Excerpt: 'The Long Road Home'

ByABC News via via logo

March 1, 2007 — -- In Martha Raddatz' new book, the ABC News Chief White House correspondent describes a 48-hour firefight in Sadr City, Iraq, and how that fight ultimately affected the soldiers involved and their friends and family. The March 2004 battle, which marked the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency, left eight Americans dead and more than 70 wounded.

The following is an excerpt.

Where the light shone that evening, it illuminated only gore and the clenched faces of soldiers unaccustomed to pain.

There were so many young men, more than thirty, and they had arrived so unexpectedly that the cramped concrete aid station was quickly overrun. The overflow lay outside, soldiers naked and bleeding, on the cooling sands of Camp War Eagle. Dry wails or an occasional whispered plea of "Sir" came from those who could muster a voice, as the medics moved among them. Others were silent, breathing in staccato gasps, as if rationing what little air they had left.

With no electricity and with darkness beginning to settle, the medics relied on the dust-caked headlights of Humvees circled around the aid station to help guide their fingers to the source of each trauma. The splayed black hole of a gunshot wound here, the rip of shrapnel there. Narrow beams from flashlights allowed them to probe more carefully the chunks of splintered bone, extract bits of steel, and bundle and bind wayward intestines.

On a signal from the medics, two of the most catastrophically wounded survivors were swaddled in sleeping bags and rushed to the roaring belly of a nearby helicopter.

Standing amid the chaos was Colonel Robert Abrams, commander of the brigade to which these men belonged. The son of legendary Vietnam War general Creighton Abrams (for whom the army had named its biggest tank), the younger Abrams was drolly referred to by some soldiers as "the natural-born killer." But like virtually all the three thousand soldiers he now commanded, Colonel Abrams had never once in twenty-two years of service heard a gun fired in battle, never seen a soldier wounded in combat or watched a soldier die. He would see it all this night.

Abrams moved from one wounded soldier to the next, grasping hands and offering crisp reassurances. "You'll be fine," he said again and again, feigning confidence as he looked at the wrecked bodies all around him. "You'll be okay."

The massive hand of Staff Sergeant Robert Reynolds, whom the men called "Big Country," grabbed Abrams's pant leg as he passed. At six-foot-six and 280 pounds, the sergeant was considered the First Cavalry Division's "go to" squad leader -- a soldier who made things happen. Colonel Abrams bit back his horror as he stared at the sergeant. He was stripped from the waist down, his genitals smeared red and buttocks glowing white. A loaf-sized chunk of Reynolds's inner thigh was blown off, laying bare the remaining tangle of veins and tendons. Reynolds strained to tell his commander about the brutal assault on his men that he'd barely survived. Abrams bent down, his ear close enough to hear Reynolds above the din of the aid station. Emotion and pain shook Reynold's voice.

"There were hundreds of them, sir."

Separated from the wounded soldiers, on a stretcher next to the outside wall of the aid station, Captain Trent Upton saw what was unmistakably a dead soldier. Medics who first examined him had pulled the soldier's camouflage top and T-shirt up and over his face, pinning his arms in a grimly unnatural position. Upton, who was supposed to be keeping track of the dead and wounded, called quickly for the chaplain. Ramon Pena, like almost all the soldiers at Camp War Eagle, was so new to this base that he hadn't even known where the aid station was located, and had to be guided there when the word came that a platoon had been ambushed. Now the chaplain looked down at the soldier stiffening in front of him and remembered the prayer he had recited to the men of Alpha Company just an hour before, when they had left the base on their ill-fated rescue mission.

Lord, protect us. Give us the angels you have promised and bring peace to these soldiers as they go out. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

These words haunted the chaplain as he took hold of the dead soldier's hand and watched as Upton gently pulled down the T-shirt and uniform top covering the face. Pena didn't know the soldier, but Upton recognized him instantly. It was Specialist Stephen Hiller, twenty-four years old, from a small town in Alabama. Hiller had just announced that his wife, Lesley, was pregnant again.

Upton knelt at Hiller's side and put a hand on his shoulder as the chaplain, clutching Hiller's fingers in his own, administered last rites. Then the men covered the young soldier in a thick flowered blanket -- the kind found in nearly every Iraqi home.

Colonel Abrams stood nearby frozen for a moment as he watched Chaplain Pena and Captain Upton move between the dead and the wounded. With the muffled sound of tank fire close by and soldiers still trapped in the city, Abrams, cursing, mumbled a quiet plea. "Damn, this is bad, this is really bad, but please, God, I hope this is all of them. Let this be all of them."

Less than four miles away, at the center of the action, Lieutenant Shane Aguero and his platoon were huddled on a rooftop as the smack of automatic weapons grew louder in the narrow alleyway below. Humvees burned in the distance -- the same vehicles his men had escaped not long before. Frenzied crowds now surrounded the vehicles.

Aguero was only dimly aware of a thick line of blood making its way down the left side of his face as he watched the tracer rounds streak across the deepening gray sky. Despite the approaching waves of armed militia, or perhaps because of them, the lieutenant's eyes were drawn briefly to the sight of a bird -- a sparrow, he thought -- arcing low and untouched beneath the gunfire. For some reason, the bird carried Aguero's thoughts back home, away from the battle, away from his soldiers now trapped in this Sadr City firefight, to the warning his wife had given him when he left her outside their home near Fort Hood, Texas, just a few weeks before.

"In every war," she had cautioned, "there is always a platoon that gets pinned down. Don't let it be your platoon."

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