Female Marines Rebuilt Lives After Iraq Attack

PHOTO: Marine Oyoana Allende, second from the left in the back, with her unit in Iraq, a few weeks before the attack that killed six American troops, including three females in what was the one of the deadliest attacks on female troops in U.S. history.Courtesy Oyoana Allende
Marine Oyoana Allende, second from the left in the back, with her unit in Iraq, a few weeks before the attack that killed six American troops, including three females in what was the one of the deadliest attacks on female troops in U.S. history.

Lives can change in an instant, and for one female engagement team in Iraq, it did on June 23, 2005.

That day, 14 female Marines were riding in a seven-ton truck, part of a three-vehicle convoy escorting them back to their barracks at Camp Fallujah, when a car with an Iraqi man, woman and child neared the convoy.

Instead of letting the car proceed first, as was the protocol, the convoy continued past the car. The car suddenly accelerated, ramming straight into the women's truck. The car exploded upon impact. The truck flipped in the air a few times, enveloped in flames.

Some of the women were knocked unconscious, their faces, hands, and exposed flesh burned. Two were killed instantly -- Regina Clark, and Ramona Valdez. Then the convoy came under fire -- a second ambush after the first. A Marine who ran to assist was hit by a bullet and killed.

Dazed and in shock, the women caught glimpses of each other's bloodied red and charred black faces. One woman's sunglasses had melted to her face. "Do I look like her?" they began asking one another. A third woman, Holly Charette, died a few hours later.

It was a planned suicide attack, targeting the women tasked with searching Iraqi women for bombs or weapons. The Iraqi insurgents wanted to strike the U.S. where it would hurt -- killing the female Marines would be a huge victory.

While three of the women's lives were taken that day, ABC News recently spoke to six of the women, whose lives have recovered, some of them directly shaped by that life-altering moment.

Oyoana Allende, now 28, is graduating this December with a degree in recreational therapy from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and plans to get her Master's degree in occupational therapy.

Her interest in physical therapy stems directly from the attack. She suffered burns on 14 percent of her body surface, including her face, hands, and knees.

"I didn't even know what recreational therapy was until I got injured, so that's definitely why I want to do it," Allende said.

Allende remembers the car ramming into their truck, and seeing the fire coming towards her. She felt the heat, and remembers her body flying through the air, but doesn't remember hitting the ground. She remembers waking up when she was being transferred from one truck to another one going back to Camp Fallujah.

She remembers the moment she noticed her face was burned. One of the other women was trying to reassure Allende she was going to be OK, but Allende caught her reflection in the woman's sunglasses.

"I had blood and dirt on my face...it looked like my skin hanging in certain parts of my face. I was just freaking out," she remembers. Allende spent nearly two years at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Austin, Texas.

At first, she said, she was upset with everybody -- herself, everyone who might have been able to prevent the attack, the world -- but she's learned to forgive, and help others.

Allende also volunteers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Hospital's burn unit. She encourages burn patients during recovery.

"It helps you more when a person who went through what you're going through goes and tells you, you will get better," Allende said.

Still, Allende says sometimes she wishes she didn't have the scars that graze her nose and upper lip. Some people stare, she says. "But I've been trying to accept myself, and love myself now."

Right now, she lives with her husband, Marine Jonathan Sanabria in North Carolina. She and Sanabria were in the same unit in Iraq at the time of the attack. They met in Iraq, but put their feelings aside at the time for professional reasons. After the attack, he visited Allende at the Brooke Army Medical Center. They were married in 2006.

Another good thing that came out of the attack was Allende becoming friends with her father -- a man she didn't grow up with, but spent four years with in Chicago before she joined the Marines. When Allende was injured, he spent three weeks at the hospital with her.

"Because this happened to me, we became friends," she said. Ever since then, they talk everyday on the phone.

She's happy the war has ended, but isn't sure it was worth it.

"I don't know if what happened to us was worth it. If the people who died -- not just in that attack, but in other attacks -- if what happened to us was worth, it don't know, I really don't know."

Now 26 years old, Lynn Beasley graduated in June with a B.A. in Culinary Arts. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with her husband, an active duty Marine. They are expecting their first child this April.

"It's kind of a nice experience that I get to witness this," she said about the war's end. But, for the lives they lost, she said, "It will never be worth it."

She remembers her friend Corporal Carlos Pineda that day, who was worried that the convoy would leave without him. He wanted to go back to Camp Fallujah that evening so he could talk to his family back home. On another truck at the time of the attack, he dismounted and ran to assist, getting hit by sniper fire.

Beasley was in the hospital when she learned he was killed. She tried to remain composed, but quietly asked for a chaplain on her way back to her room.

"I was destroyed inside. Knowing how badly he needed to go back to call his family. How adamant he was that he not get left," she remembers. "Why was it Carlos? Why did it have to be him?"

She remembers that something didn't feel right that day. She recalls the truck armor only came up to about chest-high, creating a "dog target" -- or an upward silhouette of a head and shoulders used on a rifle range. She remembers thinking about sitting on the floor, instead of the truck's benches. It was before curfew, so it was still light out, with plenty of Iraqis on the streets. They were also leaving the same predictable time they did every day. All of which made her uncomfortable.

"I don't remember seeing a car. The next thing you know, it felt like we were driving over a tree," she remembers thinking. "It felt like we were standing too close to a fire, a bonfire, where you feel the heat on your face."

"And then I remember hitting the floor of the truck....my rifle's gone. The next thing I remember, I was getting up, and it's kind of like in a dream when you think you're running, but you're actually moving slower than you think you are. So I could have been stumbling and walking, but I felt like I was running. But in between that time frame, I don't remember what happened."

"I could see blood dripping down from my face onto my flak jacket, so I knew there was something on my face causing me to bleed," she remembers. She remembers everyone asking each other, "Is my face OK, is my face OK? Do I look like her?" She remembers hearing the sniper fire, and thinking, "This is not good news."

She remembers being in shock, and having no pain, even though her legs were torn up. Beasley suffered first and second degree burns on her face, legs, some spots on her hands and elbows, minor shrapnel, and an ear membrane injury. She remembers being scrubbed down at Brooke Army Medical Center -- screaming, cursing, and spitting from the excruciating pain.

She said everything was burned on her face, except for along her jawline. Her eyebrows were nearly singed off, and her eyelashes burned into clumps.

Today, over video conference, her face and positive demeanor belie the trauma of that day. However, there is still a shrapnel fragment in her cheek -- which hurts every time it moves. And like Allende, she thinks of those that were lost.

"The people that we have lost -- it's a tragedy. I'm relieved to see it end. And to know there will be less in harm's way," she said.

"But at the same time it makes me wonder if we're just going to ship them to Afghanistan."

Castaneda's husband will likely deploy again to Afghanistan. But right now, the couple is focusing on their expected arrival -- whose sex they will find out Christmas Day.

Now 26, Kodie Misiura lives in Northern California, and also graduated from culinary school earlier this year.

She thinks about the attack every single day of her life, and about those whose lives were lost that day. "Everyday my heart goes out to the families."

Misiura is in touch with only a few of the women still, but thinks about them every day and hopes they're all OK. She considers the details of that attack sacred, and did not want to talk about them, lest they be misconstrued.

"That's something that we all experienced together," she told ABC. "There's no point to talk about it. It was bad enough as it was."

Although she won't talk about the details of what happened, that day, she says she considers herself lucky, surviving the attack with only minor injuries. Misiura stayed in Iraq until her tour was over, but wasn't able to physically drive a truck for awhile. Misiura left the Marine Corps in 2008 with a positive attitude about what she went through.

"Just having been in the Marine Corps in general has given me a great appreciation of life. My worst day in civilian life does not compare to my worst days in the Marine Corps while I was in Iraq," she said.

Asked if she was happy troops were going home, she said, "without a doubt, that goes without saying." But she had one caveat.

"People need to keep in mind, it's not just Afghanistan, there are troops all over the world, without their families, and they're spending the holidays there."

Misiura said for those who have given their lives in Iraq, "I am forever grateful."

Another of the women, Angelica Jimenez, spoke to ABC earlier this year.

Christina Humphrey is currently attending Georgetown University, studying Arabic. She completed a congressional internship earlier this summer.

Alexandra Bringas currently lives in Arizona, is also studying physical therapy.

The rest of the women -- Sally Saalman, Erin Liberty, Alisha Harding, Diane Cardile, Teresa Fernandez, could not be reached by ABC.