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Militia Found a Gap in U.S. Armor

A simple yet audacious attack by a guerrilla fighter in Najaf killed two American soldiers in their 69-ton Abrams tank.

August 22, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — To his buddies, 2nd Lt. Mike Goins looked indestructible atop his Abrams tank as he maneuvered through Najaf's besieged cemetery.

His command of the 69-ton machine in the maze-like graveyard led a superior to dub the 6-foot-3-inch soldier his "killer tanker."

"He loved that tank and believed he was invincible in it," said Capt. Kevin Badger, commander of the "Mad Dogs" company of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment. "He believed his training and his equipment could defeat the enemy."

But a week ago, Goins and his loader, Spc. Mark Zapata, fell victim to a surprise attack that stunned soldiers at the military base here for both its simplicity and audacity. A member of rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia quietly scaled the back of the tank in broad daylight with an AK-47, shot the men at point-blank range through the open hatch, and fled.

Both soldiers were killed.

The attack exposed one of the tank's few vulnerabilities and served as a reminder of the urban warfare risks U.S. soldiers face as they fight Sadr's followers in Najaf.

After a memorial service, Goins' grieving buddies couldn't help but ponder the circumstances of his death.

"We learned some hard lessons," Badger said. "I know he's up there now shaking his head saying, 'I can't believe that's the way I went.' "

Goins, 23, joined the Mad Dogs around Christmas, just before the unit shipped out to Kuwait. A muscular 230 pounds, he made an instant impression.

"He was a big boy," Badger said. "When he walked into the room, you knew it."

Soldiers nicknamed him "Big Country" for his fondness for wearing a tall Stetson. "He loved that hat," said Staff Sgt. Frank Fitzgerald.

Goins studied Arabic on the computer and asked his wife, Paula, in Copperas Cove, Texas, to send language tapes. He wanted to learn enough to chat with children he met in Baghdad, where the Mad Dogs were based before transferring to Najaf this month.

During the first battles in the cemetery, Goins proved an aggressive fighter.

"He never wanted to back down," said Pfc. Juan Roque, driver of the tank that Goins commanded.

During one clash, sniper fire hit the tank and knocked a small shard of metal into Goins' hand. "He was so mad. He couldn't believe they made him bleed," 1st Lt. Christopher Dunn said.

At Goins' side in the tank last week was Zapata, 27, of Edinburg, Texas.

Zapata's real passion was firefighting, his buddies said. He'd been a volunteer firefighter since he was 12. Back in Texas, he kept his firefighting gear -- a jacket and walkie-talkie -- alongside his Army uniform and had rigged the horn on his jeep to sound like a fire alarm.

He, too, was studying Arabic and was interested in learning more about Arab music. One of his hobbies was mixing Spanish music.

Just before leaving for Iraq, Zapata had the chance to join the military police. He chose to stick with his unit.

"He said he wanted to come out here and take care of his buddies," Roque said.

His friends said Zapata acted as a mentor to many of the younger soldiers.

"I used to talk about him to my parents," said Pfc. Jesus Ramirez. "They were just asking me about him the other day. But I couldn't tell them what happened. I don't know how I'm going to tell them."

On Aug. 15, Goins and Zapata were manning the tank on the west side of the cemetery, where members of Sadr's Al Mahdi militia had been storing weapons and launching attacks.

At a time of relative calm, the pair worked atop the tank, their upper bodies sticking out of the open hatch. Two other soldiers, including Roque, sat inside the tank.

Then, the tank crew saw a flash of gunfire straight ahead in the dense landscape of tombs and crypts. As the soldiers were looking forward, the Mahdi militiaman climbed up the back of the tank, Roque said.

Roque said he heard gunshots and then a scream from Zapata. He thought someone's gun had accidentally discharged. But then he saw a figure jump forward from the top of the tank and run through the graveyard.

"I don't know how you can get us out of here, but get us out of here," the tank gunner yelled at Roque.

Roque slammed the tank in reverse and crashed into a small mausoleum. Not sure what had happened, the two soldiers grabbed their guns and radioed for help.

Zapata died on the way to the base hospital. Goins was declared dead shortly after he was returned to the base.

Military officials say they have taken steps to reduce soldiers' vulnerability to similar attacks. Blind spots in tanks are now watched by soldiers on foot and in vehicles. In addition, tank hatches are closed in the cemetery.

"They found our vulnerability and took advantage of it," said Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. "But we've fixed it. It won't happen again."

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