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Wednesday, March 17

March 23 is a day remembered all too well

By C. Mark Brinkley | Army Times

Sometimes, all you need to know is the date.

July 4, Dec. 7, Sept. 11 - all were dates that changed history.

Dates are the batting averages of history, the stats we use to remind us of the reasons we care.

We know June 6, 1944, for instance: D-Day, when U.S. and Allied forces invaded Normandy, beginning the end of World War II.

If there must be a date with which we associate the war in Iraq, what should it be?

Perhaps April 9, 2003, the day the Marines hooked a chain to a Saddam Hussein statue in the heart of Baghdad and dragged it to the ground? Or Dec. 13, when the deposed dictator finally was captured?

Or March 23? That was the day many remember all too vividly.

Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch and five comrades were taken prisoner in an ambush where 11 other soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company paid the ultimate price.

Eighteen Marines were killed in a firefight that went awry.

Two service members from the 101st Airborne died after one of their own allegedly pulled the pins on live grenades and tossed them into the tents where they slept.

A U.S. Patriot missile shot down a British jet, killing both pilots. Two Apache helicopter pilots were shot down, taken prisoner and displayed on television.

It was one day in Iraq. Thirty-three dead. Eight captured. Many wounded.

If every day of the war had been like March 23, the world might be a very different place.

Enemy within?

Army Capt. Greg Holden of the 101st Airborne lost eight pints of blood, and nearly his left leg, at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait on March 23 after a soldier from his unit allegedly attacked with grenades and small-arms fire.

Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a combat engineer, is accused of killing two officers in an attack that wounded 14 others. If convicted, Akbar could face the death penalty.

Col. Ben Hodges, commander of Holden's 1st Brigade, took grenade fragments to his right forearm in the attack. Still, Hodges says the pain he suffered from the attack mostly was mental.

``I can't get away from the fact that a soldier in my unit tried to kill American soldiers,'' he said.

Success and failure

For the Air Force, March 23 marked the successful end of an operation to airlift about 280 Army and Air Force special operations troops into Kurdish-held territory.

A joint special operations task force wanted to fly into Iraq via Turkey, but objections from the Turkish government forced them to infiltrate Iraq from Jordanian airspace and fly low over Iraq for about four hours.

Iraqi anti-aircraft fire was so intense that one aircraft lost an engine and made an emergency landing at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Once on the ground, the special operations teams joined Kurdish allies to confront 13 Iraqi divisions along the Kurdish line and terrorist strongholds near the Iranian border.

But the day would not be successful for everyone. Army Chief Warrant Officers David Williams and Ronald Young, Apache helicopter pilots from Fort Hood, Texas, were shot down near Baghdad on a combat mission.

The pair was captured, videotaped for the world to see and held prisoner for three weeks. Advancing Marines found them April 13 near Tikrit, and the two men were flown home to their families.

By dawn on March 23, U.S. ground-combat units had advanced more than 200 miles into Iraq in three days and were 130 miles north of Nasiriyah, an advance Army researchers call historically unprecedented for speed and depth of penetration.

The goal was to prevent the Iraqis from mounting a worthy defense, but moving that far that quickly required more than bullets and bravery. It also required aggressive support from a variety of logistics, medical and maintenance units, many of which had to move at a steady pace behind the units they supported.

That's how the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, tasked with supporting a Patriot missile unit, ended up in Nasiriyah.

A fateful encounter

On March 23, the day when nothing seemed to go right, a Patriot missile team near the Kuwaiti border accidentally shot down a British fighter returning from air attacks that destroyed Republican Guard forces near Baghdad.

The ripple created by the first confirmed ``friendly fire'' deaths would have added pressure to the 507th Maintenance Company to keep its missile systems ready and able, but those soldiers had bigger problems.

Moving in the back of a 600-vehicle column, members of the company got separated from the group, according to an Army account. About 7 a.m., Iraqi military forces and armed irregulars attacked the 18-vehicle convoy and its 33 soldiers for 90 minutes.

In the end, 11 soldiers were killed, Iraqi forces captured six and 16 regrouped with other American troops. Nine of the 22 soldiers who survived, including the now-famous Lynch, were wounded in action.

Despite her ordeal, Lynch was one of the lucky ones. A third of the soldiers who entered Nasiriyah with her that day never made it to another holiday.

A bridge too far

There was never a question that the leathernecks of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines would secure two bridges and the town of Nasiriyah on March 23. But no one predicted they also would see 33 of their own killed or wounded. ``There isn't a day that goes by that any one of us who were there don't think about it,'' said Lt. Col. Rick Grabowski, 45, of Farmington, Iowa, commander of the battalion until June.

The regiment's casualties - 18 killed and 15 wounded in action - were borne by the Marines of Charlie Company, tasked with taking the city's northern bridge.

Charlie Company forged north up a thoroughfare later dubbed ``Ambush Alley.''

At least a couple of tracked vehicles were disabled by hostile fire, and several Marines were badly wounded. As Charlie Company unloaded its wounded comrades on the other side of the canal, the soldiers were hit by friendly fire from an attack jet.

U.S. Central Command still is investigating the incident, and the number of Marines killed in the attack is being debated. Nine Marines were killed on the way back down Ambush Alley when their amphibious-assault vehicle was blown sky-high by enemy rocket-propelled grenade attacks.

``One (image) that stands out more than others is when we pulled some of our friends' bodies out of the back of a Hummer and loaded them onto helicopters, and the look on everyone's faces when we realized how many of our friends had been killed,'' said Marine Cpl. William Bachmann, a company member from Belvidere, N.J., now serving in Afghanistan.

Grabowski looks forward to the completion of the friendly fire investigation, so he and the families of his fallen Marines can close the debate about how everyone died that day.

``We did the best we could,'' Grabowski said. `` In the end, we succeeded in our mission.''

And they remember the date, March 23, 2003. For many, that's all you have to say.


(Contributing: Army Times reporters Gina Cavallaro, Matthew Cox, Jane McHugh and Bruce Rolfsen and librarian Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig.)