The blast blew the Humvee doors off, launched its outsized engine block skyward like a toy, and catapulted a flaming man out of the gun turret into the ink-black night.
Less than a mile away, inside Forward Operating Base (FOB) Bernstein near Tuz, Iraq, radio traffic exploded: "Eliminator Five Alpha attacked by IED! Eliminator Five Alpha attacked by IED!"
Commanding a Humvee gun-truck and with two Bradley Fighting Vehicles in trail, Sergeant First Class James Sanders, 42, of the 278th Regimental Combat Team's 2nd Platoon ripped through the FOB's front gate. He could see a yellow-orange fireball lighting the horizon 1,400 meters away and hear machine-gun fire chattering across the distance.
SFC Sanders' squad closed the gap in less than two minutes. His driver, Specialist Clayton Crowell, braked hard and skidded to a stop behind the ruined Humvee, now an inferno. Two hundred fifty meters further on, another Hummer, commanded by Staff Sgt. Luis Aponte, was already on the scene, spraying bullets in arcs, securing the road ahead. Between the able Humvees, the burning gun-truck began to crack and zing as the thousand M240 rounds inside cooked off.
SFC Sanders shouted a situation report into his radio. Then from his left, he heard calls for help.
Aiming flashlights, SFC Sanders and his men spotted a soldier down, and sprinted toward him. The IED (improvised explosive device) blast had sent Specialist Kevin Downs, a 20-year-old gunner, 35 feet through the air. The 6-foot, 190-pound former wide receiver lay broken on the hard-pack, his right femur snapped, his desert-camouflage uniform burnt black.
Stricken, SFC Sanders bent over the injured soldier. "Are you in pain?"
"No," Spc. Downs rasped, unable to feel his charred flesh, shattered arm, or that both his feet had been blown nearly off.
A medical team hunkered over the gunner, assessing, tending. "Who else was on your truck?" SFC Sanders asked, feeling the press of missing men.
"Reese, Hawn, and Taylor."
A gurney appeared and medics hoisted Spc. Downs aboard. Suddenly, the young soldier grabbed SFC Sanders' hand and stared fiercely into his eyes: "Promise me you'll go get those [expletives] that did this to me and my crew," he said.
"I will," SFC Sanders pledged. "2nd Platoon will do so."
In the moments ahead, that promise would harden into iron: Reese, Hawn, and Taylor were dead.
For many members of the 278th, that day, Aug. 13, 2005, now seems like a different life, one that perhaps contained their last unstained moments. The Army National Guard unit out of Knoxville, Tenn., landed in Iraq in November 2004. Lt. Col. Jeff Holmes, 44, a Nashville architect, commanded 3rd Squadron-700 of about 3,200 troops, including SFC Sanders' 25-man platoon.
For 10 months, Lt. Col. Holmes' squadron braved blistering firefights, treacherous house-clearing operations, and high-tension hunts for insurgents and IEDs, all without a single death.
The number of U.S. casualties in 2006-most killed by IEDs-roughly parallels the number killed from January through May of 2005. But in response to progress in forming a new Iraqi government, insurgents have tripled attacks on Iraqi civilians, killing more than 3,400 since January.
The possibility of losing men haunted Lt. Col. Holmes late at night, before sleep. "My goal was to accomplish the mission and bring everybody home, period," Lt. Col. Holmes said. "But I knew that the longer we went without losing anybody, the odds grew against us."
The storied 278th had emerged from an 18th-century populist military tradition in which small bands of rough country men routinely whipped fancy English armies. In fact, the men of the region stood so ready to offer themselves for service in arms that Tennessee became known permanently as the Volunteer State.
Against such a backdrop it didn't seem too much to hope that the 278th might add to the legacy by bringing every soul home safe. And by last summer Lt. Col. Holmes had begun to think that 3rd Squadron might be able to pull it off.
Then came the 13th of August, he said, "and all that kind of shattered."
The shattering continues, not only for the 278th, but for the friends and families of all 2,455 Americans killed in Iraq since fighting began in 2003. Every soldier interviewed for this article considers such sacrifices heroic and necessary. Still, with the fifth Memorial Day remembrances since the attacks of 9/11, the deaths in the war on terror hover over the present and-particularly for loved ones-cast long shadows into the future.
For SFC Sanders, it is a future with a hole in it. After medics carried Spc. Downs away, the sergeant retraced his steps. Rounding the right side of the Hummer, he saw a body-armored man lying face-down amid mangled radio parts and other debris. Rolling him over, SFC Sanders saw the face of Staff Sergeant Asbury "Fred" Hawn II, 35, his close friend.
"It surprised me when I found him," SFC Sanders told WORLD, his voice breaking. "I checked his pulse. There wasn't one."
A father of two from Lebanon, Tenn., Staff Sgt. Hawn imported his love for children to the 18 villages around FOB Bernstein. "He knew that the children would someday be the future of Iraq," SFC Sanders said. "Fred didn't speak Arabic, but with the children, he didn't need an interpreter." He brought them candy, gum, crayons, and paper, always gifting the smallest children first and teaching them to share. Chattering and happy to see him, the older children brought Staff Sgt. Hawn chai and he would sit and drink it with them, and with the older village men, SFC Sanders said. "You looked at him and he was on top of the world."
Edging around to the other side of the blazing Hummer, SFC Sanders found two more men lying dead under burning wreckage: Sgt. Shannon Taylor and Spc. Gary "Lee" Reese.
Only that morning, SFC Sanders had pinned sergeant stripes on Taylor, 30, a rough-and-tumble outdoorsman who cherished his country-boy upbringing in Smithville, Tenn. A born-again Christian who played guitar-he especially liked Alice in Chains-he passed out his grandma's homemade cookies to his platoon-mates, and wrote her letters to pass along their praise.
"He was very knowledgeable, very intelligent," SFC Sanders said. "If some guy wanted a little time off, Taylor would always fill in."
SFC Sanders remembers how the soldier looked when he was promoted to sergeant that morning. "There's no words to describe the glisten in his eyes-the pride, the sense of accomplishment," he said, then issued a broken sigh: "He wore the rank for less than 10 hours."
Spc. Lee Reese, 22, of Ashland, Tenn., had wanted to celebrate Sgt. Taylor's new rank, which was why he was in the lead vehicle that day, instead of in the trailing Humvee.
"He was usually driving for me," said Staff Sgt. Aponte, 40, who was in command of the gun-truck traveling just 50 meters back when Spc. Reese's Humvee exploded. "He wanted to go in the first vehicle because he and Sgt. Taylor were getting close."
Besides that, Spc. Reese preferred dangerous missions to sitting bored in the FOB. In letters home, he was adamant that fighting for democracy in Iraq was the right thing to do. And he loved the people, Staff Sgt. Aponte said. "He used to be one of those guys who, every time we'd stop to search someone, the next thing you know, he's embracing the other guys, the Iraqis . . . letting them wear his sunglasses."
Staff Sgt. Aponte is now in counseling for severe post-traumatic stress disorder (see related story, p. 18), in large part due to the loss of his platoon-mates, particularly Spc. Reese, who had adopted him as a kind of big brother.
After he died, Ashland residents taped posters of Spc. Reese, smiling and waving the way they remembered him, in the windows of their homes and businesses. The National Guard promoted him posthumously to sergeant.
Specialist Kevin Downs, the only survivor of the Aug. 13 IED attack, also earned his sergeant stripes after the incident. But for the next four weeks he hovered near death. He suffered severe burns over 60 percent of his body, including his hands, rendering them useless. Unable to salvage his ruined feet, surgical teams amputated both his legs below the knees.
Doctors and nurses sat and cried with Joe Downs, 62, and his wife Catherine, twice telling them the young soldier would not live. As Christians, the Downses leaned heavily on prayer and ultimately, Spc. Downs did live, surviving more than 24 operations. Nine months after the explosion, he is still in the ICU at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Just this month, he has regained the use of the thumb and two fingers on his right hand, and the thumb and one finger on his left hand.
Back in October, SFC Sanders and Tennessee National Guard General Gus Hargett traveled to San Antonio to promote Spc. Downs in rank. By then, SFC Sanders had kept his promise: The village mutar who planned the Aug. 13 attack was locked in a Baghdad prison.
When he learned that his platoon sergeant was coming with a general to promote him, Spc. Downs "told the nurses that he didn't want to see us unless he was standing at attention," SFC Sanders said. "So we go in and here's this young man, standing at attention on his prosthetic legs with pride. I pinned his stripes to his hospital gown. He told me he accepted his situation, that God has different things for us in our futures."
In all, 3rd Squadron lost six men. On Aug. 22, Sgt. Joseph Hunt, 27, and Staff Sgt. Victoir Lieurance, 34, died in a roadside bomb attack. On Oct. 13, Sgt. Robert Tucker, 20, died when IED exploded near his Humvee.
SFC Sanders, who himself was injured in an Oct. 13 IED attack, doesn't want to forget the past. Every day, unbidden, memories play like video clips through his mind: Fred Hawn, completing paperwork with military precision, then inviting him to play Battlefield 1942 on linked computers . . . The live-wire Lee Reese hollering through the halls, "Mail! Mail's here!" . . . and affable tough-guy Shannon Taylor, traipsing to the latrine in flip-flops and pajama pants, toting an M-4 rifle.
SFC Sanders gazes sadly at the pictures of his fallen friends he keeps in his living room. "I miss them," he said.