The Deadliest Day

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

Before Iraq, Rightsell ran a home-remodeling business with three employees. He put it on hold to serve his time, and now he has been forced to close it while he recovers. He has another year and a half of recovery before he knows if he'll be able to walk without the aid of crutches. Rightsell's family is preparing to move, and there are boxes everywhere in his small apartment. His wife has had to do most of the packing. She also works and takes care of their three kids. There's little Rightsell can do to care for them.

"I keep telling my wife I'm gonna walk, I'm gonna work again. I believe it. I do."

Many in the battalion have called for Allen to be honored for helping to treat the wounded after the mortar attack. Allen doesn't want the recognition. The sight of his friends bleeding to death still haunts him. "How can I not think about it? I think about it all the time. Every day."

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

After surgery in Germany, Henry del Valle was flown back to the States to recuperate. He woke up two days after the ambush with a severe concussion that took away his motor skills and left him unable to talk. When he could finally speak, he had a severe, possibly permanent, stutter. His superiors gave del Valle a 30-day convalescent leave, and he arrived back in Miami just in time for his twin boys to be born. He had just found out that seven of his colleagues had been killed in Iraq, and he knew he might have to return after his month off.

"There were a lot of mixed emotions seeing my sons being born," del Valle says. "I was sad for our loss but happy to be home."

Del Valle's now back to work at his post in Homestead, where he fights wildfires and manages forestry lands. The stutter slowly faded. Fully recovered now, he thinks he may be sent back to Iraq.

Few of the men express regret over what happened. In fact, some have signed on to return. Del Valle says he's ready, even though it means leaving his newborn twins at home. Rambo volunteered to return to Iraq in February. He's still recovering and suffers pain just about everywhere from the 23 pieces of shrapnel that hit him. The Navy told him they'd consider his request.

"You never know what they need," he says, "so I'm not sure they'll call me up again. They might."

The injured Seabees talk about returning in ways that sound lifted from a Navy recruitment ad. They use a lot of the same phrases. "That is what we signed up to do," Rightsell says. "No matter what you think of the war, we were over there to do a job." Beyond the clichés, Rightsell and the others sometimes concede, there's something energizing about being there. The reservists left behind daily routines for days behind gun turrets and the constant threat of death, but there was a buzz that was irreplaceable.

"I don't want to sound all 'hoo-rah,'" Rightsell says, "but most of the guys, we're just into it."

Just days back stateside, Nappier signed up for another six years. "Everybody thought it was the drugs talking at the time," he says. He walks with a severe limp now and may never be able to work again. The Navy has talked about forcing him to take a medical retirement. "I'm going to fight it," Nappier says from his home in Royal Palm Beach. "I'm not letting them retire me." He keeps the letter his wife sent him, the one he clutched all the way to Germany, in a coffee cup in his living room.

Nappier talks about second chances, but not in the way you might expect. Like the others, he feels no regret for signing up for the convoys or for joining the reserves in his late thirties. "The Star-Spangled Banner" still plays when his cell phone rings, and he still wears American-flag T-shirts with the sleeves cut off to show his Seabees tattoo. He and his comrades were asked to fight without armor, to take orders that put them in jeopardy, to man the front lines despite pushing middle age. But Nappier and some of the others now demand a chance to return to Iraq, a place that took almost everything from them.

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