By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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"I've got a bad feeling about this," Nappier said.
After the first day on the road, the Seabees made camp at an abandoned train station. Unable to sleep, Nappier and Petty Officer Chris Dickerson spent the night snooping around the place. They came across the old ticket windows and forgotten freight cars. By morning, they were covered in grease and soot from crawling through a bombed-out locomotive. Both men had spent much of their adult lives tinkering with engines. Back home in Eastman, Georgia, 33-year-old Dickerson spent weekends keeping a '67 Chevy Chevelle in pristine condition. His father had given it to him at high school graduation. In Iraq, he saw little to admire. He called his father, Jeffrey Dickerson, just before they left on the convoy. "Dad, this is a dirty country," Dickerson said by satellite phone. "Everything here stinks like you wouldn't believe."
The next afternoon, the convoy reached its destination, a Marine base on the Syrian border, where they unloaded supplies until well past dark. With a couple of hours of sleep, they headed out the next morning, April 30. The exhausted men had to remain constantly alert for insurgents. Bombed-out vehicles were everywhere along the road, sitting like memorials to previous attacks. Gunners atop Humvees scrutinized each one closely for hiding insurgents waiting to lob homemade bombs into windows. Unable to use both hands to mix coffee, some poured instant coffee directly into their mouths to stay alert.
Just miles from Junction City, the convoy entered a town appropriately named Hit, a hot spot of insurgent attacks on IED Alley. It was almost 9 p.m., and the sun had begun to set across the desert. Hit was largely an industrial park on the edge of Ar Ramadi. The Americans called it "Trucker Town" for the tractor-trailers parked along the road for service. When they had passed through on their way to the Syrian border, it had been abuzz with mechanics and workers. Now, it was empty. The men wondered if the workers had quit for the day or if something more sinister was going on. If insurgents arrive in an area, it's common for civilians to flee.
The convoy crept along. At the controls of the lead vehicle was Petty Officer Henry del Valle, a Florida Division of Forestry ranger from Miami. Initially, del Valle wasn't supposed to be in the convoy, let alone manning the most dangerous spot, the point position. When the men volunteered for the convoys, 33-year-old del Valle had been assigned to handle radio operations at headquarters. But when the Seabees reached Iraq, the battalion needed more drivers than anticipated.
Del Valle wanted to be in the action, though driving into Trucker Town that night, he couldn't help remembering his wife back home. She was pregnant with twins and taking care of their five-year-old daughter. Thinking of his unborn sons had been his motivating force in Iraq, even while the convoy entered one of the country's most dangerous spots.
Driving behind del Valle was Dickerson, whose uniform was still covered in soot from the train station. Above him at the gun turret was Petty Officer Michael Rambo of Clearwater. Rambo, a 28-year-old pharmacy technician, scanned Trucker Town for signs of insurgents. He spotted a white pickup speeding on a parallel road behind the industrial complex. As the convoy neared the end of Trucker Town, the pickup darted onto a side road and sped between del Valle and Dickerson.
The driver jumped out of the pickup, and something exploded -- either a roadside bomb or perhaps a grenade planted by the man. Almost simultaneously, a rocket blasted into Dickerson's Humvee, smashing through the windshield and tearing through Dickerson's neck and shoulder, killing him instantly. The weapon passed inches from Rambo's legs and continued out the Humvee's back window.
Seconds later a third explosion ripped the first Humvee again. Shrapnel shredded the vehicle, which lacked updated armor. Thirty-one-year-old Petty Officer Jason Dwelley of Apopka, a passenger in that vehicle, died from that blast. Henry del Valle, sitting in front of Dwelley, took a chunk of shrapnel to the back of the head. It pierced his helmet and tore a hole in his skull. His vehicle rolled to a stop as he went in and out of consciousness. He was losing blood, and the color drained from his face.
Rambo fired into the pickup, killing the passenger. Officers spilled out of the other vehicles. They called for a helicopter to evacuate del Valle, who many assumed would die before the choppers arrived. The sun set, leaving the rundown industrial park hidden in shadows. Iraqis began darting between buildings.
"It's like we stuck a stick in a beehive," Nappier said.
As Nappier manned his gun turret, he watched an Iraqi walk casually through the industrial park carrying a package. The man dropped it off at a building and walked away. Seconds later, gunfire erupted from a window. It was indicative of the imperfect rules of engagement in Iraq. Unless Iraqis pointed a gun at the convoy, the Americans could not shoot at them preemptively. The men sometimes watched insurgents set up roadside bombs, unable to shoot until after they exploded.