RETURNING Engineer unit's APC moves to unit's bivouac after day-long mission.

It has been an engineer's war. Engineers were among the first troops on the ground to set the stage for the buildup in the months prior to the invasion of Iraq. When the day came, engineers kicked open the door. They rolled across the desert with the combat assault and bridged the rivers, knocked over the walls and blew up the mines. And as the logistical trail through the land grew so extraordinarily long, stretching from Kuwait to Baghdad and beyond, the engineers worked it heroically, enduring ambushes and attacks from rear supply to skirmish line as they labored to keep the river of ammunition and supplies flowing.

It has been hard and dangerous work. Engineers have been hurt and have died. Bravo Company of the 11th Engineer Battalion, Third Infantry Division Engineer Brigade, has been among those hardest hit.

"Sixty or 70% of the company has had shots directed at them at one time or the other," says 1st Sgt. Tim Campbell. The unit's people had been shot at, rained on with mortars and blown out of vehicles and armored personnel carriers by rocket-propelled grenades. Some were wounded and some have died performing their jobs as combat support engineers.

Bravo Company was in contact with the enemy nearly every day during the second phase of the campaign when, after a pause below As Samawah and Karbala, the army launched its drive on Baghdad from the south. Battalion commander Lt. Col. Tom Smith says things were going so well for the unit during the first few days of the assault that "there was some euphoria, and then we had, in three days, three soldiers tragically killed."

SERVICE Unit says goodbye to two soldiers killed in action near Baghdad on the same day.

The unit was fighting hard and taking few wounds and no casualties as it moved toward Baghdad. But on April 4, at Saddam International Airport on the southwest edge of Baghdad, the good luck changed. The command ordered Bravo Company to block a main entrance road on the east side of the airport near a command post and a forward aid station. An infantry battalion captured enemy soldiers and the task fell to 2nd platoon Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith to build a containment pen quickly. There was a wall 10 ft tall paralleling the roadway. Smith decided to punch a hole in it and use two walls of an inside corner as two sides of a triangular enclosure. He would finish off the hypotenuse with rolls of concertina wire.

Smith used an armored combat earthmover, something like an armored personnel carrier with a dozer blade, to punch through the wall. While troops placed the wire across the corner, one of the squad's two armored personnel carriers moved toward a gate on the far side of the courtyard. The driver pushed open the gate to open a field of fire and discovered between 50 and 100 enemy soldiers massed to attack.

An intense firefight broke out. Iraqi troops in a nearby tower began to fire a stream of rocket-propelled grenades at the APC. Then, a mortar round hit the APC. Three of its seven-man crew were hurt, one badly enough to need a medic, morphine and a litter.

BACK TO WORK Army personnel remove debris from road leading to Baghdad.

A second APC wheeled up to engage the enemy with its .50-caliber machine gun. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the tracked vehicle. Although the grenade disabled it, the round detonated in a rucksack hanging on the outside and spared the troops within. Sgt. Campbell ran to the APC and led the crew to safety behind a sheltering wall. Sgt. Smith took a medic forward to the first APC on the far side of the courtyard to evacuate the soldiers injured there. He threw a grenade at the Iraqis over the wall near the gate as Campbell ran forward to help the medic extract the wounded.

Smith climbed inside the disabled APC. He tried to back the vehicle and maneuver it to cover the evacuation of the wounded. The vehicle became bound up with its trailer. He climbed up to the tank commander's hatch and held off the enemy with a mounted .50-caliber machine gun. Meanwhile, Sgt. Campbell and the medic had evacuated the injured APC crew. Enemy soldiers were firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons from the tower. Campbell decided to take them by attacking from the side. He left Smith with an ammunition handler and a driver. The driver spun the APC until Smith could swing the gun between the tower and the gate. The suppressing fire gave Campbell time to lead another squad in a successful assault on the tower.

EYEWITNESS Sgt. Derek Pelletier explains firefight that killed comrade.

Campbell could still hear Smith yelling for more ammunition as the tower attack went forward, but finally Smith's gun fell silent. The enemy had been turned, but Smith was mortally wounded. Soldiers got him to the aid station, but he died there.
"His actions probably saved hundreds of people that day," Campbell says. If the enemy had overrun their position, both the aid station and a command post would have fallen, he says. "Those guys were organized infantry. They had a plan; they were not scrubs."

Smith was replaced as platoon commander by Staff Sgt. Lincoln N. Hollinsaid. Hollinsaid was killed two days later while breaching another wall with another armored combat earthmover. Beside another highway closer to Baghdad, he was hit simultaneously by small arms fire from a bunker and a multistory apartment building nearby. He died in the field. A tank turned intense fire on his assailants. The heavy barrage frustrated attempts by Hollinsaid 's combat buddies to reach him. Finally a tank crushed through the bunker and its Iraqi occupant was killed. Another man in the unit, Private First Class Jason Meyers, was killed by friendly fire: shrapnel from a tank shell that had struck a vehicle nearby.

REVIEW Bravo platoon leaders consider commendations for their soldiers.

The unit was rocked by the deaths of so many of its men in such a short time. The echoes of taps had barely died away from Sgt. Smith's memorial before Bravo Company stood at attention again to bid farewell to Sgt. Hollinsaid and PFC Meyer in the army's traditional way. The roll is called, sounding each name three times. Hearing no response, with neither man standing among the ranks, those remaining must accept that their comrades are gone.

"Pfc. Meyer!" Campbell called out to the silent ranks.

"Pfc. Jason Meyer!" Campbell called loudly again.

"Private First Class JASON M. MEYER!" he called one final time. Then, 21 shots were fired, taps was played, and the unit moved on.


ENR Associate Editor Tom Sawyer filed this story and others from Iraq while embedded with Engineer Brigade of U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division.