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Monday, November 24, 2003

Sgt. Anthony Pierce and eight members of his platoon

Luck saved them


Mobile Register Editor

BAGHDAD -- Just before dawn on Aug. 19, Sgt. Anthony Pierce and eight members of his platoon were headed back to Camp Graceland on the south side of Baghdad. They had just been relieved after pulling the night shift at Balad Police Station, where they supervise and train Iraqi police officers.

"I turned 45 that day," said Pierce. "It's a birthday I won't soon forget."

Pierce was sitting in the front passenger seat of the last of three Humvees returning to camp, normally a five-minute drive from the station.

They had not gotten far when an improvised explosive device, known by troops as an IED, was detonated just off the highway. In quick succession, four rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, hit the Humvees. Then AK-47s opened fire from several directions.

One of the RPGs ripped through the rear door of Pierce's Humvee, striking the radio console before lodging in the dashboard, blowing the driver, Spc. Josh Yoder, 22, of Brewton, clear out of the vehicle. Shrapnel hit Pierce in the arm. The turret gunner, Spc. Charles Williams, 38, a nurse's assistant from East Brewton, was hit in the legs. His pants caught fire.

A second RPG pierced the Humvee's rear quarter panel, but injured no one.

The lead Humvee was also struck by two RPGs, one exploding beneath it and knock ing out the tires, the other hitting the turret ring on top of the Humvee before slamming into the back of the gunner, Sgt. Dustin Andrews, 24, of Mobile.

The University of South Alabama senior was incredibly lucky. The RPG failed to detonate, only cracking the armor plating inside Andrew's flak jacket.

Despite flat tires and a damaged suspension, the first Humvee continued on toward Graceland, followed by the relatively unscathed second vehicle. But the third Humvee was without a driver. Pierce used his hands to pat out Williams flaming pants, then grabbed Yoder's M-16 -- his own had been blown out of the Humvee -- leaped from the vehicle and returned fire with the rifle as well as his 9 mm pistol.

The insurgents slipped away. Amazingly, Yoder got up and ran back to the Humvee. From IED explosion to retreat, the ambush had taken about a minute. The attackers were never found.

Andrews, the gunner hit by the RPG, was treated for back spasms but otherwise was unharmed. Four other soldiers with the Alabama National Guard's 1165th Military Police Company were treated for minor bruises and cuts. No one from the Fairhope-based company was admitted to a hospital.

"These were the smaller, anti-personnel RPGs," said Pierce, who is in the auto parts supply business in Pensacola. "If they had been the big anti-tank RPGs, we'd have been goners for sure."

As lucky as the members of Third Platoon were, they would have been even more fortunate inside "up-armor" Humvees, which are reinforced on all sides by thick steel plating. The RPGs likely would have exploded harmlessly against the skin of such armored vehicles, and no one would have been hurt, except perhaps for the gunner. The net damage from the attack would have been a couple of flat tires.

Up-armor Humvees are much more suited to urban warfare, and therefore much in demand by soldiers stationed in Iraq. They shield occupants against rifle fire, shrapnel and all but the larger RPG rounds.

The extra armor adds about 5,000 pounds to the weight of a conventional Humvee, which is already about 6,000 pounds. To carry that additional weight, the engine is turbocharged. That creates additional engine noise, so the up-armor Humvees come equipped with an intercom as part of the radio system. Occupants wearing headsets can easily communicate with one another and with other Humvee crews.

Unlike the bare-bones version used by the 1165th, armored Humvees are also air conditioned, so occupants can keep the thick, "ballistic" windows closed no matter what the weather. All of this costs money, of course. The Army pays about twice as much for the armored Humvee, around $100,000.

When I recently visited MPs with the Alabama Guard's 1166th Military Police Company at their camp near Baghdad International Airport, they had just been issued 10 of the up-armored Humvees. The soldiers told me that the vehicles are better in just about every way, even traveling faster than the plain Humvee.

I can tell you that the extra inch of steel plate sure made me feel cozier.

Capt. Chris Butler of Auburn, Ala., commander of the 1165th, said his company has more than 30 of the regular Humvees, but hopes to be equipped with at least some of the sturdier models soon. It's what all of his soldiers would like for Christmas.

al.com: News

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