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COLUMN ONE

A clash of wills at `Firecracker'

In their own words, Marines recall a bruising battle with insurgents at a perilous urban intersection in Iraq. `Training kicks in.'

November 03, 2006|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

Ramadi, Iraq — ON July 4, a squad of Marines was ordered to an intersection nicknamed "Firecracker," the most dangerous in this city. The group's mission was to set up a position to watch for people placing bombs and to fight insurgents.

For much of the squad, from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, this was their second combat tour in Iraq. But the fight at Firecracker was the fiercest they had seen. The Marines recently returned from Iraq. This is their story, told in their own words. The account begins with the squad leader, Cpl. Caesar Hernandez, 22, of Delray Beach, Fla., and continues with Cpl. Justin Kaminski, 21, of Baltimore; medical corpsman Frank Sanchez, 20, of Los Angeles; and Lance Cpl. Greg Crans, 20, of Bath, N.Y.

The battle started at night, before Hernandez's squad reached the intersection.

Hernandez: Right outside of friendly lines, it must have been about 10 or 15 minutes into my patrol, an explosion went off. I was at the front of the patrol, and it hit the rear of the patrol.

Immediately the training kicks in. I pulled my lead element of the patrol back and had them set up a 360-degree defense. I started asking on the [patrol radio] if everyone was all right. My second-team leader, Cpl. Kaminski, he wouldn't roger up. So I immediately thought: "They got hit in the rear."

Kaminski: I am the last guy in the formation. One of my jobs is to make sure no one is behind us, no one is following us. So I was looking behind us. I turned back around, and Sanchez is about to turn a corner. So I was jogging a couple steps, trying to close the gap. That is when it went off. I saw the flash, the fire and the flame, just where he was standing. I remember little stuff hitting me and then being pushed back.

I was unconscious, then I woke up on the ground. There was still smoke in the sky, stuff was falling out of the sky. I stood up and remembered the flash of light right on top of him. I ran to where the smoke was, right where it hit. But he wasn't there. I started yelling his name and running forward.

Sanchez: The rest of the squad was around the corner. It was just me and Kaminski. I turned back to make sure he was still there. I took a step, and I saw a big flash of light in front of my face, and I felt heat coming up. And I heard the boom. The next thing I know, I was laying facedown on the pavement. I didn't know what was going on, all the dust was everywhere. I just assumed I was dead.

Then I heard Kaminski yelling my name. I couldn't hear out of my right ear, so I didn't know where it was coming from. I started looking around. I couldn't find my weapon. I was crawling around looking for my rifle. I found my rifle and tried to get up. From the waist down, the blast numbed me up. I couldn't feel my legs.

Kaminski: Cpl. Hernandez and Lance Cpl. Crans came running around the corner, and they were asking if anyone was hit.

I yelled, "Doc was hit." That is the first thing [Sanchez] says he remembers, me yelling, "Doc was hit." He mumbled, "I'm all right."

I helped him up, and we helped him get his weapon, which was probably 2 feet in front of him. We pushed around the corner where everyone else had pushed around, and he fell immediately. I was checking him out.

There was a puddle on the ground. I looked at it and thought it was blood.

Sanchez: My legs gave out. I was trying to put a tourniquet on my leg, trying to stop the bleeding. I was freaking out. But it was water. Luckily, I had the day pack full of water. That stopped most of the shrapnel from hitting my back. When I got to Charlie surgical, I emptied my pack. The bottom water bottles were torn up. There was shrapnel. But the water bottles stopped it.

I had shrapnel all over me. [The bomb] was pretty big. The blast tossed me 10 feet. That kept most of the shrapnel away from me. If [more] shrapnel would have hit me, I would have been dead.

THE squad went back to base, sent Kaminski and Sanchez to the surgical station, then set out again for Firecracker. The troops arrived shortly before midnight at the house they would occupy. Some of the homes around Firecracker were abandoned, but many, including this one, still had families living in them. The squad ushered the Iraqi residents into a back room, where they would be protected from an attack. Meantime, the Marines took up fighting positions on the roof and in some of the second-floor rooms.

The next day, fighting broke out in the early afternoon when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the side of the house. The RPG, designed to pierce the armor of tanks, has become one of the main weapons insurgents fire at American positions.

Cpl. Joseph J. Zigler, 23, of Stow, Ohio, and Lance Cpl. Daniel Turczan, 28, of Flushing, N.Y., were on the second floor of the house, peering out two windows, shielded by camouflage netting and a small piece of ballistic glass.

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