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Squad repels ambush; kills attackers, seizes weapons

27 Mar 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

It was supposed to be a routine mission for the quick reaction force from Company E, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

The 21-man team from 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon was tasked with tracking down a group of enemy assailants thought to be preparing to launch a mortar attack against the Marine camp here March 25.

"It's like clockwork," Sgt. Charles R. Sheldon Jr., squad leader. "Every Thursday and Friday we get hit with mortars, so the QRF was sent out to find the guys doing it."

At about 8 p.m., the team loaded up humvees and 7-ton trucks with ammunition for their weapons and communications gear in preparation for the mission. They received a brief about what was thought to be the target: a red pickup truck and a group of men standing in a field 600 meters east of the camp.

"We weren't even on the road for five minutes when the convoy stopped," Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Miguel A. Escalera said, hospital corpsman from Seattle.

That's when Pfc. Daniel G. Neil, from Wildomar, Calif., spotted some men running behind an outcropping in the pitch-black field 30 meters away.

"I told my sergeant that I saw something out in the field, and we pulled off onto a dirt road to see what was going on," Neil explained. "As soon as we stopped our vehicles, we started to receive gunfire."

Rounds began to impact the windshield of the humvee in which Neil and several other Marines were riding, causing spider web cracks to form.

"As soon as we heard the first shots, we all dismounted from our vehicles and took cover behind the vehicles and in a creek," 18-year-old Neil added.

Once they found cover, the Marines began to return fire with their M-16A4 service rifles and squad automatic machine guns.

Pfc. Jeremy C. Ramirez, of Eerie, Ill., described the ordeal as confusing because it was difficult to determine where the enemy fire was coming from at first.  Still, that didn't stop the Marines from finishing the fight.

"I was firing a SAW and was able to put a lot of rounds downrange," Pfc. Salvador Mendoza Jr., from Grapevine, Texas, said. "I didn't know exactly where the enemy was so I just sprayed rounds everywhere."

Neil added, "It was like a wall of lead coming at them."

During the battle, one of the humvees being used for cover was accidentally shifted into drive, running over Lance Cpl. Jose E. Bernandino's left leg. He was serving as the QRF's radio operator.

"I was trying to change my magazine when the humvee ran over my leg," said the 19-year-old from San Diego. "It hurt pretty bad, but I just wanted to keep firing my weapon."

He suffered a minor bruise and returned to his unit after receiving medical care.
As the fight went on, several other Marines were injured.

Escalera, the only corpsman on the team, was forced to put down his weapon to help treat the wounded squad members.

"After I finished my second magazine, I heard the first Marine scream that he was hit," he said.

After giving up his weapon to another Marine, the "doc" ran to the Marine, still trapped inside a 7-ton truck. Escalera pulled him outside and began to sweep his body for bullet holes. He found a gunshot behind one of the Marine's knees and treated the wound as best he could until further assistance arrived to the scene.

"As soon as I finished with that injury, I called back to combat outpost for a (medical evacuation vehicle). Then I heard the next Marine calling for help," Escalera explained.

Two more Marines had been shot, one in the side and the other in the arm and the hand.

"They were both bleeding pretty bad, but the good thing was that neither of the injuries were very serious," Escalera added.

The entire firefight lasted about seven minutes.

"The whole thing didn't last too long I guess," Neil said. "But it was the longest seven minutes of my life."

According to Sheldon, from Solana Beach, Calif., the squad fired almost 900 rounds, killing four enemy attackers. They also captured two of the men and detained them for further questioning. One of the captured men was an off-duty Iraqi police officer. After the fight ended, he claimed he was on patrol when he heard gunfire and said he was coming to help the Marines. He was detained and transported to the camp.

"The other guy we caught ratted out the police officer and several of his buddies that got away during the firefight," Sheldon added.

The squad also seized several mortar tubes, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, rifles, and grenades.

This firefight was a first for most of the squad.  Many of its members have been in the Marine Corps less than a year.

"I couldn't have asked for these Marines to have performed better," Sheldon said. "None of them freaked out. They did everything they had to to defeat the enemy."