, 28, of Flushing, N.Y., were on the second floor of the house, peering out two windows, shielded by camouflage netting and a small piece of ballistic glass.

ZIGLER: It was 15, 20 minutes after I took post, the first RPG slammed into the building. When it hit the wall, it was just to the left of the window one of my Marines [Turczan] was in. That broke the window and sent a lot of glass and debris into the room. It is so loud you cannot decipher if it is one gun or 12.

TURCZAN: It was pretty loud. The first RPG messed up my hearing. After that, everything was muted; it was kind of dulled. I got into the prone [position] and then we got hit by a [machine gun] for about 30 seconds or so. It was spraying into the room.

I looked up once. To the side. I saw my team leader, Cpl. Zigler. He was taking cover too. You can't really see rounds flying. But what I did see was holes start to appear in the wall, in the masonry and stuff. It must have been 400 rounds coming in.

We got fired on by another RPG. I knew kind of where the fire was coming from. I was able to make a line back to the building across the street, 250 meters away. … At that point, I started shooting back.

Returning fire

The Marines in another second-floor room, Lance Cpl. Gabriel Soto, 20, of Coral Springs and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kobus, 21, of Dalton, Mass., also began returning fire.

SOTO: Once the fire stopped, I got up and started looking out the windows to see what I could see. I couldn't see too much, but we got engaged again. An RPG hit, and then we started taking rounds. Cpl. Kobus was right there. He comes and engages with a Mark 32 [grenade launcher]. When he was out of rounds, I started engaging with my M-16. We couldn't see anything. It was too crazy.

I am glad I didn't completely freeze up and just kind of hide in a corner. That is what you are told, everyone is different. You can be the hardest guy, and you might cower in the corner. And the guy who you think would just hide might be the only guy getting shots off.

I didn't think I was the harder guy. I was more like, "Really I hope I don't freeze up." Before this I was always hoping: If I get shot at I hope I friggin' send some rounds back.

On to the roof

As the fighting continued, Hernandez ordered a team to go with him to the roof to try to get a better view of the insurgents firing at them. Among them were Cpl. Cory Schneider, 19, of Dayton, Ohio, and Lance Cpl. Michael Wilson, 19, of Foley, Ala.

SCHNEIDER: As I was running up the stairs, an RPG hit the wall right where I was running up. It was pretty scary to tell you the truth. I wasn't expecting it. … The whole building shook. It knocked me down.

WILSON: We ran to the roof with our gear, our weapons and ammunition. We were trying to figure out where we were being fired at from. I remember another blast going off just before we got to the roof. We think it was an IED [improvised explosive device] because it was in the road. It threw a lot of stuff, asphalt, straight up, and it landed on the roof we were on. Shortly after that, we started taking more small-arms fire.

Behind the wall

From behind the protection of a wall that surrounded the roof, Hernandez and his squad members could scan the entire area around Firecracker. When the attackers fired another RPG, two Marines saw the triggerman. Four hours had passed since the initial attack, and the Marines were starting to tire. The squad had a rocket called a lightweight antitank weapon, or LAW, the Marines' equivalent of an RPG and can be used to attack fortified positions.

SCHNEIDER: I saw the actual back-blast where the [RPG] came from That is where he was firing from. There is a lot of yelling when you are in contact. If you are not yelling, you are not going to be able to hear each other.

KOBUS: The building they were shooting at us from wasn't as high as ours so we had a little bit of protection. We had a little bit better angle on them. As soon as they took their RPG shot, I popped up and saw the guy holding the launcher in his hand. He started running for the door.

HERNANDEZ: Lance Cpl. Kobus had a visual and said that he was going to take the LAW rocket shot. We gave him covering fire and he went out there.

KOBUS: All I was worried about was taking the shot. … I shot it pretty much right as he ran into the door. It went into the window. It blew up. The only thing we saw was a little flash and a lot of smoke coming out.

SOTO: The LAW rocket explosion wasn't as big as I thought it would be. I saw it go straight in, though. At that point they completely slowed down their fight. I don't think we got engaged after that. When you are being engaged that much, your adrenaline is pumping so much you want the battle to keep going. It was good because you are like, "I do not have to worry about being shot at anymore," but the same time it is "damn, I want to shoot a little bit more."

TURCZAN: Basically it quieted down. They stopped shooting at us, and we didn't have anything to shoot at.

People started coming back on the street -- residents of the neighborhood. After the shooting stopped, a couple minutes later, people started getting on with their lives.

All back safe

The battalion returned home recently after handing central Ramadi off to other Marines. All of the Marines in this story made it back safely. In all, 17 battalion members out of about 900 were killed during their seven months in Iraq.

Sanchez and Kaminski both recovered from their injuries and returned to duty. For his leadership during the July 4 fight, Hernandez was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. Kobus was promoted to corporal and now has his own squad. Crans was also promoted and will soon lead a squad. The battalion is due to return to the Middle East next year.