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  1. OPERATION RIO GRANDE Troop C gathered at the dock just before 11 a.m. on Feb. 16, 2007. It was cold and rainy and the soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment were going on their very first boat mission. The plan was to take four bright blue Iraqi patrol boats and head south on the river to monitor Friday prayers at a nearby mosque, scout landing spots for future operations and cut some ropes that were being used to ferry fighters and ammunition from Baghdad across the river into Taji and points north. And they were also eager to use the river so they could avoid the deadly IEDs that littered the Iraqi roads. The 22 soldiers were joined by 16 Iraqi policemen and their two interpreters, nicknamed Beckham and T.O. Just as the boats were loaded up with ammo, the skies opened up and the rain came down. “This is gonna suck,” said Staff Sgt. Matt Schilling, a married father of three from Colorado who was on the lead boat. Everyone took extra ammo with them. “That morning, the whole platoon was getting bad vibes,” said Spec. Angel Sandoval. It was his first tour in Iraq. “We got trained to enter and exit the boats, not what to do if we get fired at. Two days on how to get on and off. That’s it,” he said. They did a 15-minute “rehearsal” before the mission and headed out. Their only backup was a Quick Reaction Force back at FOB Taji. There was no air cover. Iraq was a busy place in early 2007. By the time Operation Rio Grande was launched that cold February morning, many of the soldiers had started calling it Operation Sitting Duck. No one wanted to go. Trying to lighten the mood, some of the guys sang “Pretty Woman“ and “You‘ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” while some of them joked about who would get their truck or their X-Box if they died. “They knew we were coming,” said Staff Sgt. Waddell, a 25-year-old from Texas who goes by the nickname “Wiggles.” “Why are we doing this in broad daylight?” wondered Spec. Jeremy Gower, 25, of Effort, Penn. “We were all apprehensive because we didn’t have air cover. We all had two or three extra mags on us because we had a funny feeling,” said Spec. Jeremy Cavinder, 23, of Selybville, La. Still, they motored down the river as the rain got heavier. Each boat was driven by an Iraqi police officer. They took a few pop shots from both sides of the river. “We were receiving sporadic fire, nothing spectacular,” Schilling said. Then the lead boat came upon a line running across the river. Schilling cut it. “Then it just lit up everywhere,” said Spec. Robert Smith, a 20-year-old from Baton Rouge who proposed to his girlfriend just before heading off to war. “As soon as we cut the wire, we got shot. The tracers went right by one of the IP’s heads. He looked like a ghost,” said Spec. Jonathan Toth, 24, of Clinton, Miss. A smoke signal appeared, barely visible in the rain. That’s when they heard the call to arms. “Allah Akbar, that’s a FORDing scary thing to hear,” said Sgt. Aaron Allmandinger, a 21-year-old from Mulberry, Ind., better known as “Dinger.” “Our terp was so scared because he knew what they were saying. We were being overrun. You could see it in people‘s eyes.” Beckham heard the sheik come over the mosque speakers, giving the orders to fight in Arabic. “The sheik said, ‘Carry your weapons and go to the river and show the occupiers. They are here to take your land. Stop them in any way you can.’ It was coming from a mosque,” Beckham said. “There was no chance to translate. Everybody was shooting at us.” The boats were taking heavy fire from both sides of the river banks. “Then I noticed a lot of sandbag bunkers along the river. I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Things are starting to look a little organized,’” said Cavinder. The enemy, estimated at more than 100 fighters, had fortified positions all along the river. “That’s when all hell started breaking loose,” said Cavinder, who was in Boat 4, the last boat. “You could see the rounds stitching a path to the boat. You could feel bullets flying by your head. I was trying to make myself as small as possible.” In the lead boat, Lt. John Dolan, 25, of Minneapolis, was clipped in the ribs by a bullet. “I made the call to turn us around,” he said. The boats scrambled to head back north to the docks. Dolan took another bullet, this time it rips through his elbow. “A bullet clipped my ribs. Then another bullet went into my funny bone and hit my elbow. It tore up my tricep,” he said. “Blood starting shooting out of my arm. The hole was the size of a quarter.” The second boat stalled and got stuck on the northern end of a small island not much bigger than a sandbar in the middle of the river. The guys frantically tried to get it started. Bullets were flying everywhere. Toth got hit in the head, but his helmet saved him. “I was like, ‘Oh shit! I’m shot!’ It jerked my head. I sat down and looked at Sgt. Wardell and asked him if I was bleeding. I had to ask him three or four times because it was so loud. He said, ‘No, you’re fine.’” So Toth got up and got back in the fight as they tried to get the boat off the island. Boats 3 and 4 desperately tried to turn around and head north, back to the docks. “As soon as we all turned around, it was a beehive,” said Staff Sgt. Thompson, a 31-year-old from Philadelphia who was on Boat 4. Thompson is divorced with three kids and has been in the Army for 10 years. This was his second tour in Iraq. “It was a pretty good ambush,” he said, shaking his head. Troop C was beginning to run out of ammo. The boats are going in every direction, or worse, they‘re stuck in the middle of the river. “There wasn’t much cover,” said Pvt. Chris Knox, a North Carolina native on his first tour in Iraq, and his first boat mission. “We knew we were going to waste our ammo, all we could do was take precision shots,” said Dinger, who was on the lead boat. “I see a guy on the roof, so I’m shooting at him,” said Know, who was on Boat 3. “Smith sees another dude on the roof. He’s aiming at me. Smith pulls me down. I saw tracers hit right where I was.” The Iraqi policeman driving Boat 1 took a bullet to the stomach. “We were going at full speed. We flew through the air. I was changing my magazine. I looked up and saw reeds. We came straight down,” Koerber said. The lead boat was now launched into the southern end of the island. “LT was watching rounds go past my head. He said, ‘Hey dude, you might want to duck down.’ I was like, ‘What?’” said Spec. Robert Koerber, a 20-year-old from Watertown, N.Y. “The IP (driver) was face down. At first I thought he was playing dead. Then I saw his stomach was bulging. You could see his intestines. He was saying, ‘Help me.’ All I heard was gunfire.” Now they were real sitting ducks. Boat 1 sliced into the island and was defiantly lodged into the sand. They used the boat for cover while Dinger worked on Dolan’s elbow. “I looked over at Sgt. Schilling. I’ve never seen him scared. It scared me to see him like that,” Koerber said. “At that point, I knew this was it. This was going to be the day I died. I prayed. Not that I’d make it out alive. I prayed that I trusted in God and that I would make it to heaven.” They soon realized that the boat was only attracting more fire. “We gotta get the FORD out of here!” yelled Schilling. All radio communications were out, not just on Boat 1 but on all four boats. “No one really wanted to move because there was shit flying everywhere. But if we were going to get to a boat or a bird, we had to move,” Schilling said. So they took a vote. Either stay on the island and hope that a helicopter or another boat reaches them or run to the northern end of the island - where unbeknownst to them, Boat 2 was also stuck - and try to swim to shore. “Everyone got up and ran,” Schilling said. “We threw a thermite grenade into the boat. I think they thought we were dead, because the shooting died down for a bit. I grabbed the ammo and other sensitive shit from the boat and we started running north on the island. We ran to the reeds to hide.” The reeds on the island bank were 8 to 10 feet high and provided good enough cover. “Schilling was bleeding in the face. He yells out, ‘We gotta set up a goddamn perimeter!’ I’ll never forget that. It was right out of Vietnam,” said Dolan. “We thought we’d fight to the last bullet. We thought we‘d get overrun. I thought they were going to capture us. I thought, I‘m not going to be on some FORDing video getting our heads sawed off.” Not too far north, the soldiers on Boat 2 tried to dislodge themselves from the island. “We basically became the main target for the guys on the west bank. Our boat was just out there,“ said Pfc. Angel Sandoval, a 19-year-old from California,. Finally, Staff Sgt. Allen Johns orders his men out of the boat and into the cold river. Sandoval was the first to jump. The water barely came to his waist, so one by one they jumped in with their gear on, all 80lbs. of it. “Sandoval jumped off and landed in the water knee-deep or so, which was not the case for me,” said Toth. “I was drowning. I was trying to get my IBA (individual body armor) off. Then I hit some grass and pulled on the grass and pulled myself up.” “Sandoval just jumped in. We’re like, cool. Well, Sandoval jumped in the right spot because we were all swimming at this point. It was crazy, ‘Apocolypse Now’ crazy. We were laying prone in the water, in the reeds. It was crazy. And we had to return fire at the same time. While swimming,” said Waddell, aka. Wiggles. So they swam to a smaller sandbar on the east side of the river. “They had us pinned down. There was so much fire,” said Thomas. The soldiers fought for their lives. “It’s either them or you and it sure as hell ain’t going to be me or one of my guys,” said Sandoval. They looked back at the stuck boat. “The boat was unstuck now because there was no weight in it. It had floated around to the east side of the island,” Sandoval said. “So we got back on the boat.” There were still IP in the boat. “The IP laid in the bottom of the boat,” said Thomas. The boat made it to the east bank of the river. “I went out with 21 mags. By that point, I had 4 mags left,” Sandoval said. Toth said he had “one in my chamber and three in my magazine and two in my pocket.” Thomas was empty. The soldiers found a crater in the river bank and tried to cram into it, but it was too small. “I got sent up (the river bank) to do recon,” said Sgt. Ken Thomas, a 23-year-old who hails from a place called Utopia, Texas. “There was a chain link fence. I slid back down and told Johns there was a fence in our way. He told me to cut the fence. The power lines were hanging on the fence. I yelled back, ‘It’s electric.’ Sgt. Johns said, ‘Cut through the FORDing fence!’” They all started to make their way up the river bank - a steep, muddy hill. “We started going up ‘Hamburger Hill’ as I call it. You ever seen that movie? You climb up a little and slide down a lot,” said Toth. “Sgt. Thomas was cutting through the fence,” Sandoval said. “As soon as he put his Gerber tool to the fence, he got shocked - 240 volts jolted into his body. He sat through about 7 minutes of 240-volts of electricity trying to cut a whole for 10 men to get through. By the time he was done, his Gerber was melted to his gloves. You could see his muscles tense up.” The jolts kept knocking Thomas down. “I felt like I had a system meltdown,” he said. “It was to the point where I wanted to cry. But no matter how much it hurt, I had to do it. I would make one cut and my whole body would go stupid. It took a while. The wire cutters melted to the fence and to my gloves.” Everyone got through the fence. “Except Sgt. Wadell, cause he’s fat. He got caught in the fence. He was getting shocked. I kicked him in the ass, good firm boot to the buttocks” and he was through, Thomas said. Meanwhile, Boats 3 and 4 tried to turn around to get back to the dock while taking heavy fire from the west side of the river bank. Sgt. Michael Fernandez, a 36-year-old father of two from Ilo, Ilo, Phillipines. He has spent the past 16 years in the Army and was on his second tour in Iraq. He never expected to find himself on a boat in the middle of the Tigris River. Under ambush. Fernandez was on Boat 3. “The boats were hauling ass,” he said. Boat 4 was careening towards him. “All I saw was the front of the boat coming at me. I ducked. The boat grazed my shoulder,” he said. Staff Sgt. Thompson was in Boat 4, checking out an IP who said he was shot. “’You didn’t get shot, you pussy!‘ It was a shell casing,” he said. Right then the Iraqi policeman driving the boat gets hit in the leg. “Now that guy got shot!” Thompson said. The driver lost control of the wheel, causing it to hurl towards Boat 3. “It was like a movie, like ’The A-Team.’ We crashed into the water,” said Thompson. Staff Sgt. Ed Ward, 29, of Kempner, Texas, took the wheel. That’s when it happened. As the boat was flying through the air, Thompson got shot in the groin. “It felt like somebody stepped on my dick,” he said. “Mayodong said, “Are you shot?” I said, ‘I don‘t know. My nuts hurt.’ I said, ‘Damn, now I know I‘m not shot in my penis!’ I put my hands down my pants. There was not blood. I asked Mayo to check me out. He said, ‘No! That’s gay!’ Then he looked and he said, ‘Your dick’s fine but you ain’t got any balls.’ The only thing that saved me was it was cold out. All I thought was, ‘Oh man, I can’t have sex ever again.’ I’m still shooting this whole time.” As Boat 4 whizzed to the docks with Boat 3 right behind them, they took heavy fire the whole way back. “I got back to the docks and they said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I said, ‘I got shot in the balls!’” Thompson said. “It hit his left leg, came out the other side, through his ball, then into his right butt check,” said Spec. Ryan Mayodong, a 22-year-old former EMT from Richmond, Calif., aka. “Mayo.” As they unloaded the casualties at the dock, they came under fire from a machine gun nest to the north. “Knox shot from the boat machine gun and took out the nest,” Ward said. “Strikers came down and blocked the bridge.” “We started taking fire,” said Cavinder. “The IP ran off, said ‘FORD this’ and flipped up the bird.” Thompson, shot in the nuts, rolled off the litter and began retuning fire. “There he is with his butt naked in the air,” said Ward. “I low-crawled ass naked in the mud,” Thompson said, laughing. All the guys wanted to go back out on the river, but they were ordered to stand down. “We tried to convince first sergeant to let us get back on the boats. We need to go back out and get our guys. I was pissed. At least try. We thought about going anyway but Sgt. Fernandez told us not to go. We sat there for a while. He said, ‘Let the Apaches do their thing,’” said Pvt. Christopher Knox, 20, of Statesville, N.C. “I wanted to go,” said Spec. Robert Smith, 20, of Baton Rouge, La. “Some people wanted to break command.” “I volunteered to go back,” Ward said. “Everyone volunteered to go back. We said, ‘FORD you, first sergeant., my men are out there. I can’t leave them. Screw you. I’m going.’ He said the helicopters are coming, they’re going to be fine.” Back on “Hamburger Hill,” the soldiers and IP made their way through the electrified fence and ran up to the road. “We came out on a street. Sgt. Johns pointed to the biggest and tallest house,“ Wiggles said. An Iraqi man pointed to them to come inside. He was with his wife, two sons and a little girl. “We would have been stuck there and it would have been a matter of time. We had nowhere else to go. Me and Toth went on the roof. Then Thomas came up. The Iraqi guy gave us water and soda. I found a dry pack of cigarettes in my bag, in a Ziploc bag.” Then the Apaches came. “That’s when we started popping smoke,” said Thomas. “We didn’t want to get shot by Apaches. I’m thinking, ‘Oh FORD. They’re going to shoot us because we’re on the roof with guns.’ When the Iraqis heard the Apaches, they started running.” “We look over and we see an antenna from a Humvee,” Wiggles said. It was 1-37 Field Artillery. “They didn’t even know we were there.” The guys, beat-up and exhausted, walked over to the trucks. “On the way to the truck, I collapsed. My knees gave out,” said Sandoval. The soldiers on Boat 1 were still stranded on the island, firing back through the reeds. “There was no life flashing before my eyes or anything. FORD that. It was just, ‘Shoot these motherfuckers up and get out of here,” said Schilling. “We were not going to get captured.” ‘I saw one boat drive by,” said Dinger. “I could hear the boats. They were loud as shit. I could hear the boats getting softer and softer. No one was coming back for us. We knew we were by ourselves.” “I just thought, ‘We’re dead,’” said Dusty Chitwood, 21, of Prescott, Ariz. “Allmandinger looked at me and said, ‘I love you.’” Then the Apaches came. “We shot some smoke grenades, star clusters. They finally saw us,” said Koerber. “I just saw these two Apaches come over the horizon. I said, ’Oh God, you guys are angels on our shoulders.’ They did a pass on us, then came in from the south,” said Dolan, who was shot in the elbow. It wasn’t until they flew over Baghdad that he exhaled. “I just started laughing. I couldn’t believe I had just lived through that.” Dolan went back to the U.S. for seven weeks before returning to Iraq. “I had four surgeries and three pins put in my arm,” he said. Thompson got RTD’d (return to duty) two weeks later. “They called my step dad. He was in Vietnam. I didn’t want to call him because I knew he’d say, ’You ain’t back out there yet? He was shot in the foot in Vietnam and was back out there three days later.” Many of the soldiers did go right back out on the river, to recover the two boats that had been capsized and abandoned. The fighting was over, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous
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