Marine welcomed home
Publication date: 05.10.07
By Richard Steffy
Staff Writer

The term IED is almost commonplace in our daily lives. Unfortunately for our military the devices are just as common, even more so, often showing up underfoot as convoys travel over them.

LCpl Nicholas Columbus, 20, of Landisburg is back on leave from Iraq. During his tour he received a purple heart due to an IED attack that killed his vehicle commander and left him with a concussion and lacerations.

A 2005 graduate of West Perry, Columbus joined the Marines right out of high school, signing up on Jan. 12, 2005 during his senior year.

“I always wanted to do it since I was a kid,” Columbus explained.

Boot camp in Parris Island led to further training in California at 29 Palms, situated in the desert about two hours away from Las Vegas. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere,” said Columbus, but it was good training for Iraq.

The California desert was well over 100 degrees every day. He said the hottest day was closing in on 130 degrees. “It’s hard at first, but you get used to it,” he said.

After training, there were a couple of months before shipping over to Iraq. “We had to go on leave and stuff, see our families one last time.”

Columbus said his parents were supportive of his decision to join the Marines, even though it was fairly certain he would be going to Iraq. “If you’re a Marine in the infantry you’re going to go. They took it well, I guess as well as you can.”Columbus serves in the 2nd LAR, Alfa Company, 1st platoon. He said they were briefed a few weeks before leaving for the Middle East. “We knew it was a dangerous place,” he said.

On Sept., 9, 2006 his platoon was shipped overseas to Rawah, Iraq, a small town along the Euphrates River. Their mission was to “win the hearts and minds of the people.” They were also to clear any insurgents out of Rawah.

Columbus said the search for insurgents was basically house-to-house. They took a census of the town. “We had intel every now and then,” he said. “If we found a guy we’d just detain him and bring him in.”

Columbus said they often came upon weapons and IED supplies in homes and hidden underground.

“I was moved around three different times,” said Columbus. “It wasn’t too bad.”.

One of the places was Anah, just west on the Euphrates. The danger increased here. “There were a lot of IEDs,” he said. “For the first two weeks, one every other day at least.

More than 30 purple hearts were earned while in Anah.

The next town was Hassa where Columbus earned his Purple Heart and lost a fellow Marine. “We patrolled that area until I got hit.” He said, “The people actually liked us there,” but he noted that the affection was present only when they were.

“We’d often go on cache sweeps,” said Columbus. Weapons were often found in big water storage tanks by the Euphrates.

IED come in a variety of forms. There is the pressure plate type, that is activated when a vehicle runs over it. Then there’s the triggered type. “It’s like the Wily Coyote and the Roadrunner,” he said. An insurgent can run a wire for a long distance, and trigger the device when he desires.

A new type of IED is triggered by a cell phone which is placed inside. When the phone is called by another phone, it triggers the explosion. He said there is new technology on the vehicles that scrambles the signals making that trigger unusable.

Columbus said that the IEDs are often buried overnight. They can be set up in less than 10 minutes but they are usually planted well in advance.

“They don’t want to be seen.” He added, “If we see them doing that they will be killed. There’s no way they can outrun an LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) in the open desert.”

On the day his unit was hit, Columbus said they had been sent to the river to sweep for weapons caches. He said they had orders to go down the road about two kilometers. He said their men, in boats had found an island with a village on it.

Columbus said they normally try to stay off the larger roads in the open desert, but at one point there were irrigation pipes on either side, forcing them to use the road. “They (insurgents) knew we had to take the road there,” said Columbus.

When the first vehicle triggered the IED, Columbus said his memory was a little sketchy. He said the blast hit the front right tire. He described his vehicle. “Our vehicle weighs 14 tons,” he explained. He said the blast threw the LAV into the air, turning it in the complete opposite direction. “It blew away the right front quarter of the vehicle,” he said.

“At that point I hit my head pretty hard,” he said. Columbus is a scout, he said a fellow scout was thrown out the back. “It knocked me out pretty much cold,” he said. He said the other scout pulled him out of the vehicle. “I remember we started pulling some metal off our driver,” he said. “My Lieutenant and someone else pulled him out.”

The explosion killed Vehicle Commander Sgt. Chad Allen.

Columbus said his injuries were some lacerations on his head. “It split my skin and hairline back for a few inches,” he said. “I had a concussion.”

A Blackhawk Helicopter came and took the wounded. He said he and the other men were battered and had trouble walking. “The Sergeant said we looked like we were all drunk and beaten in a bar fight.”

Details on the IED were sketchy, but Columbus said it was likely the pressure plate variety and may have held more than 200 pounds of explosives.

Columbus spent two days under observation at the hospital in Al Assad. He said they walked into the hospital under their own power. “They kept checking our vitals to make sure we weren’t more messed up.”

The injured Marines were eventually sent back to Rawah, working inside a camp. When he was hit, Columbus and his unit had about one month before they were to be shipped back to the United States. The rest of their unit showed up and they were all sent back home together.

The Alfa company, including Columbus arrived in the United States on April 2.

On May 5, Columbus was honored at the Landisburg Firehall with a community open house. He came home on leave on April 20 and will stay until May 20.

Columbus is unsure of what the future holds except, “We train, train and then go to Iraq. That’s what we do.”