Marines battle to protect slain comrades on ill-fated patrol

Monday, June 5, 2006

Editor's note: Associated Press correspondent Todd Pitman, who was embedded for three weeks with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in Ramadi, Iraq, continues the story of an ill-fated patrol.

RAMADI, Iraq -- Amid the flames and smoke and smell of burning diesel, there was little left of the Humvee but a blackened knot of scalding, twisted steel. It looked bad -- what troops call a "K-Kill" -- a catastrophic event that claims the life of everyone on board.

The bomb, a cluster of artillery shells buried under the pavement, had strewn smoldering debris across the road. Almost nothing was recognizable. A tire. A smashed engine transmission. A gun-shield turret blown onto a rooftop.

There had been five men in McIntosh's truck. Four died instantly.

Marines rushed toward them.

The body of Geovani Padilla-Aleman, a 20-year-old medic from South Gate, Calif., lay near the center of the road. Staff Sgt. Eric A. McIntosh, 29-year-old infantry leader from Trafford, Pa., and Cpl. Scott J. Procopio a 20-year-old machine-gunner from Saugus, Mass., were still in the wreckage of the burning vehicle. Lance Cpl. Yun Y. Kim, a 20-year-old rifleman from Atlanta was found later -- blown 60 feet onto the far side of the street.

The fifth man aboard, Lance Cpl. Rex McKnight, 19, of Panama City, Fla., lay on the ground beside the blazing truck, convulsing in shock and blood with a broken arm and a severely injured leg.

Marines dragged him away from the fire, took a tourniquet out of his pocket and wrapped it around his arm. Others dragged Padilla-Aleman's body by the back of his flak vest to Capt. Andrew Del Gaudio's truck and loaded him into the trunk.

Somewhere up the road, beyond the acrid billows of smoke, insurgents had been watching -- and now they opened fire.

Rounds pinged off the ground, off the trucks, but in the chaos, few noticed.

"It was all so surreal," said 2nd Lt. Brian Wilson, a 24-year-old platoon commander from Columbia, S.C. "I didn't realize we were getting shot at until we were about to leave. It didn't matter."

The priority was to get McKnight to "Charlie Med," the main U.S. medical facility on a large U.S. Army base nearby.

"Don't you die, don't you die," Wilson recalled telling McKnight. "If you let me get you to Charlie Med, you'll live, I promise you."

McKnight survived, and was eventually flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Del Gaudio stayed behind to protect the blast site with three other Marines, including Hunt, until help could arrive.

As ammunition and grenades in the burning Humvee exploded, Del Gaudio tried to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher. His own Humvee was behind him, moving back and forth to make itself a harder target for rocket-propelled grenades.

"I wanted to believe they were alive, but I knew they were all dead," Del Gaudio said. "It was just the principle of not leaving them alone. I wouldn't leave them, couldn't leave them. I wouldn't leave my boys."

He remembered images of the four dead U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004.

"I said, I'll be goddamned if I'm gonna let anybody ... take my boys, I'll be goddamned. It's one thing for you to lose your husband, or lose your son. But to have 'em freaking used by the enemy as propaganda, and disrespect that family, disrespect their service?"

From buildings somewhere down the road came more volleys of machine-gun fire.

Rounds slammed into the wreckage, and Del Gaudio kneeled for cover behind what was left of McIntosh's truck.

Squinting through the scope on his M-4 carbine, he saw a dozen gunmen through the smoke in jumpsuits and civilian clothes. One was filming the burning Humvee with a video camera. Others, he said, were holding onto several children by the shoulders, using them as shields in case the Marines fired back.

Del Gaudio did not fire, but a piece of shrapnel, perhaps a bullet fragment, sliced through the edge of his forefinger and struck his rifle.

Adrenaline pumping, he ignored the wound, looked through his scope again and saw the children had fled. He shot back, but couldn't tell if he hit anything.

Seconds later, back at his truck, Del Gaudio saw other Marine Humvees pulling up, followed by Army wreckers and tanks.

As the two sides traded sporadic fire, they recovered Kim's body from the other side of the road.

Marines pulled McIntosh and Procopio out of the wreckage, and loaded them into body bags. Their flesh was so hot it burned Del Gaudio's fingers.

"We policed everything up. We took all their gear. We took every last thing that was on the ground out there," Del Gaudio said. "We made sure we left the enemy nothing, like nothing ever happened."

When Marines die, field commanders cut communications for the troops until next of kin can be notified. No phones, no Internet. They call it "River City," a Cold War-era Navy code name for electronic silence.

After the attack, Kilo Company's 3rd Platoon returned to Hurricane Point. They sorted what remained of the fallen men's gear. They took jugs of water and cleaned blood from their trucks.

They were in shock. They were angry. Some shed tears. Some didn't want to eat.

Guys like McIntosh, they seemed invincible. How could they be dead? How could they be gone?

These were the first Marines Kilo Company had lost in Iraq since arriving the month before.

Del Gaudio went rack to rack, speaking briefly to his men, followed by a chaplain.

Jason Hunt, the vehicle commander, remembered seeing each of the four dead Marines during the briefing that morning. The images contrasted sharply with what he saw hours later.

"It wasn't them. They were just shells," Hunt said. "You look at this body that was once filled with life and movement and color and an aura of a human being, and then it's just ..." His voiced trailed off.


There would be no goodbyes. No final salutes -- not here, anyway. The plane that carried their four comrades home lifted off early.

Del Gaudio left his platoon at Hurricane Point and spent the rest of the day at Government Center, where he stepped outside and called his wife as sporadic gunfire crackled outside.

That night, he did not sleep.

"When you see your friends killed in such a horrific way like that ... the first question you ask yourself is, how I went through the same exact same area, and nothing happened to me?" Del Gaudio said.

"As a leader, you do everything you can, all the planning you can, to set your boys up for success. But when you roll the dice at the end of the day, it's always better to be lucky than it is to be good. It's a crapshoot every time you go out. It's rolling the dice every time."

Commanders told troops to stay on their "A Game." Focus on the mission when you're out. Mourn when you get back. Stay alive.

There would be no break.

The next morning, the 3rd Platoon was tasked with carrying out another raid.

"They're strong young men who can deal with anything. They saw their friends die, best friends," Wilson said. "And the next day they were out riding down the same roads. Were they scared? Hell yeah. Everybody's scared, but it doesn't matter. You trust your training, you trust your leaders, you ship out and you drive ... on."

Wilson remembered a Marine captain who lost men during the big offensive that drove insurgents from nearby Fallujah in 2004. The captain said he dealt with the losses by locking them in a mental closet, but "sometimes you open up that closet and everything tumbles down on you."

"I can't deal with this now, either," Wilson said. "I throw it in the closet and I'll deal with it when I get home."

Six days after the attack, Government Center came under sustained assault from several sides. The 3rd Platoon was on rotation there, manning machine guns from the rooftop stacked high with sandbags and tents of camouflage netting.

For a couple of hours, it was all-out war.

Mortar rounds exploded around them, shaking the building. Rocket-propelled grenades nearly destroyed one of their sandbagged posts. They fired back mortar shells and anti-tank rockets. They hurled grenades from the roof at gunmen running through the street below.

Across the street from one of the Marine posts was a hole Kim had blasted out of a building a few weeks earlier with a rocket after spotting two men firing automatic rifles. Marines called it Kim's Hole.

Del Gaudio, a white bandage still wrapped around his forefinger, was at Hurricane Point coordinating air support with a military radio phone handset in each hand.

Revenge, he said, never crossed his mind. But "Mac, Procopio, Doc, Kim, they were watching, we know that," Del Gaudio said. "I think at some level they felt they were going to do this for Mac and the boys. The company as a whole, the battalion as a whole, kind of looked at it that way. I know I looked at it that way that day."

An Air Force F-18 roared overhead, poised to drop laser-guided bombs that would shake the city and engulf a building across from Government Center in gigantic ball of gray smoke.

"Stingray 6, Stingray 6, this is Kilo 6," Del Gaudio said into the radio. "Please be advised that Air is inbound."

The fallen leave behind many things. Their gear. Belongings. Memories.

By the 3rd Platoon's barracks at Hurricane Point, troops still sit on the bench Procopio made and hang out as the sun goes down. On the back of it is written Procopio's name, rank, date of death and "RIP."

Nearby, four wooden crosses wrapped with dog tags rise from a bank of sand-filled barriers. A wooden board below the crosses is inscribed with words from "Blow," a movie starring Johnny Depp:

May the winds always be at your backs

The sun upon your face

And may the winds of destiny carry you aloft to dance with the stars.

On April 15, Wilson sat on the ground against a pillar at Hurricane Point, sipping lukewarm Gatorade.

Somewhere in the distance, machine-gun fire crackled. Another gunbattle was under way.

An officer came over to deliver more bad news: A Humvee gunner from another company was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while his vehicle was entering Government Center.

Later, Wilson would learn that gunner was Justin Sims. He had been among those who came to the rescue of Kilo Company two weeks before when their four Marines were killed by the bomb blast.

Bringing everybody back, leaving no man behind -- that was the reason Sims' unit had gone out that day.

As the late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the guesthouse's stone walls and a small grassy field behind it where Wilson sat on a ledge, another convoy of Humvees was gearing up to move out to where Sims' unit was attacked.

Marines were throwing on flak jackets, tightening helmet straps, checking weapons.

The convoy began to move, one Marine leading each vehicle to the gate on foot.

They paused at a row of sand-filled barriers, clicked off the safety switches on their guns, rolled out of Hurricane Point and headed east into the city, down the road to Government Center.

They had been in country for a month. There were six more to go.

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