An ambush, rockets flying through the air, and civilians who turned out to be Iraqi troops. It's all part of a hair-raising account of the battle as told by three wounded U.S. soldiers who were attacked near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. They spoke to reporters at the U.S. military medical center in Landstuhl, Germany Thursday where they are recovering from their wounds.
It began quietly enough. American soldiers were checking civilians moving along two bridges. Some people went to the left of the troops, and others underneath one of the bridges. Then suddenly, the still desert sands became a shooting gallery. U.S. Army Sergeant Jamie Villafane, 31, found himself in the middle of a firefight.
"As we were looking to the ones at the left of us, my gunner Sergeant Horgan, he announced 'RPG!' A rocket hit our truck from the front. Blew me out of the truck. I was a little dazed," he remembered. "Next I remember I started engaging the guys to the left of us who were firing at us, the civilians who were firing at us. At that time another rocket was fired from the front. It was a wire guided missile. It came pretty close. I got to see the wire as it went by. I announced to my soldiers behind me, 'There's a rocket get down!' They all got down and moved out of the way. And it hit the truck that was next to us."
The perspective from the turret of the truck was a little different. For Sergeant Charles Horgan, it was like a scene out of the movies.
"I saw what I thought was a rifle. I turned my turret towards them so I could possibly engage them with a machine gun. That's when I heard a pop from further down the road. I looked down the road and right as I looked there was a rocket headed toward us. And it was just like in the movies. It didn't make a horrible loud noise, it was just like this whizzing noise," he said. "I thought, oh my God, I'm going to die. I thought no, I'm going to lose my legs. It's going to hit the truck. I gotta tell the guys. So I announced 'RPG!' to the other guys on the truck. And that's when we got hit."
The impact of the rocket sent people flying.
"It blew Sergeant Villafane out of the side. I was knocked up, out of the turret. and landed on top of the vehicle. And my legs went numb. I looked down I saw I still had my legs so I was pretty relieved about that," Sergeant Horgan said. "So I hopped off the back of the truck and landed on my right foot. Realized that my right foot wouldn't hold my weight and I collapsed. I tried to get up again a couple of times and I kept falling. And I looked again at my foot and it looked like my foot was gone by the way my boot was hanging. It had been blown open and I put it out of my mind."
The 21-year-old sergeant had shrapnel wounds to his right leg.
U.S. forces later regained control of the situation and took the surviving Iraqi fighters into custody. That is when Sergeant Villafane realized exactly what had happened.
"These were Iraqi soldiers, wearing civilian clothes, dressed up as civilians…. When I captured the four guys, they took off their civilians clothes, they had uniforms on underneath," he said. "I mean, it was shocking that they would actually do that."
This was the first combat experience for these American soldiers, who largely credited good training for their survival. Sergeant Horgan said he felt like he was in a daze during the attack, and he just acted on impulse to save himself and his fellow soldiers, instinct he says came from years of training.
Two days later, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Menard suffered a hand wound in a similar battle with Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians. He says no matter how good the training, it can never fully prepare a person for combat.
"I don't think anything can actually prepare you for what's out there. You can prepare yourself as much as you can physically and mentally. But, there's really no way to describe how it is. You're not really prepared for what is there. You just take it on as it goes," he said
Sergeant Villafane described combat a bit differently.
"We figured out that getting shot at, really wasn't that bad. It was just the getting shot part that sucked," he said.
Sergeant Villafane came away with a wounded arm, which was heavily bandaged and raised on a pillow during the news conference.
Officials say a total of 24 wounded American soldiers have been taken to the U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Once their medical condition allows, their next stop will be home.