BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 22, 2005 — -- National Guard soldiers from the Richmond, Ky.-based 617th Military Police Company were still reminiscing today about the extraordinary battle they fought on Sunday, when dozens of Iraqi insurgents ambushed a U.S. patrol -- touching off one of the fiercest battles in Iraq since the fight for Fallujah last fall.
But what is more extraordinary is who the U.S. soldiers are -- a shoe store manager, hotel worker, printing press operator and several students.
The firefight serves as a reminder of how citizen-soldiers are shouldering much of the burden in Iraq. Of the U.S. forces fighting in Iraq, 40 percent belong to the National Guard or Reserves.
Ten U.S. soldiers in three armored Humvees were providing support to a truck convoy south of Baghdad when they were attacked by insurgents this weekend.
"When we first started taking fire, I just looked to the right and saw seven or eight guys shooting back at us -- muzzle flashes," said Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester.
"You could hear a lot of booms from the [rocket-propelled grenades]. You could hear bullets hitting metal," said Spc. Jason Mike.
The insurgents came out of a grove of trees and started firing from a roadside canal. When the shooting started, the National Guard members drove their vehicles between the convoy and the insurgents.
"Basically, training kicks in, and you just maneuver and do what you have to do to stay alive," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein.
The soldiers continued to take fire as they traveled up the main highway. Squad leader Nein wanted to make a right turn onto another road, but just as the Humvees were turning the corner, one was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Spc. Casey Cooper, 20, was up in the gunner's turret when the vehicle was hit.
"The heat and the concussion knocked me," said Cooper. "I could feel it hit me in the chest and the face, and that was about it. I blacked out after that."
But he quickly rejoined the fight. By that time, the U.S. soldiers were out of their vehicles.
"At first, I shot one guy," Hester said. "I saw him fall."
"I started firing with my M4 [light machine gun] with my left hand and the 249 [machine gun] with my right hand, trying to lay down fire on both sides," said Mike.