“Some things happen that you just don’t expect,” said [Capt. Charles Randall] Zipperer, 33, of Keystone Heights, Fla. “Our water truck got hit on the hottest day in Iraq in seven years. People were engaged in enemy fire with I.V.’s in their arms and bags strapped to their Kevlar. We didn’t expect that.”
What started as a routine sweep down both sides of a road near the village of Saqlawiyah turned bad early when a roadside bomb blew up one of the vehicles, resulting in an injury.
Red Platoon — on the other side of the canal — found another explosive device and snipped the wires before catching sight of three people about to detonate it, Zipperer said.
Soldiers captured the three men and were waiting to fly them to a detainment facility when someone realized they’d forgotten some evidence and the trucks went back for it, Zipperer said.
In the lead truck were Spc. Jaime Rodriguez Jr., a 19-year-old from Oxnard, Calif.; Spc. Charles Bilbrey Jr., a 21-year-old from Oswego, N.Y.; and Sgt. William Howdeshell, a 37-year-old from Norfolk, Va. They were also carrying all of the water — eight pallets — to last the duration of the troop’s operation.
Though other trucks had crossed that point three or four times already, the lead truck hit the pressure switch of a roadside bomb.
Rodriguez, Bilbrey and Howdeshell were killed instantly.
Pfc. Dylan Marrow, a medic, helped recover the men. The 21-year-old from Houston will be haunted by seeing his friends this way forever, he said.
“I think of it every day,” Marrow said.
But the living soon needed his attention, as the temperature rose and men collapsed. Water was scarce. Men started dropping like flies, shedding their body armor in the oppressive heat.
“All hell broke loose and everybody went down,” Marrow said. “I couldn’t decide who was worse off, so I treated them in order.”
Medics Pfc. Dave Marek, 33, of Madison, Wis., and Spc. Randy Gene Fink, 23, Beckley, W.Va., came from the back of the convoy to help and saw many soldiers suffering from heat exhaustion — a potentially lethal condition.
“There were 20 to 40 guys all lying on the grass without their body armor on,” Marek said. “Usually taking off your gear is a big ‘no’ but we had to do it. It was just too hot.”
Soon, the enemy had arrived and were shooting rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire from houses, reed lines and mosques, Zipperer said.
A Marine air unit evacuated the men from the landing zone and started dropping ice in ammunition cans, as well as “lighting up” the enemy, Zipperer said.
Seeing the insurgents get thrashed was “the morale booster” of the day, Fink said.
And the men fought with IVs in their arms until 7 a.m. the next day.
“They’d go get stuck with needles and go back to the job,” Marek said. “It shows how dedicated we are.”
“We were all tired, we were all taking IVs, but we weren’t about to leave our fallen comrades,” Zipperer said. “We were going to get them home.”
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