Two Kansas City grunts who took bullets on the same day struggle with surviving the war.

A Tale of Two Soldiers 

Two Kansas City grunts who took bullets on the same day struggle with surviving the war.

Pfc. Tomas Young sat cross-legged in the back of the truck as it raced through the Baghdad ghetto of Sadr City. A Kansas City native, Young was one of 25 soldiers jostling like bowling pins in a truck made to hold 18. Only a waist-high metal guard — like what you might see on a cattle truck — stood between them and snipers lurking on rooftops.

His truck was part of a convoy rushing back to Camp War Eagle. They had just saved two soldiers from an ambush. Insurgents had blocked their path, clogging the streets with burning tires that filled the sky with acrid smoke. To avoid the roadblocks, Young’s convoy banged through a maze of potholed side streets. They slogged through puddles of sewage in alleys. Finally they found an opening, a main drag that would take them to base.

As the trucks turned onto the boulevard, snipers opened fire from above. The truck that Young was riding in took a hail of bullets. Young could hear screaming around him. His fellow soldiers were so packed together that he had no idea who had been shot. He pointed his M-16 rifle toward the street, but the mess of soldiers blocked his aim.

Young wasn’t supposed to be there. He had taken a desk job months earlier with Army’s 1st Infantry Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. He should have been back at base, monitoring communications. But this was April 4, 2004, the day insurgents followed Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s command to “terrorize your enemy.” Militiamen wearing coordinated green headbands and brandishing machine guns overpowered Iraqi-run police stations. They burned tires and blockaded their own streets to keep U.S. troops at bay. Then they scattered themselves on rooftops to fire grenades and bullets at passing American soldiers.

Young's regiment had been in Iraq only five days, but when American patrols started getting overrun, commanding officers ordered every available gun into the field. To Young, the whole mission felt botched. His truck wasn't supposed to leave base. Everybody knew it would overheat. The vehicle had no armor. It lacked even a fabric canopy, giving snipers a clear line of fire.

Before Young could squeeze off a shot, a round slammed into the front of his left shoulder. The bullet found a spot unprotected by the flak jacket that shielded his chest and back. The high-powered blast sliced diagonally through his torso and blasted out the opposite side of his back. It lodged in the back plate of his kevlar vest. Young's body went numb. He saw himself drop his M-16. He reached for the weapon, but his arms wouldn't move. He tried again. Nothing happened.

Across town, one of Young's best friends, Pvt. Riley Soden, also from Kansas City, was about to be outmatched in a firefight of his own.

Soden had just finished escorting a general through downtown Baghdad. He was at chow when he heard an emergency call over the radio. "Contact. Contact," the dispatcher shouted. "We have people that are wounded." His truck was the fifth transport in a phalanx of Hummers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles dispatched to restore order. Soden took his place behind a machine gun mounted on the flatbed of a modified Humvee.

Outside the base, Sadr City felt like a ghost town. Up and down each block, insurgents hid inside buildings, on rooftops and around street corners. Soden was heading into an ambush.

All at once, the insurgents opened fire. Bullets buzzed past Soden like a swarm of angry bees. Nearby, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded. He fed a belt of pencil-sized ammo into his weapon. Grabbing both handles, he unloaded.

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