View Full Version : Out of the fire, back home

04-25-03, 10:17 PM
Out of the fire, back home

Las Vegas Marine describes surviving `firefight from hell'


The rocket-propelled grenade tossed Gunnery Sgt. Gus Covarrubias across an Iraqi courtyard like a piece of debris and slammed him into the ground so hard he was knocked unconscious.

The blast threw Cpl. Wayde Broberg against a wall, and it propelled bits of shrapnel into Lance Cpl. Jimy Guerralemus' face.

The April 8 incident set in motion what would become a furious battle outside Iraq's Ministry of Defense in eastern Baghdad, in an area known as Saddam City.

Covarrubias, a Las Vegan and a 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps, said it was not vindictiveness that compelled him hours later to hunt down and kill the Iraqi Special Republican Guard member who launched the grenade.

He said it was justice.

"I went behind him and shot him in the back of the head," he said. "Twice."

Then, he said, he found the man's partner outside trying to escape.

"I shot him, too."

In an interview with the Review-Journal this week, Covarrubias, 38, described the firefight that injured him and eight other Marines from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines.

"I'm not vindictive," he said. "And I might get in trouble for telling you this, but I take it very personally when you do that to my family. The Marines are my family."

Like several of the other Marines injured in that battle, Covarrubias is now home, recovering from his injuries.

He called the battle "a firefight from hell," and said he has no regrets about what he did.

Covarrubias joined the Marines right out of high school in 1983 because, he said, "I wanted to make a difference."

For most of his career, he was a sniper, registering more than 30 kills during the first Gulf War.

This time he was a gunnery sergeant, the person responsible for keeping his troops supplied with food, ammunition and medical care.

"Beans, bullets and Band-aids," is how he put it.

The unit had traveled across the vast Iraqi desert all the way to Baghdad by April 8, a Tuesday. Part of its mission on that day was to secure Iraq's Ministry of Defense building.

The Marines chatted with local Iraqis, and one family in particular impressed Covarrubias because the father was so friendly.

Soon, he said, two Marine platoons at nearby intersections came under fire, and the men of Fox Company joined in to help.

Covarrubias was trying to find out who needed ammunition, food, or water. He said he and Guerralemus were running from opposite directions toward Broberg, who stood in a courtyard.

As the men drew near each other, the grenade exploded between them.

"Gunny's down!" someone yelled. "Gunny's been hit."

Sgt. Michael Dunn, a squad leader whose first son had been born only weeks before in Las Vegas, ran to help. He scooped up Guerralemus and carried him to safety, though Dunn was hit in the arm by shrapnel in the process.

Covarrubias said he regained his senses after about two or three minutes, then helped Broberg to safety.

The fighting lasted for hours, and the unit was nearly out of ammunition at one point, Covarrubias said.

As dusk came, two Iraqis resorted to what Covarrubias said was a common tactic among soldiers: They commandeered a private taxi, shot and killed the driver, and sped toward the Marines' bunker with the car's bright lights on.

Riding in the rear of the cab were a grandmother, a 16-year-old girl and her baby. As the driver sped toward the Marines and fired his gun at them, the man in the passenger seat grabbed the baby and held it out the window, apparently hoping it would keep the Marines from firing on the car.

Covarrubias said he thought of his 8-month-old son, Xavier, as the car came at them.

In any event, the plan did not work. Taking care to avoid the civilians, the Marines quickly killed the driver, Covarrubias said. The passenger put the baby in the back seat, and the Marines killed him too, aiming low to hit him in the body instead of the head, to avoid hitting the passengers in the backseat.

He said the baby, though covered in blood, was unharmed. The grandmother suffered a gunshot wound to her hand, he said, and the 16-year-old girl was hit by gunfire in the center of her forehead. He believes the Iraqis purposely shot her, though he cannot say for sure.

He said Navy corpsman treated the girl and her mother after the incident, and they spoke very good English. The teenager died of her injuries, he said.

When the major fighting was over, the Marines settled in for rest, food and water.

But Covarrubias, who had suffered a severe concussion in the grenade blast, was not in the mood to rest.

He said that although he was a little disoriented, his vision was affected and he could barely hear out of his left ear, he knew he had to find the man who fired the grenade at him.

After dark, he said, he slipped off most of his gear and grabbed his pistol.

"I'm taking off," he whispered to a couple of other Marines. "I'll be back in a little while."

He took stock of the location of the grenade strike and its trajectory, figuring it must have been fired from a nearby house. He sneaked inside. Upstairs, he said, he found the Special Republican Guard member with the grenade launcher next to him.

He said he ordered the man to stop, forced him to turn around, and removed his black beret. He shot him twice in the back of the head.

He took the man's military ID as a souvenir.

Outside, the man's partner was escaping. Covarrubias said he chased him down and killed him as well. He took the man's ID and his AK-47 assault rifle.

"This," he said in the interview, holding up the two ID cards, "is justice."

In addition to the ID cards and the black beret, Covarrubias also brought home the bayonet from the AK-47 he seized, though he had to leave the rifle behind. He traded a few dollar bills for Iraqi money with Saddam Hussein's picture on it.

He also has his gas mask, which was strapped to his hip when the grenade hit. The mask is now useless, the glass over its eye sockets shattered.

He still suffers dizziness and the hearing in his left ear is not quite what it should be.

He said doctors diagnosed him with post-concussion syndrome, though he did not let on to his superiors at first that he was injured.

In the four days following the battle, he said, he blacked out six times. He did not tell anyone, he said, because he did not want to go home.

On April 12th, his first sergeant saw him nearly pass out, and he sent Covarrubias in for a medical evaluation. He was soon airlifted to Kuwait, and then to Germany.

A neurosurgeon there gave him a choice, he said: Stay in Germany or go home. He did not like either option.

"Either I go back to Baghdad," he responded, "or I go home."

"Well," said the doctor, "you're going home."

Covarrubias is on a 30-day medical leave. He likely will retire from the Marine Corps next year after 21 years of active duty.

He hopes, he said, to join the Metropolitan Police Department.




Marine Gunnery Sgt. Gus Covarrubias talks at his Las Vegas home about how two Iraqis killed a taxi driver and tried to use the car to ram U.S. Marines during what he termed a "firefight from hell."
Photo by K.M. Cannon.


Marine Gunnery Sgt. Gus Covarrubias saved Iraqi military IDs, a bayonet from an AK-47 assault rifle and a black beret from a Special Republican Guard soldier as souvenirs.
Photo by K.M. Cannon