Several Iraqis, all wearing Bedouin robes, were standing on a bridge just outside the town of Nasiriyah. Army Sgt. Charles Horgan, 21, was poised at the gun turret of a Humvee, on a scouting mission.
It was March 22, days into the war. The order came: Clear the bridge.
As the Humvee approached, the Iraqis began to walk away quickly, "acting really weird," Horgan recalled yesterday from his bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he has been since March 31. "They were really edgy."
Horgan, of Montana, said he spotted someone in a trench and then noticed he was armed. "Oh, great, this guy's got a rifle," he recalled saying to himself. He turned to warn Staff Sgt. Jamie Villafane, one of two other soldiers in the vehicle.
By then, Pvt. Alonso Lopez had driven the Humvee onto the bridge. Horgan maneuvered the turret to point the machine gun toward the trench. And then he heard a whooshing sound from the direction of another bridge nearby. It was a rocket, he said, "flying down the road at us."
"I'm thinking, 'Wow, I'm in the war. They're actually shooting at us,' " Horgan said. "I'm thinking, 'It's too late now . . . . I'm going to die.' "
"Then it slams into the truck," he said. "It's this horrible slamming of metal on metal. And then an explosion. And the explosion is like somebody punched me. And then my legs went numb."
Horgan was thrown onto the roof of the Humvee, stomach down. His boot was torn open and filled with shrapnel. Lopez, in the driver's seat, was uninjured. But shrapnel had torn into Villafane's elbow.
Villafane managed to sneak off the bridge and over to the trench, where he surprised the men who had been spotted earlier. Gone were the robes that had covered their military uniforms. They were captured. Villafane, 31, of Long Island, N.Y., is also at Walter Reed.
Horgan, clad in a gray Army T-shirt and nursing his right foot, told his story between telephone conversations. He said he is glad he is home, and gladder still he is not in Iraq. And he said he hopes his fellow soldiers make it back safely.
He has talked to his father, who initially thought he had died. He talked to his mother, who was overwhelmed by his safe return. Now he spends much of his waking time talking to family and watching the war on a nine-inch television suspended over his bed.
He will soon return to Jefferson, a small community outside Helena, where, he said sheepishly, he is being hailed as a hero. Today, he is scheduled to receive a Purple Heart.
He never fired a single shot in combat. But he thinks about what might have happened.
"We don't consider ourselves heroes. It's a job we do. We got wounded, and we're not fighting anymore," Horgan said. "I don't know what's so heroic about that."