The Deadliest Day

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

The following day, as the wounded headed for treatment in Germany, the battalion had the horrific job of cleaning up the scene. Allen and the others scrubbed the equipment the men were wearing and the guns they were holding. Allen spent an hour scouring a rifle.

"It took me three bottles of water to scrub the blood off," he said. "It just wouldn't come off."

The bloody clothes torn off to treat wounds had become a rotting, foul mess in the desert heat. As the men collected them, they saw names scribbled in the waistbands of the dead. They carried them to a field and set them ablaze. Allen didn't take part in the burning, but sticking his head out of the workshop, he could see the smoke drift over the desert.

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

Getting ready to retire from the Navy, Admiral Kubic recently packed up his home in Norfolk, Virginia, and prepared to move permanently to his summer house on the Virginia shore. As the movers arrived, Kubic recalled in a phone conversation that he had covered 3100 miles running combat patrols while in Iraq. Firefights with insurgents and roadside bombs were common. But that day at Junction City, Kubic said, he had seen more carnage than at any other time. When the mortar fell, he saw what looked like a funnel cloud lift body parts and equipment over the convoy. Afterward, he remembers a gunnery sergeant grabbing him and pulling him toward a protected building.

"I imagine I did what you'd call a scared rabbit run, zigzag, so you don't get hit. They'd love to pick off an admiral, so they pulled me away right quick."

As he ran, Kubic left behind the dead and injured Seabees. He also left questions about why the men were gathered there that day, why they were in combat to begin with, and why they were ordered to fight without the proper armor. Kubic, who recently turned over command of the 1st Naval Construction Division in preparation for his retirement, defended his actions.

"There were reports that came out right after it happened that the men were in formation," Kubic says. "They were not in formation. Troops are not permitted to stand in formation, and no one gave that order."

Kubic's explanation doesn't placate family members of the dead, some of whom have called for an inquiry into what happened. Not long after the men returned, McHugh's mother, Joyce McHugh of Boca Raton, called for criminal charges against the men who issued the orders for her son and the others to gather that day. Joyce McHugh contends that her son might otherwise still be alive.

"They didn't have the cover to be standing out there in the open like that," she said. "They had had a series of mortar attacks hit the camp, so why were they told to just stand out there in the open? That's what I want to know."

McHugh's aunt, Marilyn Duff of Chicopee, Massachusetts, blames his superiors for his death. Duff wonders, constantly, if he suffered, asking anyone with knowledge of that day whether he died instantly. He did, fellow sailors say, but it hasn't consoled her.

"I cannot for the life of me understand the idiotic decision to call the men out that day," she says. "That is what will haunt me for all the days of my life."

Dossett's family also questions why the men were assembled there. The family has publicly criticized the Navy for sending the Seabees into the field without the proper armor and for sending troops trained to be construction workers into battle. Dossett's mother, Cheryl Dossett, says the family hasn't been able to get over the anger.

"Those Seabees were not over there to fight," she says. "They were over there to help Iraqis and build schools. They should not have been anywhere near those insurgents."

The circumstances of her son's death won't leave her in peace.

"There was hostile fire everywhere," Cheryl Dossett says. "So why did that admiral tell them to gather out there?"

Meanwhile, the Seabees themselves are cautious not to criticize their superiors. None of them would publicly question the admiral's order. None of them defends the decision either, instead coming up with a rationale. Rambo, from his home in Clearwater, justified it by saying if it hadn't been them, it would've been somebody else.

"I think they were aiming for the mess hall anyway," Rambo says. "That mess hall was full of people. If it hit there, it would've been worse, so it would've happened either way."

Many of the 34 injured Seabees are struggling to return to construction and labor-intensive jobs now that they've lost much of their physical abilities. Back at his apartment in Boynton Beach, Rightsell rests his injured legs on an ottoman stretched out in front of him. Braces keep his left leg from moving. He walks with crutches now and has actually taken a few agonizing steps on his own. He's in constant, numbing pain but rarely takes pills for fear that he'll get addicted. During his recovery, he has lost 40 pounds from his former body-builder's frame. "Hey, buddy?" he yells to William Jr., who's watching cartoons in the other room. "Can you get something for me?" The boy, a perfect miniature of his father, sprints into a bedroom to get an address book. "He's been my little helper through this."

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