When the War Began (Part 2)

Posted in: When the War Began Series | By: | March 21, 2009

“The greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often compounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, separate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can break them one by one. You think, ‘That is all there was!’ But twist them all together and you have something tremendous.”

Victor Hugo

Maybe it was something his father had said. Or, perhaps his stepmother. Either way, James Kiehl had been thinking about getting baptized. Besides, he was about to be part of an invasion force entering a country with a well-bred hatred of Americans. And James Kiehl stood out as a target. He was a giant, Redwood of a man at 6 feet, 8 inches in height, and bullets flying over the heads of everyone else were likely to hit him.

James’ father, Randy Kiehl, was relieved when he got word that his son had decided to be baptized in the northern Kuwaiti desert.

“Janie [James’ stepmother] and I approached James in discussions of Christianity. We talked about it. It wasn’t one of those passing subjects. And I didn’t hammer it into him. Because that’s a decision each person has to make on their own. We tried a couple of times to cajole him a little bit but something always seemed to come up that it didn’t work.”

A computer and systems technician, James Kiehl was part of the 507th Mechanized Company from Fort Bliss, Texas. According to his friends, Kiehl was “scary smart,” and was able to take apart computers, figure out problems, and then reassemble them to full functionality. In the air defense artillery operations, which were supported by the 507th, Kiehl did everything from keeping vehicle systems operational to maintenance and deployment of computerized launch systems for the Patriot Missile Company.

Kiehl was only a few days away from crossing over the Iraqi frontier as part of the U.S. military’s invasion force, and his mind was on unsettling possibilities. The persistent words of his father and stepmother, urging him to consider his spiritual life, were gnawing at James Kiehl’s consciousness as he faced war.

Baptism presents, of course, a special problem in the desert. The shortage of water creates certain restrictions. Military chaplains required a minimal number of soldiers interested in an immersion baptism before precious water resources were used to create a pool. Unfortunately, only two soldiers, Kiehl, and Sergeant Lewis Baldrich, had expressed an interest in the religious rite. The chaplain, Captain Scott Koeman, did not know if he’d get permission to conduct the ceremony because of water shortages.

James Kiehl, however, was determined. He told a television reporter traveling with his unit that he realized his “hour of need” had arrived.

“My hour of need was having my own stepmother to ask me to think about the path that I was on,” he said during an interview. “It was something I was thinking about, and I kept putting it off. Is that something I wanna do right now? But I kept thinking about it and just putting it off. And I put it off for so long it was time for a reality check.”

Kiehl, like thousands of young Americans camped in the northern deserts of Kuwait, was confronting his own mortality. Married for only about eighteen months, James Kiehl had left under orders for the Persian Gulf with his wife seven months pregnant. At 5 feet, 2 inches, Jill Kiehl is a foot and a half shorter than her husband, a man she described as a “big, goofy, lovable kid.” Initially, the couple worried a child was likely to affect their plans for James to use his military benefits to attend college and get a degree in computer programming. Barely out of their teens, James and Jill were slightly intimidated by the responsibilities of parenthood.

“At first, of course, he was nervous and scared,” Jill said. “But after a while he was just as excited as I was, and especially after he found out he was having a boy. He was, he said he didn’t care either way, but I know he wanted to have a son to be able to do all the guy stuff; cars and the hunting and fishing and wrestling around and sports and everything.”

During his time at Camp Virginia in northern Kuwait, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, James Kiehl did, however, reveal other anxieties about his future. He convinced the chaplain, Captain Scott Koeman, to baptize him and Sergeant Baldrich, even though no other soldiers were ready for the commitment. Baptized just over a week before he crossed into Iraq with the 507th Mechanized, Kiehl’s imagination was already working through a fateful reckoning, which he seemed to sense.

A television crew from KTVT-TV, Dallas, which was among journalists embedded with the unit, came across the baptismal rites by accident. During an interview they taped with Kiehl, he sounded as if he knew what lay ahead for him on the road to Baghdad.

“You always have the threat of something new here every day,” he said. “And every morning, you wake up, and then you think the next morning you may not wake up. I look at it that if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. But if I can leave here, leaving something behind, saying, you know, I was here……….”

The water for the baptism did not come from the Army’s tanker trucks. Soldiers donated their own rationed bottles of water to fill the plastic lined pit where Kiehl and Baldrich were to cleanse their souls. In the desert sand, in the midst of the Muslim world, American soldiers dug a hole to accommodate the broad frames of Kiehl and Baldrich. Unconcerned about the great spiritual conflict or the perceived cultural insult to Arabs, the pit was lined with plastic, and the bottles of drinking water were poured into the hole. Accompanied by a guitar, the troops stood and sang hymns of praise to their God, asking his protection from harm. On the other side of the border, Iraqis were petitioning Allah with the same request.

As the soldiers gathered around the small pool of water, Chaplain Koeman turned their private thoughts into his public hopes.

“Our danger lies to the northwest,” he said. “We do not know what we are going to face when we cross the border. And it is possible that when we get across into Iraq, not a shot will be fired and not one single Patriot will have to be launched. We’ll turn in all of our ammo, and that will be great. Amen?”

The last word had the inflection of a question, as if the chaplain was trying to convince them of his optimistic vision. But he acknowledged, just as the troops did, there was an alternate possibility.

“However, on the opposite end of the scale of things that could happen, we know that it is possible we could get hit,” he told the soldiers listening to his brief sermon.

The men were silent as Koeman called forward Kiehl and Baldrich, asking them a question Christians have answered with nothing more than their faith for two thousand years.

“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your only Lord and saviour?”

Both men answered, “I do.”

“Therefore,” Koeman continued, “Go and make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Kiehl and Baldrich took off their desert camouflage field jackets, and wore olive drab tee shirts, combat boots, and pants into the baptismal pool. Individually, they sat in the foot deep water, and lowered themselves backwards as the chaplain cradled their heads to dip them beneath the surface. Kiehl, whose outsized facial features presented a boyishness, smiled as his face was covered with water.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” Koeman said, loud enough for the other soldiers to hear.

The two Americans stepped up from the water, their clothing drenched, as the other troops applauded.

“Praise God,” Chaplain Koeman intoned.

Dripping, James Kiehl and Lewis Baldrich moved among their friends, accepting congratulations. Baldrich proudly shook hands while the massive Kiehl leaned over and hugged everyone whom he greeted.

“James never wanted to have things done in a good-mannered way,” his father Randy Kiehl explained. “He always left things until the last minute. Homework, learning a solo piece on his sax, learning basketball, always the last minute. But we always knew when the time was right he would make the right decision.”

A few days after James Kiehl’s baptism, Muslim clerics, during Friday night prayers at mosques throughout Iraq, asked Allah’s assistance in turning back “the American crusaders.” Exactly one week later, as Iraqis knelt before their God, U.S. bombs were already falling on Baghdad. The 507th Mechanized Company was also part of an almost unimaginably huge convoy that had begun to race across ancient deserts, and into the heart of the land where civilization began.

And whatever came of the attack on Iraq, James Kiehl, the towering basketball star of Comfort, Texas High School, was as prepared as he knew how to be.


Too many questions went unasked by journalists.

Allegations, suspicions, accusations, diplomatic impatience, imperialism, and even poor journalism were all contributing factors to the launch of a massive American military convoy across the Iraqi border with Kuwait. On the morning of March 20, 2003, five lanes of vehicles, their headlights pointing northward, wended for miles across the sands of Persian Gulf deserts. Thirty three vehicles of the thousands in the procession belonged to the 507th Maintenance Company of Fort Bliss, Texas. The sixty four soldiers in the 507th portion of the convoy were deployed to support the vehicles and launch systems of the Patriot Missile battalion, considered a vital element of U.S. armaments to be used against Iraq.

Though they had no way of knowing, the soldiers of the 507th were in danger even before they moved out. Their commander, Captain Troy King, had been given an orders brief that included both a CD-ROM, and a 1:100,000 scale map showing the various routes troops were to follow. King was also provided a handheld Global Positioning System that gave him a readout of directional signals and distance. If he got lost, the GPS displayed an arrow pointing the convoy to its proscribed route, and the distance it needed to cover to get back on course. Additionally, as a backup, he had the map with the route of travel. Unfortunately, King had highlighted it incorrectly. King was also quoted as telling a few of his troops that his GPS had jammed, affecting directional readings.

According to the Army’s preliminary report of what happened to the 507th, King was to take his company up a course designated as Route Blue (Highway 8,) turn onto Route Jackson, (Highway 1,) and then return to Route Blue, thus avoiding the city of Al Nasiriyah. On his map, however, only Route Blue had been highlighted. An error of this magnitude is easily corrected during what military planners call “briefback,” a session where the officer explains to his commanders his own understanding of the orders he has been issued. King, though, was not asked to participate in a briefback session. The army has not explained why there were no briefbacks on orders, though perhaps, under pressure to deploy quickly, Lt. Col. Joseph Fischetti, commander of the 5th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery, had not ordered briefbacks for officers.

The young wife of one of the 507th’s soldiers was astonished by the lack of logic among officers readying for the attack. After meeting with army investigators, Jill Kiehl was dumbfounded by their findings, and their shortage of detailed information or answers.

“I don’t even know who did the original briefing,” Jill Kiehl said. “They should have given him [King] a map that was highlighted and said, ‘This is your route,’ not just said, ‘You know where you’re supposed to go, right? Right.’ Okay, that’s stupid. Right there, that was the first thing to go wrong. They tried to find a scapegoat, which was Captain King, and blame it all on him. I was saying, ‘Yes, but what about everyone else who took part in it? What about them?’ There were errors from a lotta peoples’ parts.”

Jill Kiehl’s husband, Specialist James Kiehl, and Specialist Jamaal Addison were riding in a five ton truck, pulling a small supply trailer as the 507th moved through the darkness of an early desert morning. Kiehl was an unlikely warrior, almost too encumbered by his great size to be in the military; a friend described him as both “the class clown and the silver voice of reason, at the same time.” Back in El Paso, at Fort Bliss, Kiehl was known as a tech-head and prankster, who once taped a video camera to a radio controlled toy car and raced it around the base motor pool, laughing at the reactions soldiers had as they realized they were being spied on by a remote camera. Raised in the rocky Texas Hill Country, Kiehl, like thousands of other soldiers, had enlisted in the military to earn money for a college education.

Kiehl might have been remembering the last conversation he’d had with his father over the telephone the day he deployed. Only halfway intended as a light-hearted recommendation, Randy Kiehl told his only child how to avoid harm.

“I said, ‘son, you get over there, and dig yourself a foxhole about seven feet deep.’ He said, ‘why seven feet deep, dad?’ You’re six foot, eight. I said, ‘put four inches of sand above you.’ He said, ‘you’re right, dad.’ You can reach up above that and fire an M-16, or whatever you’re carrying. Start shooting. You’ll probably get somebody. But you dig that foxhole to seven feet. Never had that opportunity.”

The 507th Maintenance Company never stopped long enough to dig any foxholes.

Because some of the heavy trucks and armor needed in battle were expected to get stuck in the Iraqi sands, the 507th had large tow trucks needed to recover stranded vehicles. In one of them, Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Mata stared at the string of lights leading toward Baghdad. This was the kind of service to his country Mata had long dreamed about. The Pecos, Texas native had told his wife that, if he did not ever get to go into combat, he would “feel like I cheated my country during my years of service.” In his little town on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, Johnny Mata was famous for his athletic skills, and his ability to fix cars. While his wife, Nancili, and their two children, waited in their new house near the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, Johnny was finally realizing his ambition to serve America in a war.

Nancili Mata had no ability to envision what was about to happen to her husband.

“Too many mistakes,” she said. “Too many. Too many. Way too many. I started researching on my own and looking at letters and reports, and archive material in that report when they did everything. I came to the conclusion that there were four or five mistakes. Usually, a person gets killed for just one mistake.”

At the tail end of the great chain of military vehicles, the 507th also included Jessica Lynch, who was to become a national figure because of her controversial rescue, and an eighteen year old private, Ruben Estrella Soto, Jr., whose mother had to be convinced to sign the papers for him to enlist in the army. His father, who distrusted the military, tried until the end to convince his son not to join. Engaged to Sonia Romero before he left for the Persian Gulf, Ruben Estrella Soto, Jr. had told friends he wanted to be famous, and to bring together his family, which was spread out across Texas and Mexico.

Moving to the northwest, military planners had picked map positions, referred to as objectives Dawson, Bull, Lizard, and Rams, where the convoy was to stop, rest, and prepare for the coming battles. The trip was largely without incident as the 507th moved to Attack Positions Dawson, Bull, and Lizard. At Bull, the unit was linked up with the 3rd Forward Support Battalion. Leaving their last stop in the early evening, the heavy trucks and vehicles spent much of their time off-road, navigating soft sand. What the army described as “poor trafficability” and mechanical problems caused the 507th to break into two smaller groups. Darkness and blowing sand led to a number of drivers being confused. Eventually, several trucks broke down, while others simply settled into the soft, grainy earth.

The 3rd Forward Support Battalion’s vehicles continued moving northward, and Captain Troy King made the decision to split the 507th. Vehicles still functioning, which were able to keep pace with the larger convoy, kept going under King’s command. Tow trucks, vehicles bogged down, and those with mechanical problems became the responsibility of First Sergeant Robert Dowdy. While King’s smaller group traveled through the night to arrive at Attack Position Lizard just before sunrise, Dowdy’s team worked to free the second group of trucks, which had become stuck and to repair those that weren’t mechanically functional. Eventually, Dowdy’s convoy caught up with Captain King’s. Arriving more than twelve hours after King’s, however, mechanical failures and trapped vehicles caused Dowdy’s team to spend twenty two hours covering only eight kilometers of desert. They were tired, sleepless.

While waiting for First Sergeant Dowdy to arrive with the trailing vehicles, Captain King contacted his battalion commander to let him know of the 507th’s circumstances. King was informed by 3rd FSB’s staff that the overall plan of movement, including route, was unchanged, and King indicated he understood his instructions. He was also told that the larger battalion was planning to move out, on schedule, and was not able to wait for the trailing convoy. When he learned of his commander’s intentions, Captain King ordered his executive officer, First Lieutenant Jeff Shearin to gather the thirty two soldiers and seventeen vehicles already at Attack Position Lizard, and depart with the larger 3rd FSB convoy.

As the main group was leaving Lizard, Robert Dowdy radioed Captain King, who was waiting for him, to tell him he was only ten to twelve kilometers away. Dowdy reported that he had all of the 507th’s remaining trucks either running, or in tow. He was also being accompanied by two more soldiers, tow truck operators from the 3rd FSB, who had been left behind to pull fuel tankers out of the sand. Sergeant George Buggs and Private First Class Edward Anguiano were using their wrecker to pull a disabled five ton truck belonging to the 507th.

Only three and a half hours after Dowdy’s group reached Attack Position Lizard, Captain King had re-organized them into an eighteen vehicle, thirty three soldier convoy, and ordered them to pull out. King seemed determined to catch up with the larger convoy of the 3rd Forward Support Battalion. Because he was unable to reach commanders in the 3rd FSB via radio, Captain King decided the only way to rejoin the main group was to take a direct line across the open desert to intersect Highway 8, the assigned route of all the vehicles driving north toward Baghdad. Although there were only fifteen kilometers of distance between his location and the paved road, the rough terrain caused many vehicles in his convoy to become stuck. Five more hard hours elapsed before the soldiers were able to cover the short distance, and most of King’s troops had now gone almost two days with no more than a few hours of sleep.

Back on his assigned route, Troy King moved his parade of vehicles westerly along the hardtop road designated Highway 8, which was also known to military planners as Route Blue. After a short distance, King’s convoy came to an intersection with Highway 1, referred to on his map as Route Jackson. Mistakenly, King had assumed he was to proceed all the way to the next attack position by traveling along Route Blue, when all tactical planning had called for convoys to move onto Highway 1, Route Jackson, to avoid Al Nasiriyah by skirting the city to its southwest. The intersection where King had just arrived was expected to be confusing for drivers, and the army had stationed soldiers there to provide directions for traffic. Unfortunately, King’s convoy was hours behind the battalion leaders, and the troops, who had been directing traffic at the intersection, were long since gone. A small contingent of Marines was present at the spot where the two roads came together, and Captain King asked them if he was on Route Blue, which was confirmed for him by the Marines. Wrongly assuming he was to continue on Route Blue, up Highway 8, King failed to direct his soldiers to make a left hand turn onto Route Jackson, Highway 1. The arrow on his GPS, pointing generally northward, affirmed his decision, and the 507th Mechanized Company began driving up the wrong road, toward the city of Al Nasiriyah.

Nancili Mata, the wife of the 507th’s Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Mata, has been unable to accept the idea that the Marines did not steer Captain King onto the correct road, a mistake she first discovered when she was briefed about the incident by the U.S. Army.

“The Marines are at a checkpoint, and they see so many Americans going through that checkpoint in one way, and then all of a sudden one comes the other way? They just let them pass,” she said. “When Captain King got there, he asked, ‘Is this Route Blue?’ The Marines said, ‘Yes, it is.’ So they kept going, even though they should have said, ‘Okay, Captain King, why are you going this way? It’s not secure over there.’ So that was another mistake.”

The misstep by King, however, was not unexpected by many of the people who served in the 507th. Troy King worried the soldiers who were under his command. A dental assistant, King had been in Army for about a decade, and had only recently received his captain’s bars. He had never before been in combat.

Laura Cruz, a reporter for the El Paso Times, who has written extensively on Fort Bliss and the soldiers of the 507th, had heard numerous criticisms of King’s abilities.

“The soldiers of the 507th have mentioned that they didn’t trust him,” she said. “I don’t know if they’ll tell you on the record that they didn’t trust him, but it is one of the things they told me, and I’ve heard it from other people, as well. I’ve also heard a lot of the P.O.W.s say they didn’t have any respect for him, and they weren’t convinced Captain King would make a good commander.”

Months after the incident, Troy King had still not spoken to reporters about his role in the tragedy that befell the 507th. He was under strict orders at Fort Bliss to remain silent, and was not allowed the public opportunity to defend his command decisions.

As King pushed his convoy up Route 8, lights began to shimmer in the distance. Talking to his first sergeant, Robert Dowdy, on the radio, the two concluded they were looking at an industrial complex or an oil refinery, and King chose to continue. Another intersection lay ahead, however, and if King had understood the road markings, he might have yet avoided the disaster awaiting the 507th. Just south of Al Nasiryah, Highway 8 turned west, while Highway 7/8 followed a northerly course across the Euphrates River and into the city. If King had made a left turn, the 507th would have missed ambush alley, and might have safely passed Al Nasiryah to the west.

But the lights kept coming closer. And King’s troops were optimistic that what they were seeing up ahead was the main convoy of the 3rd Forward Support Battalion. A mechanic in the 507th, Joe Hudson, was beginning to feel relieved.

“I thought it was the convoy in front of us,” he said. “That we were catching up to them. Then all of a sudden, a town appeared out of nowhere, buildings just started popping up everywhere. Wow, we’re in a town, and what was running through my mind: hope this is a friendly town.”

Communications for vehicles in the 507th’s convoy were inadequate. Only five drivers had SINCGARS (Single-channel Ground and Airborne Radio System,) and some soldiers had been equipped with walkie talkie radios. Batteries in most of the handheld radios, however, had been depleted because of the amount of time they had been used during the previous two days. Several sources have also said soldiers in the 507th used their own money to buy additional radios for their unit because they did not feel their communications capabilities were sufficient. Why no additional batteries, battery chargers, or handheld radios were supplied to the 507th, is an issue not addressed in the army’s report on the 507th’s combat engagement at Al Nasiriyah.

Al Nasiriyah is built up to the banks of the Euphrates River, and the 507th was immediately into the urban center the moment it crossed the bridge. Ahead, Iraqi soldiers had established a checkpoint, but they made no attempt to stop the convoy nor did they show any hostile intent toward the Americans passing through their city. Many of the Iraqi soldiers were in uniform, while others were armed civilians. The 507th reported seeing a few pickup trucks with Iraqi civilians manning machine guns, which had been mounted in the back. Regardless, none of them fired on the U.S. vehicles or troops. They simply waved, and the trucks rolled past a crude sign saying, “Welcome.”

But Specialist Joe Hudson was growing worried.

“We passed them,” he said. “They’re waving at us. I’m like, you know, something doesn’t feel right. I mean, these are uniformed Iraqi soldiers.”

An anonymous letter from one of the 507th’s soldiers, quoted by ABC News, described what it felt like to enter the foreign, hostile city.

“At about 5:30 or six, we started driving through the city of Nasiriyah. It seemed like a peaceful town. Most of the town was still asleep. We crossed over the Euphrates River and drove all the way through town. We then pulled over to the side of the road and turned around. We later figured out the group we were looking for wasn’t where they said they were. At about this time, we started seeing more traffic. The information we had been given was that the Iraqi soldiers would be giving up. We were also told that the Iraqi soldiers would be keeping their weapons. So we were nervous.”

If the failures of Captain Troy King were partially responsible for placing the soldiers under his command inside of a hostile enemy city, so was the flawed planning of the U.S. military, which was instrumental in leading the 507th to this dangerous spot. Determined to reach Baghdad quickly, under political pressure from the Bush Administration for a speedy, low casualty, low cost victory, the Department of Defense laid out a plan of attack that used a light and fast movement into Iraq. The plan, however, was certain to leave behind any maintenance company as vehicles broke down or got stuck in desert terrain. The main convoy would be moving off while the impaired vehicles were being recovered. Catching up had to be considered impossible for the heaving tow trucks of the maintenance company.

“The 507th Maintenance Company was placed in a terrible predicament by the wanton desire of its command structure to race to Baghdad.” wrote the Rev. Tandy Sloan, in a letter to CNN. Sloan, the father of Private Brandon Sloan, believed that what happened to the 507th was, “a tragedy, which is preposterous in nature, and unheard of in proportion.”

“It seems to us that these events were brought about by unpreparedness (sic) of our military in this conflict,” he added. “In their view, [they] could not afford time to cover their ranks as they went, or even to slow down for unforeseen complication, such as heavy trucks stalling or becoming bogged down in the sands of the desert they knew they had to cross.”

The army did not make accommodations for this inevitability. With hundreds of trucks and Humvees, there were certain to be breakdowns in the desert. But, in many ways, the maintenance company troops were left to fend for themselves. They were not provided any kind of combat infantry support, even though the 507th’s soldiers had received only standard training in combat.

“They left us there,” one unidentified soldier told ABC News. “They were supposed to protect us, and they didn’t. We were all alone with no protection. That is not supposed to happen. We are always supposed to be protected.”

One of the U.S. commanders in Iraq, who has fifteen years of experience in foreign operations, including the first Gulf War, described what happened to the 507th as “doubly frustrating.”

“Because,” he said, “we train against precisely that scenario. It’s called a contemporary operational environment. As the enemy realizes they are defeated, those kinds of assets, like logistical support provided by the 507th become soft targets. They’re easier to hit. That’s the only means they [the enemy] have to strike back. It makes no sense to send those guys out without support. We train against that. We know better than that. Sending those guys out without proper combat support was a calculated risk and a decision that was made, but I don’t think it was a good one. Like I said, we sure don’t train like that to send out our logistical support unsecured.”

In fact, many of the soldiers did not even expect to encounter hostile Iraqis. The political spin from Washington, which was being fed to troops and reporters, was that Iraqi soldiers were likely to greet them with “happy fire.” Washington was so confident of friendly treatment for American troops that soldiers were informed that surrendering Iraqis were to be allowed to keep their weapons. The 507th was not ready, mentally or professionally, for what it was about to confront.

The troops in the 507th were certainly not considered marksmen or experts in small arms warfare, though they were capable of defending themselves. While the soldiers of the 507th were issued a basic combat load of ammunition prior to their departure from Camp Virginia, having infantry or armored support attached to their company was likely to have improved their odds of survival. But they were abandoned as the main convoy raced to Baghdad.

Darrell Cortez, a Fort Bliss soldier who lost his best friend in the ambush of the 507th, thinks someone needed to find a better plan.

“I personally disagree with the leave them behind, they can catch up later mentality,” he said. “I don’t know how we could do it better, though. Stop a three hundred vehicle convoy for one vehicle that is broken? Could delay the entire mission.

Stopping? You put four or five six people in eminent danger versus the complete mission. In the military sense, crass to say, they don’t mean as much as completing the mission.”

After passing through a second Iraqi checkpoint without incident, and crossing a canal bridge just north of Al Nasiriyah, the 507th came to the end of Highway 7/8. The road made a “T” intersection with Highway 16, and Captain King took his convoy west, to the left. A short time later, King was faced with a similar decision when Highway 16 reached a “T” intersection with Highway 7. Choosing to go northward, in the general direction of Baghdad, King had the convoy follow him through a right turn. A few kilometers down Highway 7, King began to believe he was off course, and brought all trucks and Humvees to a stop.

While King checked his Global Positioning System handheld to find where the correct route was located, a number of Iraqi cars passed the stopped Americans. Soldiers of the 507th had noticed the same vehicles as they traveled through the city. A few members of the company began to worry they were being scouted by the enemy. King’s GPS showed that the main route of the convoy was due west, across more open desert. After all of the difficulties his unit had experienced in going off road, he decided to turn around his convoy and retrace its route through Al Nasiriyah. As King issued an order for the U-turn, more Iraqi vehicles came into view. Everyone in the 507th, including Captain Troy King, knew their moves were now being scrutinized by the enemy. Troops were nervous, worried about driving back through the Iraqi checkpoints and becoming targets. Matthew Rose, a 37 year old supply sergeant for the unit, was among a few soldiers in the 507th who grabbed their M-16s, and established a defensive perimeter. A pickup truck carrying a machine gun sped past.

Combat seemed even more unavoidable when King issued an order to get prepared. They were simple, frightening words, which signaled to the soldiers they were in danger, in a foreign country, and some of them might soon die.

“Lock and load.”

3 Comments for this entry

  • Richard S. Lowry

    Mr Moore,

    This is a nicely researched and written piece. Although, I disagree with your premise that the 507th Maintenance Company tragedy was caused by the Army’s inability to protect their logistic vehicles or the Marines failure to warn Captain King.

    You have missed several salient facts. First, in my research for “Marines in the Garden of Eden,” no one ever mentioned that Captain King stopped at the cloverleaf to speak with Marines. Next, Captain King raced north of the Cloverleaf, past the 50+ armored vehicles of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (Fred Pokorney’s unit). King never stopped to ask them anything.

    I believe that King alerted the enemy in An Nasiriyah to the coming attack and is not only responsible for the loss of 11 of his own soldiers, but shares the responsibility for the death of Lt Pokorney and seventeen other Marines who died later that same day.

    If you talk to anyone who traveled Highway 8, they will tell you that the Army convoy was traveling up Highway 1 with their headlights blazing. They could be clearly seen from Highway 8. Captain King had to see the convoy and had to know he was on the wrong road.

    Additionally, nowhere in King’s orders, understood or implicit, that he was to cross the Euphrates River. Yet, he led his vehicles across TWO bridges.

    If Captain King had been where he belonged, his soldiers would still be alive today.

    For the complete story read “Marines in the Garden of Eden.”

  • A Patriot

    This was a horrible tragedy, but the biggest tragedy by far is that probably none of the family members associated with it before or since, not once in their entire lives, ever spoke out against the illegal alien invasion that led up to 9/11 happening in the first place. Their sons, their daughters, will continue to be fodder to these “wars”, and instead of protecting our own borders first and foremost with our military, they will continue to keep their mouths shut about the real root of the problem: illegal invasion of our nation by foreigners who want to kill our people on our own soil. Until that happens, the cycle will be repeated again and again, with same/similar results.

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