TOPICS > Nation

Military Searches for Three U.S. Soldiers in Iraq

May 23, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

MICHAEL KAMBER, New York Times: We had gotten up early in the morning around 3:00, and we met up with a group of soldiers. They did a pre-dawn briefing, standing around their Humvees and going over maps, talking about the mission.

We drove a short distance and met up with a group of about 50 Iraqi soldiers. There were about a dozen American soldiers, so there were maybe 65 or 70 soldiers, all told.

We had a couple of Iraqi informants that were supposed to lead the way. One of the informants had a cell phone, and it was ringing constantly. It wasn’t something that I remarked on at the time, but later on it took on added significance.

As we walked along the road, Lieutenant Cleveland pointed out pieces of wood by the side of the trail and pointed out possible sites where IEDs could be hidden, places we could be attacked from, where somebody could push a button on a transmitter and blow us up.

There was a destroyed house a few meters ahead, and I stepped inside the house to shoot out through the window at the troops coming towards me. As soon as I stepped inside, there was this horrific explosion. I was sure, immediately, as soon as I heard the explosion, I was sure somebody had been killed.

SOLDIER: Give me your status over there!

MICHAEL KAMBER: As I stepped outside the house, there was a lightly wounded Iraqi soldier laying on the ground, and I photographed him. And then, as the smoke began to clear, I ran towards the Americans up ahead. They were maybe 20 meters or so away from me.

It surprised me how calm the scene was. There wasn’t a lot of shouting and screaming; there weren’t soldiers running in every direction. The American soldiers, out of the 11 soldiers that were there, there were four casualties, and several soldiers were attending to them. The others were already making preparations for the evacuation. They were already calling in coordinates. Beside me, a medic was bent over one of the bleeding soldiers, and he looked up at me and asked me to help him.

SOLDIER: I need you to help me lift his arm right here.

MICHAEL KAMBER: His face was covered in blood from shrapnel, and his ears and eyes were caked in dirt and blood, also. But when he cut away his shirt, we could see that he had no serious wounds to his torso.

The medic was incredibly poised. He never panicked; he wasn’t rushed. He just worked professionally and quickly. He was talking to the soldier the whole time. He was asking him what it was like back home where he came from.

Behind me, there was another soldier. He was on his knees, bent forward, staring at the ground. He seemed completely stunned, almost in shock. His face had streaks of blood running down it. We didn’t know at the time that he had been temporarily blinded by the blast. He couldn’t see anything, and he could only hear very little.

Once the medic got the badly wounded soldier stabilized, he called for a litter and asked for other soldiers to come over and help him lift and put the soldier onto the stretcher. As it always does in these situations, it seemed like it took a long time for the helicopter to arrive. Eventually, we heard the choppers coming in the distance, and a soldier ran out and threw a red smoke grenade into the field to mark the landing spot.

As the helicopter came in, there was incredible dust kicked up, and the soldiers grouped around the wounded, trying to protect them and keep their wounds clean. In the background, the sun was just beginning to come up over the horizon. The soldiers lifted the stretcher and took the badly wounded soldier, carried him to the helicopter, and slid him into the door. Then they returned for the second one, put him on a stretcher and carried him, also, to the helicopter. Lastly, they took the least-wounded American soldier, put him on, and then placed the body bag on the helicopter.

Even in the midst of this tragedy, you could feel the camaraderie amongst these guys. They would put their hand on a shoulder or occasionally give each other a hug. We were still concerned that there were other landmines or IEDs in the area, and so the soldiers began to walk out of the area single file, each one stepping in the footprints of the soldier in front of him. We walked out through the grass this time, away from the road. Once we got to the road, some of the soldiers began to cry and hug each other.

The informant whose cell phone had been ringing earlier was immediately arrested. They suspected him of receiving the phone call in some type of effort to coordinate the attack on the Americans. You could see the incredible anger amongst all the troops and the desire to find whoever was responsible for this.

The soldiers that we were with that had suffered the four casualties returned to their base, but the search for the three missing soldiers had to go on, so they were quickly replaced by their sister unit, Bravo Company. This time, they stepped off into the grass almost immediately, and they stayed away from the footpaths in the soft sand where the mines can be planted.

We would stop in houses along the way, and they would talk to the military-aged men. If they gave suspicious answers, they were immediately detained and they were marched off along with us.

Finally, after many hours of walking, we reached a farmhouse, and the soldiers all collapsed in the main room, waiting for re-supply by helicopter. Eventually, we heard the choppers coming. They threw out green smoke grenades to mark the landing spot once again, and then the helicopter came in and dropped off food and water, and the troops headed back out into the field to continue the search for their missing comrades.

For the New York Times, this is Michael Kamber, south of Baghdad, with the 10th Mountain Division.