Holding the fort, losing a friend
in suicide bombing
A U.S. soldier is killed in a suicide attack despite his comrades'
creative barricade at Combat Outpost Tampa in Mosul, Iraq
BY DIONNE SEARCEY STAFF CORRESPONDENT; January 3, 2005
MOSUL, Iraq -- Spc. Michael Kreuser was curled at the bottom of
his sleeping bag Wednesday afternoon inside a tan apartment building
the U.S. Army had converted into a combat outpost when an enormous
blast shook him awake.
Sandbags fell on top of the young medic, and he struggled to get
up. Unable to see through the fog of plaster dust filling the room, he
patted the floor, found his medical kit and one boot that he pulled on
and raced to a third-floor balcony, where he heard screaming.
Private 1st Class Oscar Sanchez was on the ground, hit by
shrapnel and bleeding. Kreuser, his stocking foot now soaked with
Sanchez's blood, and another soldier dragged the private into the hall,
cut open his shirt and tried to revive him.
"We weren't going to let him go easy," said Kreuser, a lanky
22-year-old from West Bend, Wis.
But moments later, Sanchez died, the sole victim of a
sophisticated attack by a suicide bomber. The 19-year-old soldier from
Modesto, Calif., had been on guard duty, standing on a chair to get a
better view as he aimed his automatic rifle at anything suspicious,
when a black-clad insurgent drove a truck loaded with 1,500 pounds of
explosives into concrete barricades roughly underneath the balcony.
As Kreuser thinks about that day, he brims with irrational
blame. He blames himself for not being able to save the buddy he
trounced at video games and teased for singing sappy love songs. He
blames other soldiers for not telling Sanchez to get down off that
stupid chair. He blames his commanders for stationing soldiers smack in
the middle of the most dangerous neighborhood in Mosul.
Kreuser has to remind himself that such thoughts are foolish,
but he can't help the bitterness and anger he feels. "All the what-ifs
come to mind. But there's nothing you can be angry at. We thought we
were really safe out there."
Just two weeks ago, military officers in charge of this city on
the Tigris River decided they'd had enough of the gunshots and the
roadside bombs that exploded every time they traveled the busy roadway
nicknamed Tampa in the western part of town. They found a large,
four-story apartment building along the road and paid a family of
squatters $500 to leave. They renamed their new fortress Combat Outpost
Tampa and moved in.
The Army positioned snipers at every corner of the building --
one of five outposts in western Mosul -- and relentlessly patrolled the
rooftop, which offers a view that spans the multiple domes of what was
to be the new Saddam Mosque, and the white grain elevators where a year
and a half ago soldiers handed out kerosene to needy families. From
their perches, troops could also see into the neighborhood's narrow
alleyways that provide hiding places for insurgents.
Once the outpost was established, a team of soldiers parked
Stryker armored vehicles in front and surrounded the building with
concrete barricades. The plan was to observe and intimidate the enemy.
Then, maybe things would calm down.
Instead, on a sunny afternoon, insurgents launched a complex and
meticulously planned attack that included not just the massive truck
bomb, but a giant booby trap for U.S. forces that responded to the
scene, all the while pummeling the area with mortars and
rocket-propelled grenades. A militant group called the Ansar al-Sunnah
Army claimed responsibility.
In the end, the Army won, calling on fighter jets to fire
missiles and eventually killing 25 combatants. The facade of Combat
Outpost Tampa was damaged, but it still stands, occupied by the
soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry unit. The battle injured
20 U.S. soldiers, many with burn-like shrapnel wounds in tender,
unarmored spots like their necks and faces.
Those same soldiers have been patrolling areas of Mosul in
recent weeks that are literal minefields of remote-controlled bombs
hidden under rocks and stuffed into the trunks of abandoned cars that
detonate as Army vehicles pass.
The soldiers have found more than 100 bodies of Iraqis displayed
in traffic circles or other public areas, many executed because they
were members of local police or military forces that work alongside the
Americans. These U.S. troops helped clean up after insurgents attacked
police stations in early November, killing and scaring off numerous
officers and burning a warehouse filled with voter registration cards
for the parliamentary elections at the end of this month.
And many of the soldiers were present Dec. 21 when a suicide
bomber penetrated security at their base here, Camp Marez, entered a
crowded dining hall and detonated explosives that killed 22 people and
Reconstruction projects have been halted in Mosul because
contractors are afraid to work. Civilians scurry when Army convoys
approach, shuttering their businesses and running inside their
low-slung homes. Posters at gas stations from the militant group Ansar
al-Islam warn that anyone who votes in the elections will be beheaded.
Some U.S. officers blame the deteriorating security situation on
combatants fleeing Fallujah in November after the Marine invasion and
bringing their operations to Mosul. But others believe the insurgency
here is mostly home-grown, made up of local Sunni Baathists and Islamic
religious fanatics who have more freedom to operate with a reduced U.S.
military presence. Last January, 20,000 U.S. troops patrolled Mosul,
but now no more than a quarter of that are here.
Reinforcements are on the way, according to Gen. Carter Ham, who
commands the troops in northwest Iraq. Soldiers from other units will
help provide security in the build-up to the elections, expected to be
an even more violent period.
In the meantime, the 1-24 and other Army units here are left to
battle an enemy that is learning to use its observations and small
weaponry to considerable effect. On Wednesday afternoon, Combat Outpost
Tampa was ground zero for that fight.
Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, commander of the 1-24, based in Fort
Lewis, Wash., said he considered Tampa a success. Intelligence
officials said the outpost's sheer presence disrupted the ability of
insurgents to coordinate and move freely.
Sanchez and the other soldiers who rotated through Tampa, a few
miles from their unit's heavily protected camp, weren't open targets,
Kurilla said. "It's a horrible loss, as is the loss of each soldier ...
" said Kurilla, 38, of Minneapolis. "Every death could be prevented if
we'd stayed at Fort Lewis , if we'd stayed and huddled behind walls.
You take the fight to the enemy, which is how you save lives as well."
Kurilla was ensnared in Wednesday's attack. His small convoy of
Strykers had just left the outpost after checking on the troops,
warning them as he had all week that intelligence reports showed an
impending attack. He had directed the soldiers at the outpost to shore
The explosion sent shock waves through Kurilla's vehicle. His
convoy doubled back to the outpost, and suddenly, a man behind the
wheel of a sedan idling along the shoulder of the road pulled out and
smashed his car, jam-packed with explosives, into one of the Strykers,
sending some of the soldiers crashing to the floor in the blast.
As the dust cleared, Kurilla realized that somehow, in the
minutes since they had passed, insurgents had strung seven large
explosives across the street.
"There are IEDs all over the road!" yelled one soldier, using
the military acronym for improvised explosive devices.
By now, bullets were whizzing everywhere, some from U.S. troops
and some from insurgents lying in wait. One U.S. soldier shot the
detonation wires of a few of the explosives, disabling them, and
another shot two of the mines to detonate them.
Finally, Kurilla's convoy arrived at Tampa, which was under
barrage from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and saw a
5-foot-deep crater in the road -- and the remaining bits of charred,
crumpled metal from the truck that had carried the explosives.
Four loud fighter jets appeared overhead, strafing the cars and
low-slung buildings where insurgents were holed up and swooping to fire
Maverick missiles on targets. Their precision was startling, and a
relief to those who sat in nearby military vehicles.
The fighting stopped. Some units headed back to Camp Marez,
leaving behind cars with dead Iraqis inside and rubble-strewn streets.
Soldiers silhouetted by a pink sunset watched their battle-worn
vehicles limp back into camp. Two of the Strykers had to be towed.
Smoke was pouring from the hatch of another. One dragged concertina
wire underneath its bumper and one rolled back with a blown front tire.
Staff Sgt. Victor Brazfield, one of the soldiers in Kurilla's
convoy, worried about his best friend, Sgt. Richard Vasquez, 22, who
was in the Stryker targeted by the suicide car bomber. During the
battle, Brazfield's headphones had crackled with a report of a KIA, or
soldier killed in action.
As night fell, Brazfield rushed to an Army hospital to drop off
more wounded, where he found Vasquez, lying on a bed, awake, with a
bandage over his eye.
"When I saw him," Brazfield said, "I just cried."
But by the following morning, he had learned that it was a
different friend who had died: Sanchez.
"He was my Joe," Brazfield said. "He was my soldier."
He looked at the ground and walked away.