The Deadliest Day

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

Not long after the rocket attack, mortars began falling. Mostly, insurgents shoot the mortars from homemade devices, usually crafted from pieces of plastic PVC pipe. The mortars fell harmlessly off target near the end of the convoy, but it was enough to unnerve the men. In the darkness, the Seabees tried desperately to find something to shoot at.

The convoy sat perilously in place while the men waited to evacuate del Valle. Finally, after two and a half hours, a rescue helicopter arrived; del Valle would later be flown for emergency surgery in Germany. The men hooked up tow ropes to the damaged Humvee and headed toward Junction City. A half-mile down the road, a bomb exploded at the back corner of Nappier's Humvee. It shook Nappier in his spot at the gun turret and left his ears ringing, but no one in the vehicle was injured.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Nappier told the driver.

Henry del Valle of Miami rode point into the ambush in the appropriately named town of Hit
Jonathan Postal
Henry del Valle of Miami rode point into the ambush in the appropriately named town of Hit

The men sped back to the base for much-needed rest. They would get very little.

Back at Junction City, few in the battalion could sleep. Many were angered that the convoy had taken so long to move after the ambush. But more than anything, the men complained about the lack of armor on their vehicles. Two men had been killed, and del Valle was in critical condition. They could have been saved if the Humvees had been armored, the men thought. Rockets typically used by insurgents can ricochet off protective glass on well-armored Humvees. "If he had bulletproof glass on that Humvee," Rambo said, "who knows, maybe that rocket wouldn't have gone through it."

Instead of getting some much-deserved sleep, many of the men poured into the workshop run by Nathan Allen. Senior officers had turned down Allen's request to be part of the convoys, saying the short and stocky former Marine was needed more as a welder. Petty Officer George Parsons of Winter Park was ordered to work with Allen. As soon as the battalion had arrived at Junction City, the pair began, in the make-do manner of most reserve units in Iraq, creating armor for the vehicles from loose scraps that they found. They traded tires and oxygen tanks for some steel plating that a Marine battalion didn't need.

"I didn't want those guys going out there again without the proper armor," Allen recalls. "We worked all night and all Saturday trying to get the armor installed."

The lack of armor on U.S. military vehicles in Iraq had been a frequent complaint among reservists long before Specialist Thomas Jerry Wilson of Nashville confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld three weeks ago at a town hall-style meeting in Kuwait, asking why troops were forced to scavenge for used metal and ballistic glass to protect their vehicles. (Rumsfeld's now-infamous reply: "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.'')

The Humvees that rode as protection for the Seabees' convoys had only a ceramic shield inside the door panels that was supposed to stop bullets from entering the vehicle. But photos taken by Seabees of the Humvee attacked in Trucker Town show that a bullet or a piece of shrapnel easily shredded the door.

By the end of the Saturday following the ambush, the men had installed armor in a half-dozen vehicles. They bolted scraps of metal inside the door panels and covered portions of the windows with quickly welded steel plates. They would soon need it. The men received orders that afternoon that the convoy crew would not get any more rest. They would head out the following day for their next foray into the dangers of Iraq.

On the afternoon of May 2, less than two weeks into their deployment in Iraq, the Seabees again rolled toward some of the country's most dangerous terrain. A six-vehicle Humvee convoy was to drive 30 minutes east into the desert toward Baghdad, to a shimmering palace on a hill. Once a fortress where Saddam Hussein entertained foreign guests, its new management, the U.S. military, calls it Camp Blue Diamond. The Seabees were to seek this oasis and to escort their leader, Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, across the dangerous Sunni triangle.

Just outside the gates of Junction City, the convoy spotted an explosive planted by insurgents. The convoy was traveling too fast to stop once it was spotted, so the vehicles continued on. The convoy buzzed past, and remarkably, the bomb failed to go off. It seemed like a lucky turn.

On the way back from the palace, an Iraqi herder guided her cattle across the road, a cause for alarm. It's common for insurgents to use civilians to block a convoy's way in order to stage an ambush. The men might have stopped a few days earlier, but having learned from the attack in Trucker Town, the lead Humvee quickly went off-road to avoid the herd. The rest of the convoy followed, avoiding being trapped again. After a hairy ride, the convoy made it back to Junction City without incident.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets