I was working on a story about violins in Cremona, Italy, when an editor called and said five National Guard soldiers, two of them from New Jersey, had been killed in Iraq. The surviving New Jersey guardsmen had been flown to a military hospital in Germany.
Since I was in the neighborhood, the editor said, could I hope across the border and interview them? An eight-hour drive later, I met Carl Oliver, Timothy Brosnan and Gregory Brown. I stayed in touch with Oliver for years. He suffered from Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD.
His re-entry to civilian life was incredibly difficult, and he felt terrible guilt about the men who died, Frank Carvill and Christopher Duffy. Oliver had promised Duffy he would get him home safe. He had switched seats with Carvill in the Humvee that day. A colleague and I later wrote about Oliver’s troubles. I’m grateful for his friendship.
LANDSTUHL, Germany — The story is told in the sterile white bandage across Spc. Gregory Brown’s throat, in Cpl. Timothy Brosnan’s broken legs, in the ball bearing that lodged in Sgt. Carl Oliver’s right hand, rendering two of his fingers useless.
It is the story of a wartime promise that could not be kept, of men dying as they sought to save others and of a shadowy enemy who rises from the brush along the roadside, fires a rocket-propelled grenade and melts into the landscape.
For members of New Jersey’s Army National Guard, it is the story of one day in Iraq, as told by three scarred survivors evacuated from Baghdad to a U.S. military hospital, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, in Germany’s rural southwest corner.
As a new Iraqi government lurches toward independence, attacks on U.S. forces continue to occur every day. Many are repelled without injury to American soldiers. Some are deadly.
The ambush that took place Friday afternoon, on a trash-strewn highway in Baghdad, was especially lethal, killing two members of the New Jersey National Guard and three Oregon Guardsmen who came to their aid.
One day later, two more New Jersey Guardsmen were killed when their vehicle struck a bomb on the road in the Iraqi capital, making the two-day period the deadliest spasm of violence for the state’s Guard contingent since World War II.
The three soldiers flown to Germany for treatment after Friday’s ambush said the fighting was over in five minutes.
It encompassed two explosions and a raging fire. The attackers, the soldiers believe, got away.
“These guys are cowards,” said Oliver, 48, a former corrections officer from Trenton. “They shoot and hide behind buildings. They won’t stand and fight.”
Oliver and his fellow soldiers spoke from immaculate hospital rooms at the Landstuhl hospital, a 180-bed facility ensconced in the woods atop a small mountain.
It is a pastoral setting, one that is meant to make injured servicemen and women feel safe. Over the past year, that has meant far from the battlefields of Iraq.
Of the 130,000 American military personnel in Iraq, the members of the 3rd Battalion of the 112th Field Artillery, headquartered in Morristown, make up a tiny number.
About 150 of them deployed in February after a month of training at Fort Dix to become military police officers, a position in desperately short supply.
From the outset, they knew it would be harrowing work. Oliver, Brown and Brosnan said they all had been shot at within weeks of their arrival, and other members of the unit returned to their Baghdad base almost every day with new descriptions of clashes.
The base itself, Camp Cuervo, was named for a 24-year-old soldier from Texas who was killed in December when an explosive device hit his patrol.
“Every time you go out that gate, you stand a good chance of not coming back,” Oliver said.
The soldiers knew better than to dwell on such thoughts. They tucked them away, hidden from comrades, family members and themselves.
“You can’t think about it,” said Brosnan, 33, a veteran Guardsmen from East Brunswick. “You just focus on your mission. Because if you start to worry about where the next RPG is coming from, you can’t do your job.”
Part of that job entails convoy protection and patrols. On Friday, it meant ferrying supplies to an Iraqi police station on the outskirts of Sadr City, a teeming slum of 2 million people in northeast Baghdad.
Outside the capital, the town of Fallujah has become synonymous with the anti-American insurgency. Inside Baghdad, that place is Sadr City.
Two weeks ago, Oliver’s Humvee was struck by an RPG there. No one was injured, but it shook his confidence.
“They (the insurgents) said if we don’t leave Sadr City, bring the coffins, and they’re trying,” he said.
Friday morning, members of the 112th escorted a tanker truck carrying fuel to the Sadr City police station. When they arrived back at base, they were ordered to make a second run with supplies. Two Humvees, with three men in each, would go.
Oliver sat in the lead Humvee with Sgt. Frank Carvill, 51, of Carlstadt, and Spc. Christopher Duffy, 26, of Brick.
Carvill, a father figure to many of the young soldiers in the 112th, took the wheel, but after a heavy workload recently, he looked exhausted, Oliver said.
Oliver, the team leader, offered to drive, and Carvill accepted.
Duffy, a charismatic and breezy soldier popular with the unit for his practical jokes, manned the armored vehicle’s big .50-caliber gun. Over the months in Iraq, Oliver and Duffy had become close, engaging in talks deep into the night. On the rare occasions that the younger soldier expressed worries about safety, Oliver assured him he would get him home safe.
Behind them in the second Humvee were Brown, 36, a Newark resident and the father of a 3-year-old daughter, Brosnan and a man the group knew only by his last name, Spc. Lau.
The two-vehicle convoy set off shortly after noon, following the same path they had driven hours earlier: through a warren of local streets and onto a main highway of three lanes in each direction.
Alert for danger, they scanned the buildings and thick brush along the road.
On the pocked pavement itself, they kept watch for bags, debris, even dead animals, all of which have been used to hide bombs.
Nearing Sadr City, they approached an underpass. Early in the insurgency, bridges became a favored hiding spots for attackers, who fired on soldiers from above as military vehicles emerged from beneath.
American gunners had been trained to swivel their weapons around and up as they emerged into the sunlight.
The soldiers in Germany said Duffy, in the lead Humvee, did just that.
He never saw the attack come.
From somewhere ahead and off to the side, an RPG screamed into the passenger side of his vehicle.
Shrapnel and pieces of the Humvee burst across the highway. The armored truck’s hood blew off. From behind, Brosnan watched as the Humvee, enveloped in fire and smoke, rolled to a stop.
“It happened like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I heard this big blast. It was bad. Stuff was all over the road: parts of the Hummer, fire, smoke.”
Inside the battered vehicle, Oliver sat stunned, his hearing gone and his body rocked by the concussion.
“The blast just grabs you,” he said. “It takes your breath away.” In a moment, he gathered himself, then shouted twice, “Where’s my M-16?” Where’s my M-16?”
“Nobody said anything,” Oliver said. “I opened my door, and there was fire all around me.”
A pistol in his hand, the sergeant climbed out, his boots catching fire. He stamped his feet to put out the flames, then saw fuel pooling on the road.
Iraqis emerged from buildings alongside the road, waving him away from the burning Humvee.
“I couldn’t go,” he said. “My men were in there. I wasn’t going to leave them.”
Oliver dragged Carvill and Duffy from the vehicle, then collapsed as the fire began to set off ammunition.
In the rear Humvee, Brosnan directed his driver to pull ahead some 50 feet. Then he and Brown jumped from the truck to pull Oliver to safety.
While Brown stayed with Oliver, scanning for attackers, Brosnan ran ahead for help. He found it only a short distance up the road.
A contingent of soldiers from the Oregon National Guard had seen the explosion and rushed to the scene. Humvees swarmed the highway.
Brown said he spotted an Iraqi jumping up and down atop a car, as if in celebration. In his hand, he carried what might have been a grenade launcher. The Newark Guardsman raised his weapon and was preparing to fire when a second concussion knocked him off his feet.
Brown believes it was a bomb set off remotely. Brosnan and Oliver said they think it was a second RPG. One thing is certain, they say. It was timed to inflict maximum damage, with numerous soldiers working to help the injured.
Two of the soldiers from Oregon, Sgt. Justin Eyerly, 23, and Spc. Justin Linden, 22, died instantly. The third Oregon Guardsman, 1st Lt. Erik S. McCrae, 25, would later die en route to a field hospital.
Sprawled on the ground, Brown thought he was dying, too. A chunk of shrapnel had severed an artery in his neck. Blood soaked his clothing. Smaller bits of metal had pierced his arms and his left leg.
He doesn’t know the name of the sergeant who came to his aid, but he said the man quickly applied a heavy bandage to his neck, slowing the flow of blood.
“I said, ‘Don’t let me die here, please.’ He talked to me like he knew me all my life. He said, ‘Brown, I’m not going to let you die.’ I don’t remember anything else he said, but I remember the tone of his voice. He was calming me down. Because of him, I’m able to see my daughter again.”
Not far away, Brosnan was shot through with shrapnel, his shoulder and both legs bleeding.
He ran his hands over his face and across his body, relieved to find that he was not hurt more seriously. He would later learn the shards caused small fractures along his leg bones.
Oliver, meanwhile, pleaded for the soldiers to help Carvill and Duffy. Within minutes, a helicopter arrived to ferry them to a hospital, but it was too late. Both men, Brown said, appeared to have died immediately when their Humvee was hit minutes earlier.
For Oliver, the second blast put him into a place he had never known. A chunk of metal had lodged in his cheek. A perfectly round ball bearing about a quarter-inch wide had cut into his hand. More shrapnel had raked his leg. A tall, muscular man who had rarely experienced real fear, he suddenly found himself terrified as soldiers loaded him into an ambulance.
“I’ve never been that scared in my whole life,” he said. “I just knew another RPG was coming for me. They put me in an ambulance, and I said, ‘Please, don’t let another bomb go off near me.'” The unidentified sergeant worked to calm him. “I got you. I got my vest on. If one hits, I’ll lean over you and protect you,” the stranger said.
The other soldier in the second Humvee, the man they knew as Lau, was uninjured in the ambush.
Almost as quickly as it began, the attack was over.
The soldiers in Germany said the time between the two blasts was no more than five minutes. A few minutes after that, they were on their way to a field hospital.
On Saturday morning, they arrived at Landstuhl, which has treated more than 12,000 soldiers for injuries or illnesses since the war began last year. The facility does not break down statistics into combat and noncombat injuries, said a hospital spokeswoman, Marie Shaw.
Once admitted, the soldiers found another member of their company, Sgt. Joe Nyzio, 25, of Ewing Township in Mercer County.
On Thursday, he and a team of soldiers had been guarding an Iraqi police station in Sadr City when it came under attack. Insurgents fired 15 to 20 RPGs in a two-hour gunbattle. One of the rockets struck the reinforced glass window of his armored vehicle, spraying shrapnel and glass across his face.
A patch covers one of his injured eyes, and he said doctors are not yet certain whether he will regain the vision in it. Stitches and ragged cuts crisscross his face.
All four New Jersey soldiers will soon head to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for further recuperation. They will not be required to go back to Iraq, nor do they want to.
Nyzio questioned whether the military should continue missions in Sadr City, calling the crowded neighborhood a chaotic free-fire zone in which even the best-trained soldiers have no choice at times but to shoot indiscriminately.
“You don’t know who the enemy is,” he said. “You restrain yourself because there’s innocent women and children around. You don’t want to kill them, but that’s what’s happening. After 15, 20 RPG rounds come at you, you get pissed off and you shoot at anything.
“Not every part of Baghdad or Iraq is bad, but there are some places we should not go, and Sadr City is one of those places.”
The soldiers said they also remain haunted by the deaths of Carvill and Duffy, none more so than Oliver. Had Carvill remained the Humvee’s driver leading up to the attack, it would be Oliver’s family preparing for a funeral, he said.
And he said he has learned that a wartime promise is a promise hard to keep. Tears rolling from is eyes, Oliver said he will always carry the guilt of failing to bring Duffy home safely.
“I promised him,” he said. “I promised him.”
Brown’s grief is eased by thoughts of his wife and daughter at home in Newark. Like his fellow soldiers, he has been awarded a Purple Heart, but he lost the black MP band that once adorned his arm. The medics cut it off when he was injured. It somehow makes him proud, he said, and he would like to get it back.
“I think I deserve it,” he said.