U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jamie Villafane captured four Iraqi soldiers single-handedly on Saturday, in both senses of the expression: by himself, and with just his right hand. His left was disabled by shrapnel when an Iraqi missile blasted him out of his Humvee.
He came face-to-face with the Iraqis beneath a bridge, where he went looking for the enemy shortly after the missile strike on his Humvee and then another one, according to Villafane and the machine gunner in his vehicle, Sgt. Charles Horgan. "It was four guys against me," Villafane, 31, of Brentwood, N.Y., said today. "They dropped their guns right away. You could see they were terrified."
He demurred when asked if he felt like a hero. "I feel sad. I feel like I let my guys down," he said matter-of-factly. "I got wounded and lost both my vehicles."
Villafane and Horgan, 21, of Helena, Mont., who also was wounded, described the 10-minute firefight sparked by the missile strike during a news conference at a U.S. Army hospital here in southwestern Germany. They were flown in from Kuwait after being evacuated from Iraq by helicopter. In several days, they are to be sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to continue their recovery.
The confrontation took place on a tributary of the Euphrates River about 18 miles south of the city of Nasiriyah, which has been the scene of repeated clashes between U.S. and Iraqi troops.
The two sergeants were in the first of two Humvees sent to the bridge after men in civilian clothes were spotted there. Their assignment was to keep civilians from clogging the roads, to ensure the smooth flow of supplies north toward Baghdad.
Villafane was in the passenger seat. Horgan was standing in a turret behind him, at a .50-caliber machine gun. They became suspicious when the men who had been spotted appeared nervous and ran away as they approached. When Horgan saw that one had a rifle, he started to turn his machine gun toward them. Just then he saw the missile, fired from about 150 yards away and heading straight for the front of the Humvee.
"I thought, 'I'm going to die,' " Horgan said. "Then I thought, 'No, it's going to hit the truck. 'I'm going to lose my legs.' "
The blast lifted Horgan out of the turret and onto the back of the vehicle. His legs went numb. "I looked down, and realized I still had my legs. I was pretty relieved about that," he said. Shrapnel tore off part of his right heel and injured his lower leg. It will be a long time before he can walk without crutches.
Villafane was thrown to the right. "It blew me out of the truck. I was a little dazed," he said. It also shattered the ring finger on his left hand. The Humvee's driver, shielded by a radar mount, was not injured.
Villafane groped for his M-4 assault rifle and tried to assess the situation. A second wire-guided missile whizzed past. "It came pretty close. I got to see the wire as it went by," he said. The missile badly damaged the second Humvee. But the soldiers inside were not seriously injured because their vehicle was armored, unlike Villafane and Horgan's.
Bleeding, Villafane scrambled down to a trench under the bridge to ensure there was no threat. There, he said, he "got the jump" on an enemy soldier.
"He was looking one way, and I happened to be looking directly at him," Villafane said. The Iraqi dropped his AK-47, and then three more men appeared. They surrendered, too, when "they saw I already had one guy at gunpoint," Villafane said.
The four were living in mud huts under the bridge and had a cache of weapons and ammunition there. All were wearing what the Americans called "Bedouin robes," but had military uniforms underneath.
Villafane took his captives up to the bridge. "That's when I realized it was more than just my hand" that was wounded, he said. Horgan took Villafane's knife and cut away his sleeve, revealing an ugly wound at the elbow that Horgan described as looking like a tomato.
Horgan applied a field dressing to the elbow and helped Villafane adjust one he'd already put on his hand. Then they threw smoke grenades to cover their retreat. With the Iraqis in tow, they made their way to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that had arrived to support them, along with an M1 Abrams tank. While they don't know how the encounter ended, Horgan said he believes the Iraqis who fired the missile withdrew.
"They had us surprised, and definitely had the advantage" at first, Horgan said. "Once we regrouped and everybody started shooting back, we had them on the go."
Both Villafane and Horgan said they regretted leaving their buddies behind but were relieved to be out of combat. Villafane, a 12-year veteran, said he'd decided before the war to leave the military so he could spend more time with his wife and three children. He said he wasn't that disturbed by the experience of combat.
"Getting shot at wasn't really that bad," he said. "It was the getting shot part that sucked."