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Thursday, July 17

Thoughts of family sustained 507th soldier during ambush

By Laura Cruz | El Paso Times

EL PASO, Texas - In the middle of an Iraqi desert, in the middle of a war, in the middle of an ambush, Army Sgt. Matthew Rose thought only of his wife and six children as small-arms and mortar fire besieged him and fellow soldiers of Fort Bliss' 507th Maintenance Company.

"I didn't expect to be in that situation," Rose, 37, of Salem, Ore., said Wednesday. "Proper military doctrine says if you're in an ambush, drive out of the ambush. I just prayed and drove. I kept saying, 'Lord, I don't want to die. I want to see my kids.' "

As five of his six children played tag in an El Paso park, Rose recounted the March 23 ambush at the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in which nine soldiers were killed, seven were captured and several more were wounded. Pfc. Jessica Lynch, held captive, was rescued.

Rose, who was calm as he described the ambush, is among the first members of the 507th to talk openly about events that led to deadly attack on U.S. soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was awarded the Bronze Star with a valor device, the second-highest medal awarded to a member of the maintenance company.

His story and that of 82 soldiers from the 507th began Feb. 17 when they left Fort Bliss. They arrived March 20 in Kuwait. Sixty-four 507th soldiers, including Rose, crossed into Iraq as the last 33 vehicles in a 600-vehicle convoy headed for Baghdad.

"I knew all along that we were going to cross into Iraq. Saddam Hussein had shown himself to be stubborn and wasn't listening to reason," Rose said. "Crossing into Iraq was weird. It wasn't any really big deal, but you still expected something because you're crossing into another country."

The 507th convoy continued north toward Baghdad. But because of sand and vehicle breakdowns, the company split apart. A 15-page investigative report compiled by Army officers details the attack. The report, which has been published in newspapers, has yet to be released officially.

The report blames the pace of the operation, fatigue and the environment for the ambush. And while some family members of the soldiers who died said they don't understand why the maintenance unit didn't have combat escorts, Rose said he doesn't think that would have helped.

"Given the situation, even if we had infantry, we wouldn't have a full infantry contingent and they would have been following the commander. I don't know how much of a difference infantry support would have made," he said. "The report is not issuing blame on anyone, and I don't think any one person should be responsible because there was a combination of factors."

^A wrong turn

On March 22, 31 soldiers of the 507th and two soldiers from the 3rd Forward Support Battalion had fallen behind and caught up to the company commander, Capt. Troy King. King led the convoy through a road known as Highway 8, but instead of turning left at an intersection that would have led away from a large concentration of Iraqi forces, the 507th continued north, the report said.

The convoy made its way through Nasiriyah before King realized the soldiers were off the route they were supposed to take. After conferring with 1st Sgt. Robert Dowdy, King decided to retrace the route through the city. But before the convoy turned around, Rose and the soldiers saw a small pickup with three Iraqi soldiers with a machine gun drive past twice as if to warn them of danger.

"I was the fourth vehicle in the convoy, and after we turned around, we began to hear shooting, and the convoy began to pick up speed," said Rose, who returned home May 25. "We apparently missed our turn and had to make a U-turn, and it was when we got onto the main road and approached the Euphrates River that we got the heaviest fire."

Because of the different weights of the vehicles, the convoy was split into three groups, the report said.

"My vehicle was being hit. It was blowing smoke everywhere, and at least one of my tires was flat," said Rose. "My vehicle continued to slow down as I got out of the city and over the river."

The first group in the convoy maneuvered around obstacles, made its way out of the city and approached the 8th Tank Battalion, made up of Marines, and asked for help, the report said. As the first group briefed the Marines, Rose, who never used his weapon, and Rose's wounded passenger, Cpl. Francis Carista, struggled to get out of the city.

^Getting out

"We ran up to where another group of vehicles had broken down, and that's where all the wounded people were. So we started conducting immediate first aid," said Rose, whose first job in the Army was as a medic.

Upon arrival of the Marines and their tanks, a heavy burden of fear and death began to lift, Rose said.

"It was a huge relief," he said. "I knew we were going to be OK, but I was still very concerned about the people behind us. I didn't know what was going on behind us."

What was happening behind him was the horror that has made the ambush of the 507th a national tragedy.

The third group of the convoy included Pvt. Brandon Sloan of Bedford Heights, Ohio; Pfc. Howard Johnson II of Mobile, Ala.; Spc. Jamaal Addison of Roswell, Ga.; Spc. James Kiehl of Comfort, Texas; Sgt. Donald R. Walters of Salem, Ore.; Pfc. Lori Piestewa of Tuba City, Ariz.; Dowdy, of Cleveland; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Johnny Villareal Mata of Pecos, Texas; and Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto of El Paso, who were killed.

Spc. Edgar Hernandez of Mission, Texas; Spc. Shoshana Johnson of El Paso; Pfc. Jessica Lynch of Palestine, W.Va.; Pfc. Patrick Miller of Valley Center, Kan.; Sgt. James Riley of Pennsauken, N.J.; and Spc. Joseph Hudson of Alamagordo, N.M. were captured.

Piestewa was captured and died in captivity. Lynch was rescued April 1, and the remaining five soldiers were rescued April 13.