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Marines recount POW rescue operation
Marine Corps News ^ | 15 April 2003 | Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly

Posted on 04/15/2003 9:32:17 AM PDT by COBOL2Java

Submitted by: I Marine Expeditionary Force
Story Identification Number: 200341565546
Story by Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Central Iraq (April 15, 2003) -- On a tip from an Iraqi official, Marine with D Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, dashed through sniper fire on the streets of Samarra, Iraq.

The pushed on in the early morning of April 12 even as they felt the situation was eerily resembling the beginning of an infamous battle in Somalia which they had studied during training.

The streets and rooftops in the town square quickly began to fill as the Marines searched house-to-house for America's seven prisoners of war.

"I could see maybe 30 people just on one roof. They were everywhere," said Lance Cpl. Curney Russell Jr., am 18-year-old scout with 3rd Platoon. "I wondered if the tip was a setup."

"We didn't want another 'Blackhawk Down' scene having to fight our way out of a town," said Cpl. Christopher Castro, referring to a deadly clash in Somalia where American soldiers were attacked in a densely populated area.

Marines received the intelligence while in a blocking position outside Samarra. A local police officer advised the Marines to "look in Building 13 if you want to find the Americans."

The Marines were directed to go in "weapons tight," according to Castro, who is 3rd Platoon's chief scout. The team's leaders made everyone aware that friendly forces possibly were inside and deadly force should be used with extreme caution.

"We went in knowing they'd be armed," he said. "If they had their weapons holstered or even just not aimed at us, we wouldn't shoot. We didn't want any firing. We didn't want to hit the POWs."

Some Marines were on foot and others were in light armored vehicles. Foot-mobile teams spread out through the alleys and streets looking for Building 13.

After the locals began amassing, the Marines were preparing to pull out when Russell heard a voice coming from a window.

"'We're Americans. My name is Chief Warrant Officer Williams,'" Russell recalled hearing. It was Building 13. He immediately notified his commander of the discovery.

The team of Marines raced through the streets to his position. After pounding the door three times, the Marine's officer gave the nod. Two powerful kicks later, the wooden door splintered and Marines rushed into the dimly lit room Army CWO David Williams and the six other prisoners of war were being held.

"Speed, speed, speed," Russell said. "It's all about getting 'em and getting out as fast as possible."

With rifles pointing every direction and Marines screaming for everyone to get down, the Marines took control of the situation instantly. Three unarmed guards were laying facedown among the POWs.

Russell loudly announced, "If you're an American, stand up now!" The seven stood and were quickly ushered outside to a secure rally point.

As the American soldiers were being separated from their captors, they implored the Marines to be temperate with the Iraqi guards.

"'Don't hurt them,'" Russell recalls CWO Williams shouting. "'They're our friends. They helped us out.'"

The Iraqis got rid of their weapons as they awaited the rescue siege. The freed soldiers later said these guards had pooled their own money together to buy medicine and food for the POWs. They had only been in this location a few days.

The Iraqis were cooperative and "did everything they were told to do," Castro said. They were taken as enemy prisoners of war and turned over to intelligence officers.

The Marines could hear sniper fire again while exiting the house, so the rescuees were moved in a tactical formation. Marines marched shoulder-to-shoulder forming a 180-degree wall in front of the soldiers. Castro and Russell helped the wounded along while armored vehicles rolled closely behind them. Other vehicles blocked intersections and watched further ahead.

"There was no way the guys we just rescued were going to get shot now," Castro said. "That was the last thing we were going to let happen. They'd have to take us down first."

Within moments the Marines had the soldiers out of town. The whole operation took less than 30 minutes, according to Castro. An hour and half later they were airborne in CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters.

"They were shaken up. They kept hugging us and thanking us," Russell said. "They went from being real uptight and shaky at first to very excited and even relaxed."

The helicopters flew the ex-POWs, Castro and Russell to an airfield about 65 miles south of Baghdad. The two Marines were instructed by their commanding officer to accompany the soldiers out of Iraq to ensure their comfort.

"We were the first Americans they'd seen since they were captured," Castro said. "They kind of clung to us from the start, so our CO figured they needed some familiar faces traveling with them."

As two CH-46 helicopters sand blasted an awaiting throng of Marines at the airfield, which is part of Logistical Support Area Chesty, one of the ex-POWs flashed the hand gesture "V" for victory through a porthole. The anxious crowd, which didn't know what condition the soldiers were in, responded with thankful cheers.

With the help of Castro and Russell, the soldiers debarked the helicopters one at a time. Most wore ragtag outfits fashioned from various uniform component and Iraqi garb. By military standards, they were in dire need of a shave and haircut.

After maneuvering through still photographers and a CNN crew, they climbed into military ambulances headed for a C-130 cargo plane.

Scores of Marines jumped from their vehicles as the ambulances passed by. They clapped and shouted encouragement.

Once the ambulances stopped, most of the soldiers literally bound out the ambulances' back doors and up the airplane's ramp. Those not capable of moving as fast limped up the ramp with help from their personal guards.

The inside of the plane turned into a spontaneous party. Hands were thrown in the air. Those capable jumped up and down. A few of the soldiers wrapped Marines in bear hugs. The Marines hugged right back. One shouted out, "I love you, man!"

The plane lifted off heading south.

"When the C-130 was landing, one of the soldiers asked me if we were still in Iraq," Russell said. "He seemed relieved when I told him we were in Kuwait. I could tell he was just happy to be out Iraq."

The two Marines accompanied the freed POWs all the way to Camp Doha, Kuwait. Castro said the Army personnel treated them like "someone special" there. They had a warm meal, slept in an actual bed and enjoyed a hot shower all for the first time in about a month.

Both Marines were permitted to call home. Russell, a native of Manchester, N.H., found out he was expecting a baby girl. Castro discovered his image was plastered on television, websites and newspapers everywhere. Reporters had contacted both Marines' families already.

The next morning they asked to be returned to Iraq as soon as possible.

"We have to get to our unit," said Castro, who claims to have shot at least two Iraqi soldiers in the war. "There is still fighting. We can't miss that."

They returned to Iraq the next day stopping at I Marine Exeditionary Force's command element. The IMEF commanding general, Lieutenant Gen. James T. Conway, gave Castro and Russell unit coins and told them they have "made the Corps proud."

Castro was quick to point out, "All the scouts who went in on the rescue did great. They showed great speed and aggressiveness. They knew what to do and they did it. We were just the two lucky enough to go with them."

His battalion spent 45 days at sea transiting from San Diego to Kuwait. Much of the time was spent holding classes and training sessions on tactics including moving through built up areas like the town square in Samarra.

Much of 3rd Platoon is new to the military. Russell spent just six days in the Fleet Marine Corps before deploying.

"If you train right, you can rely on it no matter what happens," Castro said. "We trained so much for situations like this, I didn't have to give any direction. Everyone knew just what needed to be done, and they did it."

The seven soldiers rescued were Army CWO Williams, CWO Ronald Young, Sgt. James Riley, Specialists Edgar Hernandez, Joseph Hudson and Shoshana Johnson, and Pfc. Patrick Miller

The five enlisted soldiers were assigned to the Army's 507th Maintenance Battalion out of Fort Hood, Texas. Their convoy was ambushed March 23. The two warrant officers were captured after their AH-64A Apache helicopter was shot down March 24.

While no reunion between the ex-POWs and their rescuers has been planned, both Castro and Russell agreed they hope to see them again.

"We gave them our phone numbers," said Castro, who calls San Antonio home. "Most of them are stationed in Texas and I'm from Texas. I'd be more than happy to drive up and see them. They told us they want us to meet their kids."

Marines were also involved in the successful rescue of another ex-POW. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was also assigned to the 507th Maintenance Bn., was brought to safety after an undisclosed team of American troops conducted an extract operation April 1 in An Nasryah.

Marines received at least one tip from an Iraqi man that led to Lynch's rescue. She has since returned to the United States.

The seven Americans rescued April 13 have been treated and released from a medical facility in Kuwait. There are no other known coalition prisoners of war as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Caption: Corporal Christopher Castro (front-left) sits with four of the seven newly rescued ex-prisoners of war, at an airfield in central Iraq, April 12. Castro, a 21-year-old native of San Antonio, Texas, is the chief scout with 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. His team was the first to find the American soldiers being held captive in a house in Samarra, Iraq. Photo by: Sgt. Jospeh R. Chenelly

Click on image for high-resolution version

TOPICS: Extended News; News/Current Events; War on Terror
KEYWORDS: embeddedreport; gutsandglory; iraqifreedom; marines; searchandrescue; usmc
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1 posted on 04/15/2003 9:32:17 AM PDT by COBOL2Java
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To: COBOL2Java
these guards had pooled their own money together to buy medicine and food for the POWs

Wow...I am almost speechless.

2 posted on 04/15/2003 9:34:41 AM PDT by krb (the statement on the other side of this tagline is false)
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3 posted on 04/15/2003 9:36:12 AM PDT by Support Free Republic (Your support keeps Free Republic going strong!)
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To: COBOL2Java
Tearfully thankful...
4 posted on 04/15/2003 9:43:10 AM PDT by EternalVigilance
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To: COBOL2Java
From this old soldier, one huge HOOAH! And a thanks to the US Marines. Leave no man (or woman) behind.
5 posted on 04/15/2003 9:44:49 AM PDT by TominPA (Call me a soldier, retired is optional......)
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To: COBOL2Java
Thanks for posting this wonderful story.
6 posted on 04/15/2003 9:45:52 AM PDT by Jen (FReepdom is not FRee! Please help support FreeRepublic!!!)
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To: krb
these guards had pooled their own money together to buy medicine and food for the POWs

This is awesome. These guys have to be rewarded, and WELL. Word will get around that those who help Americans can count on our support. These guards, along with the lawyer who helped out lynch, are true hero's in every sense of the word.

7 posted on 04/15/2003 9:49:32 AM PDT by Paradox
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To: krb
Wow...I am almost speechless.

It would be nice if America could give these compassionate guards back 10X the amount they pooled. Each. For all they knew, that compassion could have caught the attention of regime hardliners like Feydayeen Saddam and it would have gone very hard for them and their families even in the dying moments of the regime. If I can send money to them directly, please let me know how.

8 posted on 04/15/2003 9:52:09 AM PDT by tyen
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To: EternalVigilance
The next morning they asked to be returned to Iraq as soon as possible.

"We have to get to our unit," said Castro, who claims to have shot at least two Iraqi soldiers in the war. "There is still fighting. We can't miss that."

My favorite line from the story. Words can't express how proud I am of these young men and women!
9 posted on 04/15/2003 9:53:06 AM PDT by COBOL2Java
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To: COBOL2Java
Great story....but why, with all the friggin embeds in the country..hasn't this come out before...the truth.....the way it's been described on the tube, the POW's were just sitting by the side of the road, and a helo flew in and picked them up......

I trust they'll be a few medals handed out.....

10 posted on 04/15/2003 9:55:40 AM PDT by ken5050
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To: COBOL2Java
This is impossible-They were rescued??? This can't be. At least three times on NBC Monday morning the perky Katie Coric made sure to mention they were released by their captors. She mentioned nothing of a rescue.

11 posted on 04/15/2003 10:10:29 AM PDT by never4get
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To: COBOL2Java
Marines ROCK!!!!
Did ya see this article??

European Stars and Stripes
April 15, 2003

'Mojo' And 'Mad Dog' Prove Their Mettle

By Mark Oliva, Stars and Stripes

SOUTHERN IRAQ - Sgt. Christopher Merkle and Sgt. Jose Rodriguez weren't going to let a little truck accident stop them from finishing what they'd started.

Merkle and Rodriguez, affectionately known as Mojo and Mad Dog to their fellow Marines, might have pulled off the biggest caper of the war in Iraq. They ducked doctors, begged rides and did everything short of stealing a Humvee to return to their unit, despite suffering injuries when a truck overturned with them in the back.

Merkle and Rodriguez, infantrymen with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, returned to their unit late on March 30. Merkle's helmet bobbled on his head and the flak jacket he wore was too small to close around his chest. His camouflaged chemical suit was torn down the leg.

Rodriguez didn't look much better. His flak jacket also was the wrong size, and a bag of grenades hung from his side. The two had just completed a remarkable journey, dodging medical evacuation to Kuwait to return to their unit for the remainder of the war.

"There was no way we were going to the hospital," Merkle said. "It seems like it was a suicide mission to come back, but we couldn't go back to the States and look these Marines in the eye knowing they were out there while we were eating ice cream."

'Just wanted to get looked at'

Merkle and Rodriguez were riding in a truck with about 20 other Marines at night last month in lights-out conditions during a dust storm. The driver lost sight of the road and careened over the edge of a small bridge.

Some Marines sustained serious injuries, including a broken pelvis, broken legs and back injuries. Merkle and Rodriguez were among those with less serious injuries.

Merkle compressed his spine and neck when he landed directly on his head. Rodriguez also suffered an injury to his back and strained his left wrist.

"I just wanted to get looked at" by medical personnel, Merkle said. "I didn't know we'd end up going that far back from the front."

The Marines were shuttled between medical aid stations - from battalion to regiment and, finally, to a shock trauma center about an hour away via Army Black Hawk helicopter.

There, they joined Marines who'd been injured in other accidents and in combat. The ward was filled with 54 injured troops. Merkle and Rodriguez quickly realized that all of them were to be evacuated to Kuwait Military Hospital.

"We knew if we were going there, we weren't going to be coming back," Rodriguez said. "They had two C-130s ready to take everyone out."

A way back north

That's when the two got desperate. They knew they wouldn't be released from the hospital unless a doctor cleared them. Merkle could hide his back injury, but his neck injury was too serious to fake.

"I found a sympathetic doc who understood we wanted to get back and gave me a shot of some kind of muscle relaxer. I felt great," he said. "I touched my toes, and they told me Patient 101 was cleared."

"I just told them I was right-handed," Rodriguez said. "I told them I was good to go, and I'd just get looked at back at my unit."

To keep from being caught, the two Marines busied themselves among the ambulances, pretending to work, until the planes took off for Kuwait.

"Then it was too late," Merkle said. "They gave us a cot and a space blanket, and we spent the night there until we could try to find a way back north."

Two possible rides never appeared, so Merkle and Rodriguez headed out to the main supply route and began flagging down vehicles heading north. When they told drivers they wanted to go beyond Nasiriyah, where fighting was still heavy, some told them they were crazy. But all said they weren't going that far.

"Everybody had the intentions, but not the means to help us out," Rodriguez said.

They finally caught a ride to a nearby airfield, but their luck didn't change there. The pilots sympathized with them, but couldn't take them without orders. The Marines finally made their way to the Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters, where their hopes were raised.

Until this time, the two had been traveling around a war zone without the slightest bit of protection. One Marine gunnery sergeant listened to their story and offered his flak jacket. Another gave them helmets. Still, they had no weapons.

"We went over to the ammo supply point and talked to the Marines there," Merkle said. "They couldn't give us any rifles, but they did give us something else."

Five anti-tank rockets and 30 grenades heavier, the two Marines continued their frantic search for a ride north.

Becoming legend

A truck unit took them as far as it could, but a promise of further help from a sergeant major fell through. Their reputation soon preceded them. They became a popular battlefield rumor.

"It kind of caught me by surprise when we were trying to explain ourselves and people told us they'd heard about us," Rodriguez said.

But not everyone was convinced they were who they claimed to be. One Marine master gunnery sergeant doubted they were even Marines when he spied Merkle's torn uniform and Rodriguez's unshaven face.

Finally, they happened upon a Marine helicopter pilot who had a soft spot for the two. Merkle pulled out a map of Iraq he bought at Barnes & Noble before deploying and showed his unit's expected location. The pilot happened to be headed north and took the two along on his flight.

"We walked off the helicopters and noticed the lack of hospitality," Merkle said. "That's when we knew we were back with the grunts."

Back to the front

They were welcomed back to their unit with open arms. Many had doubted they'd see the injured Marines again. But for others, the sudden appearance of Merkle and Rodriguez was no surprise.

"Particularly with those two Marines," said Gunnery Sgt. Scoby, company gunnery sergeant. "It shows their character. They're not in it for themselves."

Merkle and Rodriguez said they still feel a little tender. They're taking it as easy as field life allows and are still trying to gather up their gear that was quickly "borrowed" by Marines in their platoons.

"There was no way we weren't going to come back," Rodriguez said. "We even thought about stealing a Humvee for a while. We were checking which ones had the most gas, but knew it would be stupid because we had no weapons."

It was duty calling once again. Their job, they said, wasn't to kick back and take life easy just because they happened take a ride over a bridge that wasn't on the map.

"I had a sense of responsibility to finish the mission," Rodriguez said. "I made a personal promise to myself to bring everyone of my Marines home, so I had to come back to take care of them."
12 posted on 04/15/2003 10:13:15 AM PDT by MudPuppy (Semper Fidelis!)
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To: Paradox
Isn't there some kind of medal for them?
13 posted on 04/15/2003 10:14:53 AM PDT by tuckrdout
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To: ken5050
I think this was the unit that Rick Leventhal was with at first, wasn't it? He would have covered it, if he would have stayed! But, he wanted to be with a different unit that was in Baghdad...trying to get a better story. But, the biggest story he had since switching was that their bird died! LOL If this was his original unit, how he must be kicking himself!
14 posted on 04/15/2003 10:17:55 AM PDT by tuckrdout
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To: never4get
Yeah....they were just sitting by the road....
15 posted on 04/15/2003 10:18:47 AM PDT by tuckrdout
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To: MudPuppy
Off topic..but have you seen anything recent on the 4 (? ) remaining MIA's...I believe they're not though to be POWs...either separated from their unit in combat, or KIA and remains not yet found?..also, any updates of the USMC Col who was relieved....that story had really dropped off the radar.....regards..
16 posted on 04/15/2003 10:20:13 AM PDT by ken5050
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To: COBOL2Java
Semper Fi bump!
17 posted on 04/15/2003 10:20:15 AM PDT by SuperLuminal
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To: MudPuppy
18 posted on 04/15/2003 10:26:22 AM PDT by DED (Liberals Never Learn. *LNL*)
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To: SMEDLEYBUTLER; IGOTMINE; XtreMarine; g'nad; Teacup; LadyX; 11B3; 2111USMC; 2Jedismom; ...
ping over here -- Awesome Marines BUMP!
19 posted on 04/15/2003 10:41:38 AM PDT by MudPuppy (Semper Fidelis!)
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To: COBOL2Java
"We didn't want another 'Blackhawk Down' scene having to fight our way out of a town,"

Absent Les Aspin and Triple-X42, little chance of that happening. Adults are now in charge-- Adult Americans, at that.

20 posted on 04/15/2003 10:56:08 AM PDT by San Jacinto
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