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Horror Glimpsed From the Inside of A Humvee in Iraq

Within 15 minutes, two Apache attack helicopters were swooping low overhead, their crew looking for fleeing insurgents.

Uncle, his face and uniform heavily splotched with blood, sat down and looked at me.

American soldiers attached to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment stand guard near Latifiyah after an ambush. (For The Washington Post)

"You were lucky," he said, his first words to me after the ambush.

"I am so sorry," I said, offering to clean his wounds and feeling an intense wave of what soldiers call "survivor's guilt." I thanked God that Uncle had suffered only cuts and a broken hand. As it turned out, it was Uncle's second bombing in Iraq. The first was in 2003 when the native of Mosul worked with U.S. Army Rangers. Even after this close scrape, he said he planned to stay.

"You're very courageous," I told him.

"I'm an old man," he replied.

Back at the mangled Humvee, an urgent effort was underway to save Caldwell. Trapped and slumped over in a pool of blood in the front seat, he was floating in and out of consciousness. The driver, Spec. Kanai Thiim, 28, of Honolulu, his face and neck peppered with shrapnel, was desperately trying to open Caldwell's door, punched inward by the explosion. Haycox, 22, of Choctaw, Okla., ran over with an ax and began swinging it hard at the lock. When that and then later a hammer failed, the men tried to pull off the roof, but it was too heavy. Finally, they used a metal rope and winch attached to another Humvee to rip the damaged door open.

All the time, Sparks was calling to Caldwell by his nickname, urging him to hang on. "Come on, Battle. Talk to me, Battle," he said. "Stay strong, Battle." At a loss at one point, Sparks started singing one of the favorite tunes of his beloved sergeant major, an aficionado of classic jazz. For a moment, Caldwell weakly tried to sing along. Sparks was ecstatic.

But a few yards away, life was draining out of Knott. Blasted from the Humvee along with the gun turret, he had suffered severe head trauma. His jugular vein cut by shrapnel, he was loosing copious amounts of blood. Soon, a medic at the scene said Knott was gone.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Hodges, Knott's platoon sergeant, took out a wooden cross with rosary beads and laid it on the fallen soldier's chest. As Sparks rubbed the back of Knott's head, the soldiers bowed their heads. Huddled together in the dirt, they said the Lord's Prayer. "Our Father, who art in Heaven," Hodges began.

Beyond them in the nearby village of Mullafayad, people began stirring. As they watched Knott's body being placed in a bag and carried away, Sparks, Thiim and others felt a growing sense of rage. They tried to wash the blood off the road with water, then shoveled dirt over the spot. "I don't want the guys who did this to have anything to celebrate or dance over," Sparks said. "Not today. Not ever."

As his platoon grappled with the loss of Knott, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's first soldier to be killed in action during this tour in Iraq, Thiim voiced a deep sadness, mixed with frustration over insurgent tactics. "It's just the worst feeling" to get hit by a road bomb, said Thiim, his neck bandaged and uniform bloodied. "You're just helpless. You can't react."

This time, I knew exactly what he meant.

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