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A deadly day: Marines under fire leave no man behind

RAMADI, Iraq — Marine Capt. Andrew Del Gaudio walked down the battered staircase, past the dusty American flag strung in the hall, past the windows crammed with sandbags.


Posted June 2, 2006
By Todd Pitman
The Associated Press

In the darkened ground-floor corridor of Government Center, Marines rested on cots and worn sofas, some smoking in silence. The complex houses the office of the Iraqi governor of Anbar province, and shakes from exploding mortar rounds or rockets fired by insurgents just about every day.

Stepping outside wrapped in his flak jacket — not even the compound's inner courtyards are safe — Del Gaudio punched a number into a satellite telephone that only worked in the open air.

The signal bounced skyward, then down to America.

In Jacksonville, N.C., it was early Sunday morning, April 2.

His wife, Nicole, mother of his nearly 20-month-old daughter, was on the line.

"We had a real bad day," the 30-year-old New York native told her. "I had to do something ... and ended up getting hurt. But I'm all right."

Del Gaudio had been hit in his right forefinger by shrapnel. His fingers had been burned from touching smoldering flesh.

Regulations prohibited him from saying that hours earlier he had helped pull some of his Marines — "my boys" — out of the burning wreckage of a Humvee, under fire.

"Look, if I had my way, I never would have told you about this, but they're going to call and tell you anyway. I didn't want you to worry," Del Gaudio said.

• • •

Nearly four weeks earlier, some 1,000 troops from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment said goodbye to wives and friends, parents and children.

The troops were heading to Iraq, most of them for a second tour.

Some savored every last second. Some took that one last kiss. Some were eager to get going.

In the crowd was Cpl. Scott J. Procopio, a 20-year-old machine-gunner from Saugus, Mass., who had married his longtime sweetheart six months before. He liked to work with his hands, and later built a broad wooden bench outside his platoon's living quarters in Ramadi.

There was Lance Cpl. Yun Y. Kim, a 20-year-old rifleman from Atlanta. The son of a Korean national, he was a first generation American, fond of expensive clothes and the latest cell phones.

There was Geovani Padilla-Aleman, a 20-year-old medic from South Gate, Calif. The Mexican-born sailor had been attached to Kilo Company a few months before, and his comrades joked he was a "chow-hog" who gulped military rations "down to the packets of gum."

Then there was Staff Sgt. Eric A. McIntosh, a good-natured 29-year-old infantry leader from Trafford, Pa. He had joined the Marines a few months after graduating high school and was making a career of it.

In the base parking lot, Del Gaudio came upon McIntosh hugging his wife.

"He said, 'Aw, hey sir, she's leaving right now,'" Del Gaudio recalled. "I said, 'It's cool if she wants to hang out, it's not a big deal.' But he said: 'I've got to get ready to do this, too. I've got to get the boys ready to go.'"

The Marines were pumped up — they had spent the last half year training for their second Iraq tour, practicing marksmanship, keeping fit, studying first aid, weapons systems, the rules of war.

But there was anxiety, too.

They were headed to Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, a city of 400,000 people along the Euphrates River: Tall palm trees. Ornate columned villas. The heart of the Sunni Triangle and Iraq's insurgency.

"Everybody knew what they were getting themselves into," Del Gaudio said.

• • •

Kilo Company was assigned to an all-male base called Hurricane Point, a sand-filled sprawl on the western edge of Ramadi.

A small, wooden chow hall served scrambled egg and pancake breakfasts, hot dinners of meat and gravy, and sandwiches in between. There was a gym. There were trailers with shower cubicles and sinks.

When Marines left the base, they went prepared to fight, and usually did. They wore protective goggles and extra side armor. They carried pistols, M-16s, M-4 carbines, anti-tank rockets, ammunition and grenades — and used them all.

Some parts of town seemed normal: souks, mosques, villas, busy streets, children walking to school. Other parts did not. Whole buildings had been gutted and blackened by rockets and gunfire.

In their command center, the Marines tracked insurgent activity by the minute, pinning colored tacks on a satellite map on the wall that marked suspected roadside bomb sites and snipers. Sometimes there was so much activity, they joked they were running out of tacks.

Kilo Company's three platoons rotated through a nonstop cycle of war: They would spend five days in Government Center, fending off daily attacks from rooftop machine-gun nests.

They would spend days in another outpost up the road, then head back to the relative safety of Hurricane Point, but still be sent out on daily patrols that nearly always came under fire.

Some complained. Some joked. But they believed in the mission: supporting Iraq's fledgling democracy, training Iraqi forces to take over the fight, battling terrorism.

They didn't have time to watch TV and lived far from the debate over the war back home. Their loyalty was to each other, and their primary goals simple: keep each other alive and leave no man behind.

• • •

On Sunday, April 2, Kilo Company's 3rd Platoon was up before dawn.

There was a heavy downpour — for some troops the first rain they had ever seen in Iraq.

Del Gaudio and McIntosh shared a sink in one of the trailer showers. They shaved, talked about their wives, about what they would do when they got back home.

The day's mission was to be a patrol in armored Humvees.

They studied the route in detail, checking for possible bomb spots. "Nothing to worry about," said Lt. Brian Wilson, the 24-year-old platoon commander from Columbia, S.C.

As six Humvees idled, Marines threw on flak jackets, tightened helmet straps, checked weapons.

The convoy began to move, one Marine leading each vehicle to the gate on foot — a safety measure to slow traffic inside the base.

They paused at a row of sand-filled barriers, clicked off the safety switches on their weapons, then rolled out of Hurricane Point and into the city.

Fifteen minutes into the patrol, the convoy ran into something that wasn't on their maps — a barrier consisting of a wall of some sort, with cars parked in the road. They weren't surprised. Sometimes, what looked like a street on the map turned out to be an impassable alley.

They turned around and drove off-course for a few blocks, checking with each other by radio.

From the last vehicle, McIntosh — his call sign was Alpha 3 — acknowledged the change of course. "Roger, we got the rear," Del Gaudio recalled him saying.

As the lead Humvee rounded a corner, an explosion erupted a block behind.

Del Gaudio saw debris flying onto the main road. His vehicle commander, Cpl. Jason Hunt, a 24-year-old from Wellsville, N.Y., saw what he thought was a body fly through the air.

Across the radios: "Is everybody all right?"

There was no response from Alpha 3.

• • •

The bomb, a cluster of artillery shells buried under the pavement, had flung out smoldering pieces of the Humvee. There was little left. A tire. A smashed transmission. A gun-shield blown onto a rooftop.

There had been five men in the truck. Four were dead. The body of Padilla-Aleman lay near the center of the road. McIntosh and Procopio were in the wreckage. Kim was 60 feet away.

The fifth man, Lance Cpl. Rex McKnight, 19, of Panama City, Fla., lay on the ground, convulsing in shock and blood from a broken arm and a severely injured leg.

Marines dragged him away from the fire, took a tourniquet out of his pocket and wrapped it around his arm.

Up the road, insurgents opened fire. Rounds pinged off the ground, off the trucks, but in the chaos, few noticed.

"It was all so surreal," Wilson said. "I didn't realize we were getting shot at until we were about to leave. It didn't matter."

The priority was to get McKnight to "Charlie Med," the main medical facility on a large U.S. Army base nearby.

"Don't you die, don't you die," Wilson recalled telling McKnight. "If you let me get you to Charlie Med, you'll live, I promise you." McKnight survived.

Del Gaudio stayed behind with three other Marines, to guard the dead.

"It was just the principle of not leaving them alone. I wouldn't leave them, couldn't leave them. I wouldn't leave my boys," he said.

From buildings somewhere down the road came more volleys of machine-gun fire.

Squinting through his M-4's scope, Del Gaudio saw a dozen gunmen through the smoke. One was using a video camera. Others, he said, were holding children by the shoulders, using them as shields.

Del Gaudio did not fire.

A piece of metal, perhaps a bullet fragment, sliced the edge of his forefinger and struck his rifle. Adrenaline pumping, he ignored the wound, and saw the children had fled. He shot, but couldn't tell if he hit anything.

Seconds later, Marine Humvees pulled up, followed by Army wreckers and tanks.

As the two sides traded sporadic fire, Marines put the dead into body bags. Their flesh was so hot it burned Del Gaudio's fingers.

"We took all their gear. We took every last thing that was on the ground out there," he said. "We made sure we left the enemy nothing, like nothing ever happened."

• • •

The 3rd Platoon returned to Hurricane Point. They sorted what remained of the fallen men's gear. They took jugs of water and cleaned blood from their trucks.

They were in shock. They were angry. Some shed tears. Some didn't want to eat.

These were the first Marines lost by Kilo Company since arriving the month before.

Hunt struggled to put his feelings into words. "You look at this body that was once filled with life and movement and color and an aura of a human being, and then it's just ..." His voiced trailed off.

Del Gaudio spent the rest of the day at Government Center, where he stepped outside to call his wife.

That night, he did not sleep.

"As a leader, you do everything you can, all the planning you can, to set your boys up for success," he said. "But when you roll the dice at the end of the day, it's always better to be lucky than it is to be good."

There would be no break. The next morning, the 3rd Platoon was tasked with a raid.

"They're strong young men who can deal with anything. They saw their friends die, best friends," Wilson said. "And the next day they were out riding down the same roads. Were they scared? Hell yeah. Everybody's scared, but it doesn't matter. You trust your training, you trust your leaders, you ship out and you drive ... on."

• • •

By the 3rd Platoon's barracks at Hurricane Point, troops still sit on the bench Procopio made, hanging out as the sun goes down. On the back is written Procopio's name, rank, date of death and "RIP."

Nearby, four wooden crosses wrapped with dog tags rise from the bank of sand-filled barriers.

About two weeks after the bomb blast, a Humvee gunner from another company was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as his vehicle was entering Government Center.

The gunner, Justin Sims, had been among those who came to the rescue of Kilo Company two weeks earlier under fire.

As a late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over Hurricane Point, another convoy of Humvees geared up to move out to the site of this latest attack.

Marines pulled on flak jackets, tightened helmet straps, checked weapons.

The convoy began to move, one Marine leading each vehicle to the gate on foot.

They paused at the sand-filled barriers, clicked off the safety switches on their guns, rolled out of Hurricane Point and headed down the road to Government Center.

They had been in country for a month. There were six more to go.