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Another Ambush Hero Enjoys Smaller Spotlight

November 02, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

FT. CARSON, Colo. — As former POW Jessica Lynch and her agents prepare for the release this month of her $1-million memoir, the airing of her first television interview and a TV movie about the attack on the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, another soldier considered by many to be the 507th's greatest hero is enjoying more modest rewards.

Reduced-priced license plates, just $3, for receiving the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War medal. A Kansas City Royals game ball. "And I get to go on free trips -- that's the best part," Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, said recently, a typically colossal wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek.

To Topeka for a parade, to Las Vegas for the Academy of Country Music Awards, to Florida soon, he hopes, and Alaska.

At sunrise on the morning of March 23, the vehicles and soldiers of the 507th were being torn apart in perhaps the most infamous ambush of the Iraq war.

Miller, a lanky, bespectacled welder whose marksmanship skills had been mediocre before the battle -- his bravery, like that of the others, untested -- set out alone to wreak havoc and terror on a contingent of Iraqis who were trying to lob mortars on several of the soldiers from a mere 50 yards away.

After he and four others were taken prisoner together, Miller convinced the Iraqis that the numbers on a scrap of paper they found in his helmet -- the unit's secret radio frequencies -- were just prices for power-steering pumps; the Iraqis tossed the scrap into a fire. And for three weeks he set about irking their captors with tone-deaf renditions of country singer Toby Keith's anti-terrorist anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

The Army investigated the ambush and determined Miller "may have killed as many as nine Iraqi combatants."

With a seemingly inherent aversion to speculation or bragging, the small-town Kansan has no doubt about what he did or did not do, how many he killed or wounded: "Seven in the mortar pit, one in the tree line, and I ran over one guy."

If it wasn't for his actions during the ambush, which earned Miller one of the military's highest awards, the Silver Star, several soldiers feel certain they would not have survived.

"We were all down, most of us wounded, and I looked up and saw Miller running by, bullets and rockets everywhere," recalled former POW Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30. "I said, 'Miller, get down!' He said, 'I gotta go, I gotta return fire' ... We were a big target, and if they'd have got off a mortar round we'd have all been dead. I tell you, Miller, ol' country boy, saved us."

As Lynch, whose rescue from an Iraqi hospital became one of the most dramatic stories of the war, readies for her media blitz, most of her fellow soldiers caught in the ambush have returned to their jobs: cooking, supplying radar parts and toilet paper, fixing broken axles.

They are back making $25,000 or $29,000 a year, some appearing at the occasional parade or other event, and struggling -- hard, in some cases -- with badly damaged body parts, memories of imprisonment, and of seeing their friends, as one put it, "shot so badly they were in pieces."

Eleven soldiers died in the battle, six were captured and nine were wounded, including some of those captured and some who were rescued or escaped.

Few from the 507th seem to resent the diminutive Lynch's fame and fortune. Separated from the other POWs and badly injured when her Humvee crashed, "Jessica is a hero in every way. Tiny little thing, she survived all that by herself. It's amazing," Johnson said, summing up the sentiments of many from the unit.

At the same time, some are less than pleased with the way the Pentagon and media have handled Lynch's story. Both got much of it wrong in the beginning, erroneously reporting that she fought to her last bullet despite gunshot and stab wounds, when in fact she was likely unconscious and probably did not fire a shot, investigators say.

"It wasn't accurate but it was a good story, and people high, high in the Pentagon got involved," said one 507th soldier, who asked not to be identified.

Not the Only Hero

When she was rescued, Lynch's fame grew. And the military and the media, some members of the 507th say, have focused so much on her that they have failed to tell the stories of others who fought, died, were wounded or captured in the same battle.

"When they rescued Jessica, that gave everyone a lot of hope because people still didn't know where we were, if we were still alive," said Johnson, a friend of Lynch's. "[The military and media] put a lot into that story, and there wasn't too much left once we were rescued. I don't blame anyone though.

"You want to know what the greatest injustice is?" Johnson continued. "Miller hasn't even been promoted."

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