The last full measure of devotion
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 25, 2004
The tactical situation
Smith and his men were part of the 3rd Infantry Division, 23,000 strong, which moved into Iraq on March 20. On April 4, elements of the division occupied Saddam International Airport.
That day, Smith's combat engineers were part of a force of about 100 men assigned to protect the eastern flank by erecting a roadblock on the highway to Baghdad. The Army believed a Special Republican Guard battalion was in the area. The roadblock would keep the Iraqis from moving on the airport, about a mile away.
The Americans' arrival had been uneventful. But about 9 a.m., the infantry at the roadblock came under fire. The Iraqis seemed to be somewhere to the south. About 20 infantrymen set off to find them. The engineers soon heard explosions and the rat-tat-tat of automatic rifles.
About 9:30, the infantry radioed, asking for a place to put a handful of prisoners.
"Hey, I've got a great place," Smith said. He had seen a walled courtyard on the north side of the road about a quarter-mile from the roadblock. He would string concertina wire across a corner of the courtyard to form a holding area. A short tower just outside the wall could serve as a guard post.
Smith called for a bulldozer, which knocked a hole through the courtyard's southern wall, nearest the highway. He then gathered two squads, 16 men in all, and they began preparing the POW site.
Smith sent two men to guard a louvered aluminum gate on the far side of the courtyard, about 50 yards from the hole punched by the bulldozer.
One of them was 19-year-old Pvt. Thomas Ketchum. Peering through the gate, he could see something that looked like a bus stop, a stand of trees, and off to the right, a white building.
A half hour passed. It was getting hot, fast approaching 100 degrees. Ketchum was tired and bored. Then movement caught his eye. "Hey, I think I see something."
Sgt. Joshua Henry, who had come up with a canteen, asked for Ketchum's rifle, which was fitted with a scope. In the distance, out by the "bus stop," Henry saw 15 to 20 Iraqi soldiers walking from the building. They wore dark green uniforms and carried AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
"Holy s--, look at all the Hajis," said Henry, 23. ("Hajis" is a GI slur for Iraqi soldiers, taken from the word for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, "hajj.")
They yelled for Smith. He ran up from the middle of the courtyard and squinted through his own scope, purchased at Guns "R" Us back in Hinesville, Ga., near Fort Stewart.
"We're in a world of hurt," Smith said. He ordered two men with machine guns to get into position behind the gate. Then he sent Ketchum to get a Bradley, an armored vehicle loaded with missiles, a rapid-fire cannon and a machine gun.
"Tell the Bradley there's 50 enemies with RPGs," Smith called to Ketchum, who was sprinting back across the courtyard. Smith's eyes got wide. "No, it looks more like a hundred."
"I'm going first'
"I hope they don't see us. I hope they don't see us," thought 21-year-old Spc. Tony Garcia, standing next to Smith at the gate. Once the Bradley got there, he hoped, the sight of the tanklike vehicle would cause the Iraqis to turn and run.
Other soldiers were spoiling for a fight. They had spent weeks on the road, without showers or decent food, battled sandstorms and exhaustion, and had seen little action beyond blowing up Iraqi ammo dumps.
"I wanted to start whupping some ass right then and there," Sgt. Henry said, "but Sgt. Smith told us to wait."
As they waited for the Bradley, Smith executed what the Army calls "recon by fire." He tossed a grenade over the east wall to see if anyone fired back. Nothing.
It took 15 minutes for the Bradley to get the quarter-mile from the roadblock to the courtyard. Entering through the hole in the wall, it moved slowly, its turret scanning, its tracks scraping the concrete leading to the gate. A few engineers and two infantry scouts, who arrived after catching word of the growing Iraqi threat, stood off to the side. They could barely hear over the diesel engine.
The Bradley plowed through the aluminum gate and stopped just outside. Its turret swiveled to the left, aiming toward the Iraqis as they scrambled for cover about 100 yards west and north of the gate. The cannon roared.
The Iraqis replied with RPGs, mortars and rifle fire. Smith and four other soldiers ran behind the Bradley. Smith peeked at the enemy.
"I'm going first," he said.
He looked through the scope on his rifle and fired. Sgt. Matthew Keller saw two soldiers fall.
Some of the Iraqis dropped into ditches. Smith grabbed an AT-4, a bazooka-type weapon that fires a rocket.
"Cover me," he said.
Smith walked to the front of the Bradley, within clear view of the Iraqis.
He fired. The AT-4's backblast knocked Keller to the ground and blew dust off the Bradley. Keller, 24, looked up to see Smith shaking his head.
"Whoa," Smith said. "Remind me not to do that again."
While Smith fired at the Iraqis, other enemy soldiers climbed into the tower overlooking the courtyard, the same one Smith thought would be useful for watching POWs.
The Iraqis in the tower had a commanding view of the GIs below and seemed to use their position to coordinate their fire.
Just outside the hole in the courtyard wall, about six soldiers fired back at the tower, trying to keep the Iraqis' heads down.
Pvt. Ketchum was among them. Years of hunting deer with his dad back in Ohio had honed his aim, and he had been an ace at the shooting range at Fort Stewart. But the range didn't shoot back. Ketchum was scared. His chest heaved; he found it hard to control his breathing. He saw two M113 personnel carriers (big armored boxes on tracks) parked just outside the wall. He wanted to take cover behind one of them. But he stuck with the other guys.
He saw at least 10 Iraqis trying to scale a 10-foot-high wall near the tower. He fired at one. The bullet hit the Iraqi in the collarbone and knocked him off the wall. It was the first man he had shot, and it felt great. "The bastards were trying to kill me," he said.
An Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade streaked over the wall. It sounded like someone ripping a stack of paper - pheewwt. The RPG hit Sgt. Smith's rucksack hanging on the side of one of the M113s. For a moment, the grenade just sat there, red flames jetting out the back. Then it exploded.
Knee pads, elbow pads, T-shirts, underwear spun through the air. A body went flying.
Something hit Ketchum in the eye.
"I'm hit! I'm hit!"
Sgt. Henry looked him over.
"It's just dirt," Henry said.
Cotton stuffing floated down like snow, and Ketchum realized it wasn't a body the grenade sent flying. It was a sleeping bag.
Up at the gate, Smith turned to Keller and told him to get more men. The short, intense sergeant from Key Largo took off across the courtyard, his rifle fixed on the tower. He came across the line of soldiers firing at the tower and called for four of them.
Pfc. Michael Pace, 23, grabbed a machine gun and made a Dirty Dozen-like dash toward the gate. Iraqi bullets from the tower plunked off the wall behind him.
"Please, God," Pace prayed, "let me make it across this courtyard."
Sgt. Kevin Yetter, ordered by Smith to bring up another machine gun, ran across the courtyard, through the hole in the wall and jumped into one of two M113s parked outside. Twenty-three-year-old Sgt. Louis Berwald was on top, manning a big .50-caliber machine gun.
The 113, with a supply trailer still attached, rumbled its way into the courtyard. Soldiers at the gate waved toward the tower, and Berwald blasted it. Then the 113 moved in behind the Bradley up at the gate. Berwald started firing at the Iraqi positions outside the courtyard.
Thud. An Iraqi mortar landed 50 yards away from the 113. Thud. Another hit 20 yards away. Then something struck about a half foot from Berwald. The white flash blinded him. Shrapnel ripped into his face, shoulder and left hand.
Metal shards shattered the scope on Yetter's rifle. Pieces lodged in his forehead, nose and eyes. The 37-year-old jumped out the back and screamed, "We're hit!" Blood streamed from his face. "Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna make it?"
Pvt. Jimmy Hill, 20, was inside the 113. He ran out of the courtyard. A rock-shaped piece of shrapnel was stuck in his neck, pulsating to the rhythm of his heart. Oddly, he was grinning. Then Hill saw blood. "I got hit," he screamed. "I got hit!"
The same blast knocked down Keller and an infantryman.
"What the f-- was that?" the infantryman screamed. He was bleeding from the bridge of his nose.
Keller moved behind the nearby Bradley, loaded his grenade launcher and fired. He was reaching for another round when the big armored vehicle began backing up.
"I thought I was going to get run over," Keller said. "The Bradley had good position on them. It just didn't make any sense to back out."
The Bradley backed around Yetter's damaged 113 and kept going. It nearly ran over Yetter, who was being helped from the courtyard by two other soldiers.
"Why is he leaving us like this?" Yetter wondered. "He's got all this firepower."
The Bradley's arrival had changed the odds in favor of the Americans. When the Bradley left, the Americans were again outmatched.
Fate would now demand payment on Smith's vow "to give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home."