View Full Version : The Real Story of What Happened to Jessica Lynch’s Convoy

06-19-03, 01:47 PM
By Howard L. Rosenberg, ABC News June 17, 2003

It became known as the "Wrong Way Convoy," a hapless group of American mechanics, clerks and computer technicians who were waylaid in an unexpected firefight early in the war with Iraq. Eleven soldiers would die while others — including Pfc. Jessica Lynch — would be taken captive. One question persists: who was responsible for the mix up?

A still-classified Army report has concluded that at a checkpoint, vehicles from the 507th Maintenance Ordnance Company were accidentally sent in the wrong direction — and straight into a harrowing ambush.

It was March 23, the fifth day of fighting, and before the sun set, it would go down as the deadliest day for U.S. forces during the war. Lynch, the 19-year-old supply clerk from Palestine, W.Va., would end up being taken captive — not after a gun battle as early reports suggested, but after a devastating Humvee accident as the driver tried to get away from Iraqi fire.

"When I look back on that day, I can see the trouble we were headed for from miles away. Minute by minute, hour by hour, it was obvious it would end that way," one soldier who was part of the convoy told ABCNEWS.

Heading Into Iraq

Sometime after midnight on Friday, March 21, a convoy of vehicles of the 507th set off into Iraq in support of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. It was a dark night, on the cusp of the last quarter of the moon's monthly phase. The 507th was part of an almost inconceivably long convoy that included thousands of military vehicles that snaked across the border and followed Iraq's Route 1 northwest from Kuwait. The route passed south of the city of Nasiriyah and then turned almost 90 degrees north, skirting the western suburbs of town.

There was a late-night briefing at Camp Virginia in Kuwait, the 507th's temporary headquarters, just before departure. The soldiers were told that they would be heading into Iraq and instructed to maintain a tactical interval between vehicles — usually 1½ lengths — in case of trouble.

The lead vehicle was a Humvee carrying the company commander, Capt. Troy Kent King. It was equipped with a "Plugger," the Army's precision lightweight global positioning receiver, and a "SINGARS" radio, a standard single-channel, jam-resistant, VHF radio. Other vehicles, those with ranking enlisted men, also carried VHF radios and GPS devices.

Every soldier was armed with at least an M-16 assault rifle. At least four soldiers were equipped with "SAWs," or squad automatic weapons — the M249 5.56mm light machine gun. One 5-ton truck in the string was topped with a belt-fed .50-caliber machine gun on a ring mount that enabled the gunner, Cpl. Damien Luten, to swivel from side to side around a 180-degree arc.

When they departed, the 507th convoy numbered at least two tow trucks, three Humvees and 11 5-ton trucks — including "bobtailed" tractors that hauled 40-foot-long "M870" trailers hitched to a swivel. There were 31 soldiers, together capable of living up to the unit's motto, "Just fix it."

The soldiers included a compendium of "Military Occupational Specialty" designation codes. There were diesel mechanics (63-Bravo), heavy equipment mechanics (63-Whiskey), a computer technician (35-Juliet), supply clerks, (92-Alpha) cooks (92-Golf) and supply sergeants who ran a the company warehouse and supply room (92-Yankee).

Most of the mechanics and technicians were assigned duties of repairing and maintaining the vehicles and equipment of a battalion of Patriot missile batteries, all part of the 32nd Air Defense Artillery Battalion. (Like the 507th, the 32nd also came from Fort Bliss, Texas.) Two of the mechanics in the convoy had another job — keeping the 507th's vehicles operating.

Maintenance company personnel are considered combat "support" soldiers. Though they have all undergone the minimum basic battle training, they're not really expected to fight in frontline combat. One soldier explained, "We are supposed to enter a town after it has been secured by other combat forces. Even when an area is completely secure, the maintenance team is still supposed to be protected. They never go anywhere alone."


Throughout the next 48 hours, the vehicles of the 507th weaved in and out of the long string of supply vehicles, occasionally stopping to refuel or reconnoiter. While still in Kuwait, at least one vehicle broke down and the soldiers abandoned it by the side of the road after first removing everything they could transfer to another truck.

When another 5-ton truck towing a trailer broke down, this truck, which was being driven by 19-year-old Pfc. Jessica Lynch and carrying a 37-year-old supply sergeant named Matthew Rose, was hitched to a 10-ton "HEMTT" wrecker. (HEMTT is an acronym for heavy expanded mobility tactical truck. Its unique wedge-front design makes it distinctive among military vehicles.)

The HEMTT driver, Spc. Joseph Hudson, fell into line, maneuvering more than 100 feet of truck along the road. Rose climbed into another truck and Lynch became a passenger in the company first sergeant's Humvee, driven by Pfc. Lori Piestewa.

Inevitably, the line of 507th vehicles sometimes was interspersed with trucks and Humvees from other units. A water tanker that was part of the 507th convoy broke off. The Fort Bliss unit was joined by a third "wrecker" — a 2.5-ton M1079 "light mobility tactical vehicle" manned by two soldiers from the 3rd Combat Support Battalion of Fort Stewart, Ga. Sgt. George Buggs and Spc. Edward J. Anguiano, the Fort Stewart soldiers, hoped eventually to catch up with their own comrades when the convoy reached its final assembly point somewhere deep in Iraq.

The push north continued, according to a couple of soldiers, for more than 48 hours with just occasional stops. By the early predawn hours of Sunday, March 23, the 507th convoy consisted of 16 vehicles and 33 weary soldiers.

Just before dawn, the vehicles that formed the nucleus of the 507th reached a checkpoint and were directed to veer off the main road and turn north onto Highway 7.

According to the still-secret Army report, no one yet knows exactly who pointed the 507th vehicles in the wrong direction, but the road they traveled led north through the eastern suburbs of Nasiriyah before continuing north to the city of Al Kut and eventually onto Baghdad. A detailed road map of southern Iraq shows the two roads, Highway 1 and Highway 7, nearly parallel each other in an identical, sweeping arc northward. But Highway 1 skirts to the west of Nasiriyah while Highway 7 cuts right through the city's eastern suburbs.

The 507th convoy was directed, tragically, to turn onto Highway 7, when it should have continued on Highway 1.

The Wrong Turn

One sergeant who was with the 507th insisted there was no "wrong turn," that he checked his GPS "waypoints" as his vehicle pulled into a position that was behind the lead Humvee and two 5-ton trucks. Another soldier reported that Capt. King later told him and others that his GPS "plugger" had "frozen," as it lost contact with one of the three NAVSTAR satellites that provide the devices with information.

Even more ominously, one soldier reported that though King had requested a map against which he could check his GPS waypoints, the captain lamented he never got one. Another sergeant says he doesn't remember his GPS "plugger" ever losing the satellite signal, yet he too had no map. Basic Army field manual instructions all note that the GPS devices should always be used in conjunction with a map.

Typically, the slowest, lumbering vehicles — the heavily-laden wreckers — tend to lag behind and bring up the rear, and that's what happened with the 507th vehicles. The wreckers, towing enormous payloads of laden trailers and broken-down vehicles, swept along as the dusty tail of the serpentine convoy. The sleep-deprived soldiers watched as the sun rose off to their right that morning. They knew they were heading north. What they didn't know was that the road north led into an ambush.

‘Ambush Alley’

Route 7 is a straight north-south road that cuts through the eastern third of Nasiriyah. In the southern part of town, it straddles the Euphrates River, slices through an industrial area on the east side of the road and a rabbit warren of low-slung residential buildings to the west. Eventually the route crosses over the Saddam Canal in the northern part of the city and continues to the town of Al Kut.

Early Sunday morning, U.S. Marines from the Task Force Tarawa, a unit formed from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, were focused on securing Nasiriyah, which had been all but bypassed by the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Marines from a unit code-named "Timberwolf" were assigned to secure the bridges spanning the canal and the river along Route 7.

The convoy of the 507th kept heading north, past a row of Marine M1A1 Abrams tanks lining the side of the road. One sergeant from the 507th noticed the tanks and wondered why they were bypassing combat forces. Another soldier recalled with wonder, "You are supposed to have an escort" when traveling as part of a maintenance convoy. "You are supposed to have infantry attached to protect you."

Another 507th soldier told ABCNEWS: "They left us there. They were supposed to protect us and they didn't. We were all alone with no protection. That is not supposed to happen. We are always supposed to be protected."

But as the convoy rolled past the tanks south of Nasiriyah, they were all alone.


06-19-03, 01:49 PM
Part 2
By Howard L. Rosenberg, ABC News June 17, 2003

A soldier from the 507th detailed the incident that morning in a letter to a relative written a few days later.

"At about 5:30 or six, we started driving through the city of Nasiriyah. It seemed like a peaceful town. Most of the town was still asleep. We crossed over the Euphrates River and drove all the way through town. We then pulled over to the side of the road and turned around. We later figured out the group we were looking for wasn't where they said they were. At about this time, we started seeing more traffic. The information we had been given was that the Iraqi soldiers would be giving up. We were also told that the Iraqi soldiers would be keeping their weapons. So we were nervous."

At 7:10 p.m., according to an account by New York Times reporter Michael Wilson, embedded with a nearby Marine unit, the radios of an artillery battery just a couple of miles south of the city crackled. The battery commander — a colonel — shouted to his officers, "Timberwolf is taking fire!" A Marine patrol was being shot at by Fedayeen irregulars hidden along the route. A fierce firefight began that waxed and waned throughout that day.

Twenty minutes after the first radio report, about 7:30 p.m., the misguided convoy of the 507th lumbered up the road, crossed a bridge over the Euphrates and was greeted by a sign in English that said "Welcome."

The convoy rolled through a dense neighborhood for about two miles into the heart of the eastern part of Nasiriyah. A Datsun 510 with a white top and orange fenders sped past the convoy, turned off the road and drove slowly back alongside, going in the opposite direction. One soldier recalls the uneasy feeling he got that the car was a "scout," carefully checking out their capabilities. A Nissan pickup with a "crew-served" machine gun also sped by and disappeared around a corner.

The trucks passed occasional armed Iraqi soldiers, even a couple of dug-in, old Soviet-made T-55 tanks with their turrets aimed away from the road. At a briefing before entering Iraq, the soldiers had been told that they were certain to come upon Iraqi soldiers who had surrendered but were allowed to keep their sidearms, mostly to keep their subordinate soldiers in line. Still, the sight of armed enemy soldiers — and potentially lethal tanks — was unnerving for the convoy soldiers.

Finally, as the trucks and Humvees crossed the Saddam Canal on the northern edge of Nasiriyah, another sign said simply, "Goodbye."

Sensing they were not where they were supposed to be, Capt. King led the convoy into a 180-degree turn and headed back into Nasiriyah, searching for an east-to-west route that would link him with Highway 1, west of the city. After a couple of false turns and dead ends, the convoy made another winding turn and backtracked along Highway 7 heading south. Sporadic gunfire erupted from buildings all around. The vehicles that could, increased their speed.

‘The Bullets Were Flying’

Atop one 5-ton truck, 24-year-old Cpl. Damien Luten was manning a .50-caliber machine gun. In the truck behind him was Sgt. Campbell. And in the Humvee behind him was the section leader, Staff Sgt. Tarik Jackson, a 28-year-old veteran of 11 years in the Army.

"As we started driving back through the town we started taking fire," said the letter one of the soldiers wrote to family members. "I could just hear shots behind me. Then we had to turn around again because we had missed our turn out of town. We found our turn and raced toward the bridge over the river and out of the city. Just then we started coming under heavy fire from both sides of the road."

From the side of the road, tires were being tossed onto the pavement. More than one soldier saw a bus maneuvering to block the narrow road.

Cpl. Luten, the .50-caliber gunner, described the scene as though he was in a movie: "I was up there, and I think of it now, kind of thinking of the movie The Matrix. And you see the bullets, flying. And it, it seems like it's slow motion. … The bullets were flying. I can actually see them, as they pass me, uh, over my head, back in front of the vehicle. It seemed like they were going that slow."

In the letter from the soldier, there is a description of the volley of gunfire as, "several rounds hit my truck. Something bigger hit the engine which started blowing smoke everywhere. One of my tires was blown out. I was just driving and praying."

Luten remembered, "And, we started returning fire, as we were pushing our way through the town. And as we were going along, uh, and receiving fire, at one point my equipment had locked up on me, basically malfunctioned. So, I went down, inside the cab, to grab my M-16, to continue fire. And a round came through the door, and got me in my knee." Several soldiers told ABCNEWS that the unlucky Luten never managed to fire either weapon before he was wounded.

As the convoy approached the bridgehead, "the vehicles ahead of me started getting farther and farther ahead real quick," recalled one soldier. "I didn't realize it, but they were trying to get out of there because they were taking fire."

An Army field manual covering convoy operations specifically orders that vehicles which are "part of the convoy that is in the kill zone and receiving fire must exit the kill zone as quickly as possible if the road to the front is open."

The Humvee carrying one of the soldiers who was now wounded, Staff Sgt. Jackson, had finally sputtered to a stop after re-crossing the Euphrates, just south of the bridge. It was riddled with bullets and overheated. Four more vehicles managed to limp up, including the truck driven by company supply sergeant Matthew Rose, which ground to a halt with its engines blown. As the trucks grouped in a safe area, soldiers could see Capt. King's Humvee and a couple of 5-ton trucks as silhouettes on the horizon. Left behind in the ambush area were half of the convoy's vehicles — eight in all.

‘Is Anyone Alive?’

06-19-03, 01:50 PM
The six soldiers aboard the three lead vehicles of the convoy were able to escape without injury.

According to eyewitnesses, Sgt. Matthew Rose and Cpl. Francis Carista (who himself had been hit by a piece of shrapnel that lacerated his heel) jumped out of one 5-ton truck south of the bridgehead of the Euphrates. From another truck came Pfc. Adam Elliott. Fortunately, during a prior enlistment, Rose had served as an Army medic, while Elliott had taken a "combat lifesaver" course.

They were joined by Spc. Jun Zhang and the three soldiers began administering first aid to their wounded comrades, survivors said. Half limping, half dragging, the four seriously wounded soldiers — Jackson, Luten, Spc. James Grubb and Sgt. Curtis Campbell — took cover in a roadside ditch, helped to safety by Rose, Elliott, Zhang, CW3 Nash and Pfc. Marc Dubois, the driver of Cpl. Luten's now-disabled truck. Separated from other members of the convoy, these 10 soldiers who escaped the ambush — four of them seriously wounded — hunkered down and waited.

Hiding behind a sand berm, the soldiers heard the unmistakable "clanking" sound of tanks. At first they feared the sound was from the Iraqi T-55s they had seen earlier. But as the machines slowly drove into view, one soldier said, "it was a great, great relief to see they were Marines. M1 Abrams. The M1s came up and just blew up a couple of those first buildings nearby."

Two Marine Cobra attack helicopters flew by over-head and one pilot hovered for a moment and gave the wounded soldiers a thumbs-up sign. A few minutes later, more Marine vehicles drove up, loaded the injured soldiers and took them to a landing zone up the road.

There, a Navy corpsman dressed the soldiers' wounds and injected them with painkillers. Two Marine cargo helicopters arrived and by 8:15 p.m. — 45 minutes after the attack began — the soldiers were at a Navy field hospital in Jalaba, on the operating table, and attended by a team of emergency medicine specialists. Shortly thereafter they were airlifted aboard one of two Black Hawk helicopters to another Navy field hospital in Kuwait.

None of those who escaped the ambush were able to say what happened at the rear of the convoy. Yet several soldiers said that even Sgt. Jackson's Humvee, a more nimble vehicle than the 18-wheelers and wreckers at the rear of the convoy, was taxed to its limit that day. All of the soldiers riding aboard the slow-moving wreckers ended up either dead or captured.

One of those captured, Sgt. James Riley, later confided to another soldier that he had watched in horror as the Humvee driven by Pfc. Lori Piestewa weaved frantically along the road, desperately trying to escape the hail of gunfire. That Humvee — carrying the company first sergeant, Master Sgt. Robert Dowdy, in the front passenger seat and Pfc. Jessica Lynch in a rear seat — plowed under the trailer of a 5-ton truck and came to a stop crushed into the "bobtail" hitch of the giant semi-tractor.

According to sources, Riley and Pfc. Patrick Miller jumped from their wrecker and ran to the crash scene, screaming into the vehicle: "Is anyone alive?" Gunfire was pinging into the metal all around them. According to at least one report, Miller single-handedly attacked several Iraqi soldiers he spotted setting up a mortar position and killed them, firing his M-16 until he exhausted all his ammunition. At one point, witnesses said, Miller's rifle jammed and he began "slamming rounds into the chamber one at a time" and firing them. He and Riley were eventually captured.

The battle for the bridgeheads at Nasiriyah wore on through the afternoon of March 23. By the time it was over, 16 Marines were dead, including the forward artillery observer from the unit south of town, killed in a Humvee with at least three other Marines. At least two of the Marines presumably lost their lives coming to the rescue of the 507th. Among the 10 bodies retrieved by U.S. special forces troops who rescued Pfc. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital on April 2nd were eight soldiers from the 507th and two U.S. Marines.

All told, the 507th lost nine soldiers on March 23. Two other soldiers from Fort Stewart were also killed. The Army death toll was 11. At least two Marines — possibly more — were killed during the rescue of the ill-fated Maintenance Company and 14 others were killed in action in Nasiriyah.

At 27 confirmed dead, that bloody Sunday was the deadliest day of the war for the United States.

The Aftermath

How did it happen? Since the incident, the U.S. Central Command has been mum. But on the day of the ambush, March 23, the briefing officer at command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said this:

"As far as the incident concerning the convoy, I believe that it is probable, like many other tragic incidents in war, that a young officer, leading his convoy, made a wrong turn and went somewhere where he wasn't supposed to. There weren't combat forces around where it happened. Combat forces arrived at the scene and helped extricate some of the survivors. It's an unfortunate incident."

According to those who have seen the Army's preliminary report, none of the soldiers of the 507th will be disciplined for the events of March 23rd and at least two survivors — Sgt. Matthew Rose and Pfc. Patrick Miller — will be decorated with the Silver Star, one of the Army's highest honors, for gallantry in war. The bloodiest day of this latest battle in Iraq will be blamed, in the end, on the inevitable fog of war and a wrong turn.

ABCNEWS' Claire Weinraub contributed to this report.


06-20-03, 10:09 AM
Another point of view.

Saving Private Jessica
New York Times 6/20/03

I've been roaming Iraq, turning over rocks in my unstinting effort to help the Bush administration find those weapons of mass destruction. No luck yet.

But I did find something related, here in the city where it seems (contrary to early Pentagon leaks) that Pfc. Jessica Lynch did not mow down Iraqis until her ammo ran out, was not shot and apparently was not plucked from behind enemy lines by U.S. commandos braving a firefight. It looks as if the first accounts of the rescue were embellished, like the imminent threat from W.M.D., and like wartime pronouncements about an uprising in Basra and imminent defections of generals. There's a pattern: we were misled.

None of this is to put down Private Lynch, whom her Iraqi doctors described as courageous and funny in the face of unrelenting pain; they said that she told Abdul Hadi, a hospital worker who had befriended her, not to take risks for her because he was needed by his 17 children. Ms. Lynch is still a hero in my book, and it was unnecessary for officials to try to turn her into a Hollywood caricature. As a citizen, I deeply resent my government trying to spin me like a Ping-Pong ball.

Staff members of Nasiriya's main hospital told me, as they have told other reporters, how surprised they were when military officers brought an American woman by ambulance. Private Lynch was unconscious, with broken legs, a head wound and other injuries, apparently sustained in a vehicle accident during a firefight.

"She was nearly dead," recalled Saad Abdulrazak, the deputy hospital director, who received her.

The Iraqi doctors were enchanted by this blonde warrior, who as she recovered spent her time alternately crying and joking. I don't know how much to credit the Iraqis' claims that they gave her the best room in the hospital, that they went to the market to buy orange juice for her with their own money, that they brought clothes so that she would have something to wear. But they didn't minimize Iraqi brutality. Indeed, they told of an execution of a handcuffed American male. (I've put a fuller account of this execution and of Ms. Lynch's saga at nytimes.com/kristofresponds.)

The hospital staff also said that on the night of March 27, military officials prepared to kill Ms. Lynch by putting her in an ambulance and blowing it up with its occupants — blaming the atrocity on the Americans. The ambulance drivers balked at that idea. Eventually, the plan was changed so that a military officer would shoot Ms. Lynch and burn the ambulance. So Sabah Khazal, an ambulance driver, loaded her in the vehicle and drove off with a military officer assigned to execute her.

"I asked him not to shoot Jessica," Mr. Khazal said, "and he was afraid of God and didn't kill her." Instead, the executioner ran away and deserted the army, and Mr. Khazal said that he then thought about delivering Ms. Lynch to an American checkpoint. But there were firefights on the streets, so he returned to the hospital. (Ms. Lynch apparently never knew how close she had come to execution.)

By the morning of March 31, all of the Iraqi military at the hospital had fled. The hospital staff members said that they then told Ms. Lynch they would take her to the Americans the next day. That same night, the American special forces arrived.

"I met the Americans at the hospital entrance," said Dr. Hussein Salih, adding that Mr. Abdulrazak then led the Americans to Private Lynch. The staff members all said that there was no resistance, and that they welcomed the Americans.

Is this account the truth? I don't know, but every time I voiced skepticism, the doctors and staff all insisted: "Go ask Jessica! She'll tell you." The U.S. military has refused to make Private Lynch available, although that may be out of respect for her privacy; in any case, she is said to have no memory of her capture.

My guess is that "Saving Private Lynch" was a complex tale vastly oversimplified by officials, partly because of genuine ambiguities and partly because they wanted a good story to build political support for the war — a repetition of the exaggerations over W.M.D. We weren't quite lied to, but facts were subordinated to politics, and truth was treated as an endlessly stretchable fabric.

The Iraqis misused our prisoners for their propaganda purposes, and it hurts to find out that some American officials were misusing Private Lynch the same way.