FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq, Dec. 21 -- It was a brilliant, sunny day with a blue sky and warmer-than-usual temperatures in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down for lunch in their giant chow hall tent.
It was about noon Tuesday when insurgents hit the tent with a suspected rocket attack. The force of the explosions knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats. A fireball enveloped the top of the tent, and shrapnel sprayed into the troops.
Amid the screaming and thick smoke that followed, quick-thinking soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot.
"Medic! Medic!" soldiers shouted.
Medics rushed into the tent and hustled the rest of the wounded out on stretchers.
Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters outside. Others wobbled around the tent and collapsed, dazed by the blast.
"I can't hear! I can't hear!" one female soldier cried as a friend hugged her.
Near the front entrance to the chow hall, troops tended a soldier with a gaping head wound. Within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.
Soldiers scrambled back into the hall to check for more wounded. The explosions blew out a huge hole in the roof of the tent. Puddles of bright red blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor.
Grim-faced soldiers growled angrily about the attack as they stomped away.
Sgt. Evan Byler, of the 276th Engineer Battalion, based in Richmond, steadied himself on one of the concrete bomb shelters. He was eating chicken tenders and macaroni when the bomb hit. The blast knocked him out of his chair. When the smoke cleared, Byler took off his shirt and wrapped it around a seriously wounded soldier.
Byler held the bloody shirt in his hand, not quite sure what to do with it.
"It's not the first close call I have had here," said Byler, a Fauquier County resident who survived a roadside bomb blast while riding in a vehicle earlier this year.