The Deadliest Day

Florida's Seabee reservists went to Iraq to help, not fight. But they fought and died

His feet sloshing in blood, Petty Officer Nathan Allen moved frantically through the scene trying to decide which of his friends to save. They were calling to him, screaming from every direction about missing legs and torn-up arms. Seconds earlier, an Iraqi insurgent had lobbed a mortar over the wall of a U.S. military base in Iraq called Junction City. Usually the near-daily mortar attacks fell well off target. But on May 2, one slammed into a crowd of Navy reservists from Florida. Knowing another mortar could be sailing toward him, Allen figured he had just seconds to pull the survivors out of danger.

He came upon Petty Officer Bob Jenkins first. A gnarled chunk of shrapnel jutted from his stomach. The blast shredded both of his legs below the knees. Just a day earlier, 35-year-old Jenkins had told him that the hell of Iraq had changed his priorities. "When I get back, I'm going to take all the time off I can to spend with my wife," Jenkins, of Stuart, had said. Now, Jenkins couldn't muster a breath. He moaned twice and turned a sickening gray.

"He's gone," Allen told others who had rushed over to help.

Rescuers cart off injured Petty Officer Douglas Alvarez of Clearwater
Photo Courtesy of James Nappier
Rescuers cart off injured Petty Officer Douglas Alvarez of Clearwater
Rescuers bring survivors to waiting choppers while handling the gruesome task of bagging the dead
Photos Courtesy of James Nappier
Rescuers bring survivors to waiting choppers while handling the gruesome task of bagging the dead

Allen turned his attention to Petty Officer William Rightsell, whose left thigh was bleeding skyward like a water fountain. More blood gushed from a hole in his forehead. The two men lived just a few miles from each other, Allen in Greenacres and 31-year-old Rightsell in Boynton Beach. Rightsell's linebacker size made him the perfect man to run a gun turret on top of a Humvee. With one hand, he could pull an injured man out of the driver's seat in case they came under attack. But his size also meant he bled more than the others. The puddle below him covered the ground. Rightsell's face was graying just like Jenkins's. Allen stuffed a handkerchief into the streaming wound and moved on to the next man. He figured it would be the last time he'd see Rightsell alive.

Nearby, Petty Officer James Nappier of Royal Palm Beach was begging the rescuers to save his leg. Nappier, the oldest of the group at 46, had spent his life trying to avoid a desk job, working as a mechanic, a construction worker, and a cop. A missing leg meant the end of all that. A medic tightened a tourniquet above a fist-sized hole in his right thigh. While it could save him from bleeding to death, the tourniquet's pressure could have forced surgeons to amputate.

"Take it off," Nappier howled, reaching for the tourniquet. He hadn't felt the pain until they tightened it on his leg, and suddenly, it flooded over him. "I am not losing my leg."

Seconds later, with his blood pressure plummeting, Nappier's head began to bob. Allen knew what that could mean. "Don't you fall asleep," Allen commanded. "Don't you pass out on me." But Nappier couldn't fight the urge, and Allen knew it was time to move on to somebody else.

Allen scanned the area. There were more than a dozen seriously injured men. A handful more hadn't moved since the explosion. Others had left blood trails as they dragged themselves under vehicles. Most of the dead and wounded had just returned from a convoy across territory crawling with insurgents. Their vehicles were still lined up in the compound's gravel courtyard. Rescue helicopters buzzed on the horizon, and medics were setting up a triage station nearby. Allen moved through the blast site looking for survivors. It was early afternoon, and the intense desert heat had already begun to dry the blood into a sticky muck under his feet. It smelled of decay.

In minutes, Allen had gone from performing a routine welding job in his nearby workshop to tending severely wounded and dying colleagues -- watching some of his friends bleed to death in the desert.

In the end, five men died that afternoon, and 34 more were wounded. Along with the death of Capt. John Tipton, a 32-year-old from Fort Walton Beach, who was in an office at the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division in Anbar, Iraq, when a piece of shrapnel from a mortar attack came through a window and struck him in the head, six Floridians died May 2 in Iraq. That made it Florida's deadliest day in the second Gulf War. Since combat began, about 60 men and women from Florida have died there. All but three of those deaths occurred after President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, 2003.

The attack at Junction City outside the city of Ar Ramadi came just two days after insurgents ambushed the reservists on a stretch of highway a few miles to the west, killing two. As if there were any need for it, the ambush and the mortar attack that followed it vividly underscored the explosive volatility of Iraq, where there seems to be no safe zone, no place to escape the random attacks of insurgents.

None of the Navy reservists from Mobile Construction Battalion 14 was supposed to have been anywhere near the fighting. The men were part of a Jacksonville-based unit of construction workers called Seabees. They're heavy-equipment operators, welders, and drywall specialists, more likely to be carrying tool belts than guns.

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