The Deadliest Day

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

Admiral Kubic called his officers over. He wanted to inspect the Humvees attacked in the ambush. "Before you're going to brief me on any of that, let's go out and see the damage," the admiral said. Kubic told them to give him a play-by-play. Orders came over the vehicle radios that the Seabees should get ready to address Kubic. They spilled out of the vehicles and gathered near the rear of the convoy.

On the horizon, a sandstorm ripped across the desert. Some of the men were restless. They took off their bulletproof jackets and helmets, leaving their vehicles in a line between them and the mess hall to the right. That afternoon, the battalion had received its first mail shipment, and Nappier used the downtime to read his first letter from his wife. He decided to space it out, reading a section a day, since he knew the mail arrived rarely. He climbed onto the hood of his Humvee.

That's when the first mortar landed. It fell harmlessly in the open compound. At first, nobody knew it was an attack. Some thought it might be outgoing artillery from the Marines or Army soldiers who also occupied the base. Or perhaps it was the routine detonation of a roadside bomb found by one of the patrols. Either way, no one had time to react before the next mortar struck.

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

It landed smack in the center of the gathered men. Nappier, who had jumped down from the Humvee, was so close to the explosion that he never actually heard it. He saw the impact and the ripples of the blast heading toward him in what seemed like slow motion. It struck him like a jackhammer to the chest, sending him flying toward the convoy. Another Seabee standing next to him took the brunt of the impact. Nappier shook the man.

"Wake up, wake up," Nappier begged his dead colleague.

Nappier spotted Rightsell leaning on one arm nearby. "Rightsell, you all right?"

"I'm right here, dude," Rightsell said, not realizing yet that he was injured.

"You're in a pool of blood," Nappier said.

Rightsell looked down and saw his own blood spreading across the gravel.

"Oh shit," he thought. "Oh shit, I'm hit."

Nearby, Allen had been working on fabricating more armor when he heard the first explosion. He ducked his head out of the shop just in time to see the second round come down. With the vehicles between him and the impact, he couldn't see that it had struck the group of men, but soon he heard the screams.

Without a helmet or body armor and knowing another mortar could be on its way, Allen ran into the center of the carnage. He found Parsons, his assistant in the welding shop. "My legs! My legs!" Parsons screamed. His left ankle was shattered, and the bones in his right leg were crushed like eggshells. Allen helped bandage his friend and then moved on to the others.

The first dead man Allen spotted was 37-year-old Petty Officer Trace Dossett. A week earlier, Dossett had left an answering machine message for his parents in his native Wapello, Iowa. He had a cold and was homesick. Back in Leesburg, Dossett had two daughters, a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. "I love you," he said in the message, which his parents have kept, "and I'll see you soon." When Allen found him, Dossett was already pale and lifeless. The only injury Allen could see was a small hole under his right ear.

"It wasn't any bigger than the tip your finger, and there was no blood coming out of it," Allen recalls. He watched as rescuers checked him for a pulse three times to be sure.

The blast sent so much shrapnel in every direction that anyone standing nearby had pieces in him. The explosion threw Rambo into the side of one of the vehicles and peppered him with shards of metal.

Rightsell took one piece of shrapnel in his right heel and another just below his backbone. Medics who arrived at the scene figured he was paralyzed. "Can you move your feet?" they kept asking him.

Rightsell tried continually to move his toes. "Oh, man, no I can't. Oh shit, I can't move my legs."

As rescuers carted Nappier away, he still clutched the letter from his wife. He held it all the way as helicopters evacuated the wounded. "I woke up one time and a nurse was trying to take it out of my hand. There was no way I was letting her have it."

While the wounded waited for treatment, two Marine snipers who guard Junction City visited them. According to the Marines, a pair of insurgents had driven up to the walls of the base in an old pickup. They set up a homemade device and lobbed two quick mortars before fleeing. The Marines said they didn't get far.

"We got the motherfuckers," the snipers said. "You don't have to worry about the men who did this again."

Five Seabees, all from Florida, didn't survive. Their average age was 36. They left behind four wives and four children. The dead were Dossett, Jenkins, 36-year-old Petty Officer Michael Anderson of Daytona, 37-year-old Petty Officer Ronald Ginther of Auburndale, and the youngest of the dead, 33-year-old McHugh.

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