One Month, Two Brushes With Death

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 23, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Pvt. Kodey Briggs slid out from behind the wheel of the Humvee. He looked at what was left of his driver's-side window -- the spider web of cracked armored glass, the layer that didn't break.

His thin chest heaved. His pale hands trembled. Why didn't it break? He lit a cigarette. Then another. He took off his flak vest and helmet, sat down on the ground and leaned against a pile of sandbags. He seemed so fragile in that position: 18 years old, 152 pounds, a fuzz of short blond hair on his head. The other soldiers in his unit approached him deferentially, with pity and wonder.

"Most people don't live through one of those things," remarked Cpl. Richard Smith. "Briggs has lived through two."

When soldiers die here it tends to happen randomly: A single shot from an unseen gunman and someone falls to the ground. A bomb placed by an unknown hand takes out one Humvee from a line of four or five. There are no front lines, no armies to fight, just moments of chaos. Wrong places, wrong times.

So luck is something to worry about, to entreat and to supplicate. But it is not always easy to classify. Is Briggs lucky or unlucky, charmed or marked?

The Army has given this high school dropout a promising new life. A life in which he's almost died twice.

June 14, late afternoon, along a canal in southwestern Baghdad. Briggs sat in the machine-gun turret of the lead Humvee, providing security for the commander of the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division. A blast rang out.

The explosion propelled hot copper slugs over the murky water, piercing the driver's side of the armored truck. This type of bomb, known as an explosively formed projectile, is one of the deadliest weapons U.S. troops face in Iraq. If aimed and fired correctly, it can render any American vehicle defenseless.

A piece of speeding shrapnel stabbed into Briggs's thigh. The chest plate of his flak vest was ripped off his body. The Humvee swerved off the road, crashed down into the canal and landed at a cant, partially submerged in chest-deep water.

Bullets and grenades volleyed overhead. Briggs looked down at the driver and the blood-darkened water.

"I saw his head bobbing in the water. His legs were gone," Briggs recalled. "I pulled him out of there. He just looked at me and said, 'My legs are gone.' "

The driver survived, left Iraq. For the next 24 days, Briggs recovered, first at the Green Zone hospital and then on his base in southern Baghdad. He endured the pain of physical therapy on his wounded leg and sore back, but his real discomfort was mental. He felt useless, restless. While his unit kept fighting, he lay on his bunk waiting.


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