November 2, 2003 is a date that I will never forget. I had just been released from a hospital in Fallujah a few days earlier and I was excited to be back with the guys. We were eating breakfast when we heard a loud explosion off in the distance. Knowing that we were QRF (Quick Reaction Force) that day, we immediately turned up our radios to get any information about what had happened. It didn’t take long to find out and also to know that we were about to find ourselves right in the middle of it.
USA Today later described what had happened like this:
“FALLUJAH, Iraq — A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter ferrying troops out of Iraq for leave was shot down near a stronghold of Saddam Hussein loyalists Sunday, killing 16 soldiers and injuring 20. It was the single deadliest attack against U.S. forces in Iraq and the latest calling card of an increasingly clever and deadly insurgency.”
As we threw on our gear and crammed the rest of our hot breakfast in our mouths we had no idea what was waiting for us. As we approached what was supposed to be a downed helicopter we only saw scattered debris. With an approaching enemy, we quickly began rescue operations while others scrambled into fighting positions. The KIA were placed together and we did our best to treat the wounded. As medical help arrived in the form of Air Force PJs, us infantry guys focused on doing what we could to assist them as they fought to save the lives of those most severely injured.
I was tasked with helping identify the bodies of those killed. When I got to the first one, I was not ready for what I saw. Being Infantry, I was used to a unit of all men. Now laying before me, I found a young female soldier who didn’t seem to have a scratch on her. I will never forget how beautiful she was and how it seemed so surreal that she could be dead. As we moved down the line of bodies, I saw faces of what seemed to be young kids. Their uniforms bearing names that I will never forget. On many nights I have googled their names, read their stories and even seen their parents standing in their childhood bedrooms talking about how much they miss their son or daughter.
But on November 2, 2003 I did not yet know their hometowns or the family members that they were going home to see. On that day as I walked around, I noticed teddy bears and other gifts that they had packed to share with those they loved once they got back to the states.
On that day I sat with my brothers as we tried our best to remove the blood that covered our uniforms. I watched as our medics treated the hands of infantryman who had grabbed pieces of a burning helicopter in an effort to reach those trapped inside the wreckage. After the last of the bodies was airlifted away from the crash site, we continued to guard what remained. We were determined that the enemy would not touch one piece of the debris that littered the ground around us. That day, no enemy of the United States was going to dance on a propeller and they certainly weren’t going to touch one of the teddy bears or disposable cameras lying at our feet. Covered in blood, we stayed for days until the last piece of evidence was removed.
That is why I will never forget 11/2/03.
**Update** Because this article was shared so many times last year, I received messages from family members of those killed in this crash. The talks we were able to have meant so much to them and myself. I cannot thank you enough for making this possible.
The fact is that every combat veteran has these dates in their minds. It could be the day they were wounded or lost a friend, a day of a feirce firefight or a horrible ambush. Sometimes they post a picture or talk to a friend but more often than not they usually just go about their day and quietly remember all they have seen sacrificed for the freedoms that so many seem to take for granted.
If you are a veteran then I encourage you to share these dates with some close family and friends. Let them remember with you. And if you ever need to talk, know that there are plenty of us who are here to listen.
In Memory of:
Army Staff Sgt. Daniel A. Bader, 28, of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Army Staff Sgt. Ernest G. Bucklew, 33, of Enon Valley, Pennsylvania.
Army Spc. Steven D. Conover, 21, of Wilmington, Ohio.
Army Pfc. Anthony D. Dagostino, 20, of Waterbury, Connecticut.
Army Spc. Darius T. Jennings, 22, of Cordova, South Carolina.
Army Pfc. Karina S. Lau, 20, of Livingston, California.
Army Sgt. Keelan L. Moss, 23, of Houston, Texas.
Army Spc. Brian H. Penisten, 28, of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Army Sgt. Ross A. Pennanen, 36, of Shawnee, Oklahoma.
Army Sgt. Joel Perez, 25, of Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
Army 1st Lt. Brian D. Slavenas, 30, of Genoa, Illinois.
Army CW4 Bruce A. Smith, 41, of West Liberty, Iowa.
Army Spc. Frances M. Vega, 20, of Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.
Army Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, of California.
Army Staff Sgt. Joe N. Wilson, 30, of Mississippi.
Andrew Smith is an Executive Coach and Leadership speaker with the John Maxwell Team, as well as the Director of Rooftop India, an organization that seeks to train leaders internationally, as well as care for orphans through the ministry of the Azlynn Noelle Children’s Home.
Smith served as an Infantry soldier with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from 2002-2005. Wounded in Fallujah, Iraq in 2003 by shrapnel from an IED, he is the recipient of the Purple Heart.
Because of his military experience, he now assists as a mentor with Honor & Courage (Operation Ward 57), a non-profit organization that financially assists Wounded Warriors and their families.
He has also owns and operates a small business -Yellow Dawg Striping – in Southwest Virginia.