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Wounded Marines Recall Harrowing Iraq Combat Experiences

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 2, 2003 – One recalled experiencing a type of blindness caused by darkness and the "fog of war," while the other noted it was hard to see the enemy because of deception.

These were the views of Marines 1st Lt. James Unwins and 1st Sgt. Bruce Cole, recently wounded in combat in Iraq. The two, now recovering at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, told their stories to reporters today.

Unwins, 26, of South Pasadena, Calif., remembered a grueling 48 hours trucking supplies to fellow Marines striving to secure a bridge crossing across the Euphrates River near the town of Nasiriyah.

Near nightfall on March 26, Unwins and his group of drivers and mechanics from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, had established a temporary rest-and-refit stop at an abandoned Iraqi gas station. Marine bulldozers piling up berms or mounds of earth around the station improved security, he noted.

"It was looking like a pretty good place to spend a couple of days," the lieutenant recalled. "We had Marines set up on the perimeter around this berm, so our security was in place."

Darkness had fallen when Unwins "was pulling my sleeping bag out." The lieutenant didn't know it then, but all hell was about to break loose.

Suddenly, "we started having a kind of sporadic fire I saw the tracer rounds passing over the berm of the camp," Unwins remarked. At first, he thought "it was just someone kind of sniping the camp."

Then, "we really started to take heavy fire," Unwins recalled, "and that's when the small-arms fire escalated to rocket-propelled grenades and mortars."

At that point an RPG round plowed into a nearby vehicle and shrapnel whickered toward the lieutenant.

Hot metal struck his lower right leg, then went "all the way up to the left leg," Unwins pointed out. Then, another piece of metal sliced his left arm.

"The shrapnel in the leg kind of took me out of the fight," Unwins said, noting that a corpsman quickly began treating him.

The night's "darkness really created the 'fog of war'" during the fight, the lieutenant emphasized. Consequently, there was "no clue," he declared, as to the enemy's position, other than the streaking tracer rounds "coming from all three sides of our perimeter."

In contrast to Unwins' nighttime combat experiences, 1st Sgt. Cole said he had fought the enemy during the full light of day.

However, Cole's Iraqi foes didn't enlist Mother Nature to cloak their attack, but instead resorted to dastardly deception that violates the rules of war under the Geneva Conventions.

On the morning of March 27, Cole said his battalion was headed north on Iraqi Highway 1 as the main attacking element.

"It was a bright morning," the 39-year-old Beaumont, Texas, native recalled. Berms and ditches had been established along both sides of the highway, he noted, which seemed to both channel and restrict the several-hundred-vehicle strong convoy as it continued up the road.

Cole recalled the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle he was in was in the lead of a column of trucks just behind the heavy armor. The first sergeant pointed out that many Iraqi civilians were observing the convoy, seemed friendly and were waving to the Marines.

Shortly after this, he noted, the U.S. troops were under attack, first with firing heard at the column's front where the tanks were. Then, more firing was evident, he added, emanating from the rear.

"There were engagements north of us; there were engagements south of us," the first sergeant remarked. Some Iraqi civilians had moved toward the Marines, he said, "as close as maybe 50 meters off the road, standing on top of the berms."

"It was difficult to determine where the firing was coming from," Cole said, noting that bullets were pinging off the Marines' vehicles and ricocheting off the stolid berms.

Not all of the civilian-garbed Iraqis were attacking the Marines, the first sergeant emphasized, noting some seemed as surprised and "just as afraid as anyone else from the look of fear on their faces."

In the middle of all this bedlam "the difficult part was trying to return fire and figure out who to shoot at," Cole asserted. He said the bright sky juxtaposed against the berms helped to mask the enemy's positions.

He turned in his seat and began to return fire out the vehicle's window. Then the "Top Kick" was hit in the arm.

"A bullet entered my forearm and exited through the back of my triceps, (which) knocked the rifle out of my hand," Cole recalled.

The attack ended. Cole attributed his and the convoy's survival of the ambush "to everybody's clear head and good thinking and the training that we had been through."

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