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The Deadliest Day
Colby Katz

The Deadliest Day

His feet sloshing in blood, Petty Officer Nathan Allen moved frantically through the scene trying to decide which of his friends to save. They were calling to him, screaming from every direction about missing legs and torn-up arms. Seconds earlier, an Iraqi insurgent had lobbed a mortar over the wall of a U.S. military base in Iraq called Junction City. Usually, the near-daily mortar attacks fell well off target. But on May 2, one slammed into a crowd of Navy reservists from Florida. Knowing another mortar could be sailing toward him, Allen figured he had just seconds to pull the survivors out of danger.

He came upon Petty Officer Bob Jenkins first. A gnarled chunk of shrapnel jutted from his stomach. The blast shredded both of his legs below the knees. Just a day earlier, 35-year-old Jenkins had told him that the hell of Iraq had changed his priorities. "When I get back, I'm going to take all the time off I can to spend with my wife," Jenkins, who's from Stuart, had said. Now, Jenkins couldn't muster a breath. He moaned twice and turned a sickening gray.

"He's gone," Allen told others who had rushed over to help.

Allen turned his attention to Petty Officer William Rightsell, whose left thigh was bleeding skyward like a water fountain. More blood gushed from a hole in his forehead. The two men lived just a few miles from each other, Allen from Greenacres and 31-year-old Rightsell from Boynton Beach. Rightsell's linebacker size made him the perfect man to run a gun turret on top of a Humvee. With one hand, he could pull an injured man out of the driver's seat in case they came under attack. But his big size also meant he bled more than the others. The puddle below him covered the ground. Rightsell's face was graying just like Jenkins'. Allen stuffed a handkerchief into the streaming wound and moved on to the next man. He figured it would be the last time he'd see Rightsell alive.

Nearby, Petty Officer James Nappier of Royal Palm Beach was begging the rescuers to save his leg. Nappier, the oldest of the group at 46, had spent his life trying to avoid a desk job, working as a mechanic, a construction worker, and a cop. A missing leg meant the end of all that. A medic tightened a tourniquet above a fist-sized hole in his right thigh. While it could save him from bleeding to death, the tourniquet's pressure could have forced surgeons to amputate.

"Take it off," Nappier howled, reaching for the tourniquet. He hadn't felt the pain until they tightened it on his leg, and suddenly, it flooded over him. "I am not losing my leg."

Seconds later, with his blood pressure plummeting, Nappier's head began to bob. Allen knew what that could mean. "Don't you fall asleep," Allen commanded. "Don't you pass out on me." But Nappier couldn't fight the urge, and Allen knew it was time to move on to somebody else.

Allen scanned the scene. There were more than a dozen seriously injured men. A handful more hadn't moved since the explosion. Others had left blood trails where they had dragged themselves under vehicles. Most of the dead and wounded had just returned from a convoy across territory crawling with insurgents. Their vehicles were still lined up in the compound's gravel courtyard. Rescue helicopters buzzed on the horizon, and medics were setting up a triage station nearby. Allen moved through the blast site looking for survivors. It was early afternoon, and the intense desert heat had already begun to dry the blood into a sticky muck under his feet. It smelled of decay.

In minutes, Allen had gone from performing a routine welding job in his nearby workshop to tending to severely wounded and dying colleagues -- watching some of his friends bleed to death in the desert.

In the end, five men died that afternoon, and 34 more were wounded. Along with the death of Capt. John Tipton, a 32-year-old from Fort Walton Beach, who was in an office at the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division in Anbar, Iraq, when a piece of shrapnel from a mortar attack came through a window and struck him in the head, six Floridians died May 2 in Iraq. That made it Florida's deadliest day in the second Gulf War. Since combat began, about 60 men and women from Florida have died there. All but three of those deaths occurred after President Bush declared an end to combat on May 1, 2003.

The attack at Junction City outside the city of Ar Ramadi came just two days after insurgents ambushed the reservists on a stretch of highway a few miles to the west, killing two. As if there were any need for it, the ambush and the mortar attack that followed it vividly underscored the explosive volatility of Iraq, where there seems to be no safe zone, no place to escape the random attacks of insurgents.

None of the Navy reservists from Mobile Construction Battalion 14 were supposed to have been anywhere near the fighting. The men were part of a Jacksonville-based unit of construction workers called the Seabees. They're heavy-equipment operators, welders, and drywall specialists, more likely to be carrying tool belts than guns.

But in Iraq, the stretched military is liable to dragoon anyone into the fighting. A month before the Seabees left for the Middle East, they were asked to ride in convoys that would certainly see fighting, though their average age was in the high 30s and most hadn't received extensive combat training in a decade.

The Navy sent the Seabees into combat without standard armor for their vehicles. Like many reservists, they had little choice but to fight without it. Some believe that the two men who died in the ambush attack may have survived if their vehicles had the proper armor.

Family members of those who were slain blame superiors for the deaths. In Iraq, soldiers are forbidden from gathering in a group like the men were May 2 at Junction City. The grounds for why they were gathered -- a reason that goes all the way up the chain of command -- would make some family members call for criminal charges.

So far, the Navy hasn't begun any kind of inquiry into the incident, and for most involved, they're more worried about recovering from injuries than blaming those at the top. They tell a story of their time there that's indicative of the war in Iraq, a place where nobody can rest or stand in a group or even construct buildings without the fear of death.

As the Seabees rolled into Iraq in late April, Spanish River High grad Scott McHugh grabbed the radio in his Humvee to broadcast an inspiring message to his battalion. They rode north from Kuwait in a long convoy of construction vehicles, tractor trailers, Humvees, and troop transports. Even in the gung-ho military, 33-year-old McHugh had always stood out as the patriotic one. A second-generation sailor, McHugh joined despite his mother's disapproval. Before they left for Iraq, Allen and McHugh had spent an afternoon at the National D-Day Museum during a trip to New Orleans while others in the battalion partied on Bourbon Street. McHugh spoke with pride: "This is it, guys. This is history."

McHugh and the others saw their place as an honorable note in this second Gulf War. Here were a group of construction workers and welders, most pushing middle age, now called upon for battle.

With the Bush administration looking to avoid reinstituting the draft, the Defense Department is increasingly scrounging for fighters among support units that typically work behind the lines. A month before the 160-member Seabees battalion left for Iraq, superiors went through the ranks seeking volunteers to fight. Many Seabees left spouses, businesses, and school-aged kids at home, so it wouldn't have been a surprise if few volunteered.

So many Seabees volunteered to fight, though, that some were turned down. Their superiors picked 60 men, mostly the younger ones, to ride in the convoys. Few of the volunteers told their families what they would be doing in Iraq. For many, families would learn about it only after Navy officers knocked on the doors of the dead.

The Navy gave them a three-week crash course in Kuwait on spotting roadside bombs and shooting from speeding Humvees. They learned to leave bombed vehicles behind if they couldn't be towed quickly. The men were told to lasso or ditch vehicles within 15 minutes or be faced with a swarm of insurgents. It would soon become a crucial lesson.

As the Seabees entered Iraq, they let another convoy pass ahead of them as they fueled at a base along the border. Miles up the road, they saw the remains of part of it. A burned-out truck and tank transport smoldered on the side of the road. The charred remains were a stark contrast to the pale blue sky and nearly colorless sand that ran to the horizon.

Passing the destroyed vehicles was a sobering moment for the Seabees, even for McHugh, a man who typically laughed off adversity. McHugh's last trip into the desert a decade earlier had been during a cross-country trip with his college roommate, Duane Fulton. Not long into the trip, the beat-up truck they were traveling in broke down in the wastelands of Nevada.

"Scott just cracked up [laughing]," Fulton recalls from his home in Woodstock, Georgia. "No matter what the situation, that's just Scott's way of reacting to things. Nothing gets to him."

But as the convoy passed the smoldering tanker, McHugh wasn't laughing. Many of the men realized for the first time what they were in for.

It wasn't long before the men would get a taste of what Iraq has become. They made their base camp at Junction City, a collection of makeshift concrete and sheet-metal buildings 70 miles west of Baghdad. Just getting to the base was difficult. Coming and leaving meant passing through the outskirts of Ar Ramadi, a town crawling with insurgents. Days after they arrived, the Seabees were ordered to assemble their first convoy. They would traverse the country's most dangerous corridor -- and then they'd have to fight their way back.

They traveled west on roads that follow the Euphrates River to the Syrian border. Troops have nicknamed the highway "IED Alley," for "improvised explosive device," G.I. jargon for roadside bombs. Insurgents regularly hide under bridges, inside houses, or behind burned-out vehicles. Manning the gun atop a Humvee, Nappier told the others he didn't like the outlook for the trip. He had forgotten his flashlight, something he'd need if insurgents approached them at night, and somehow he thought it was an indication of how things would go.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Nappier told the men.

After the first day on the road, the Seabees made camp at an abandoned train station. Unable to sleep, Nappier and Petty Officer Chris Dickerson spent the night snooping around the place. They came across the old ticket windows and forgotten freight cars. By morning, they were covered in grease and soot from crawling through a bombed-out locomotive. Both men had spent much of their adult lives tinkering with engines. Back home in Eastman, Georgia, 33-year-old Dickerson spent weekends keeping a '67 Chevy Chevelle in pristine condition. His father had given it to him at high school graduation. In Iraq, he saw little to admire. He called his father, Jeffrey Dickerson, just before they left on the convoy. "Dad, this is a dirty country," Dickerson said by satellite phone. "Everything here stinks like you wouldn't believe."

The next afternoon, the convoy reached its destination, a Marine base on the Syrian border, where they unloaded supplies until well past dark. With a couple of hours of sleep, they headed out the next morning, April 30. The exhausted men had to remain constantly alert for insurgents. Bombed-out vehicles were everywhere along the road, sitting like memorials to previous attacks. Gunners atop Humvees scrutinized each one closely for hiding insurgents waiting to lob homemade bombs into windows. Unable to use both hands to mix coffee, some poured instant coffee grinds directly into their parched mouths to stay alert.

Just miles from Junction City, the convoy entered a town appropriately named Hit, a hot spot of insurgent attacks on IED Alley. It was almost 9 p.m., and the sun had begun to set across the desert. Hit was largely an industrial park on the edge of Ar Ramadi. The Americans called it "Trucker Town" for the tractor trailers parked along the road for service. When they had passed through on their way to the Syrian border, it had been abuzz with mechanics and workers. Now, it was empty. The men wondered if the workers had quit for the day or if it was something more sinister. If insurgents arrive in an area, it's common for civilians to flee.

The convoy crawled along. At the controls of the lead vehicle was Petty Officer Henry del Valle, a Florida Division of Forestry ranger from Miami. Initially, del Valle wasn't supposed to be in the convoy, let alone manning the most dangerous spot, in the point position. When the men volunteered for the convoys, 33-year-old del Valle had been assigned to handle radio operations at headquarters. But when the Seabees reached Iraq, the battalion needed more drivers than anticipated.

Del Valle wanted to be in the action, though driving into Trucker Town that night, he couldn't help thinking of his wife back home. She was pregnant with twins and taking care of their 5-year-old daughter. Thinking of his unborn sons had been his motivating force in Iraq, even while the convoy entered one of the country's most dangerous spots.

Driving behind del Valle was Dickerson, whose uniform was still covered in soot from the train station. Above him at the gun turret was Petty Officer Michael Rambo of Clearwater. Rambo, a 28-year-old pharmacy technician, scanned Trucker Town for signs of insurgents. Rambo spotted a white pickup speeding on a parallel road behind the industrial complex. As the convoy neared the end of Trucker Town, the pickup darted onto a side road and sped between del Valle and Dickerson.

The driver jumped out of the pickup, and something exploded -- either a roadside bomb or perhaps a grenade planted by the man. Almost simultaneously, a rocket blasted into Dickerson's Humvee, smashing through the windshield and tearing through Dickerson's neck and shoulder, killing him instantly. The rocket passed inches from Rambo's legs and continued out of the Humvee's back windshield.

Seconds later, a third explosion ripped apart the first Humvee again. Shrapnel shredded the vehicle, which lacked updated armor. Thirty-one-year-old Petty Officer Jason Dwelley of Apopka, a passenger in that vehicle, died from that blast. Del Valle, sitting in front of Dwelley, took a chunk of shrapnel to the back of the head. It pierced his helmet and tore a hole in his skull. His vehicle rolled to a stop as he went in and out of consciousness. He was losing blood, and his face drained to a sickening gray.

Rambo fired into the pickup, killing the passenger. Officers spilled out of the other vehicles. They called for a helicopter to evacuate del Valle, who many assumed would die before the choppers arrived. The sun set, leaving the rundown industrial park hidden in shadows. Iraqis began darting between buildings.

"It's like we stuck a stick in a beehive," Nappier said.

As Nappier manned his gun turret, he watched an Iraqi walk casually through the industrial park carrying a package. The man dropped it off at a building and walked away. Seconds later, gunfire erupted from a window. It was indicative of the imperfect rules of engagement in Iraq. Unless Iraqis pointed a gun at the convoy, the Americans could not shoot at them, even if they knew their intentions. The men sometimes watched insurgents set up roadside bombs, unable to shoot them until after it exploded.

Not long after the rocket attack, mortars began falling. Mostly, insurgents shoot the mortars from homemade devices, usually crafted from pieces of plastic PVC pipe. The mortars fell harmlessly off target near the end of the convoy, but it was enough to unnerve the men. In the darkness, the Seabees tried desperately to find something to shoot at.

The convoy sat perilously in place while the men waited to evacuate del Valle. Finally, after 212 hours, a rescue helicopter arrived for del Valle, who would be later flown for emergency surgery in Germany. They hooked up tow ropes to the damaged Humvee and headed toward Junction City. A half mile down the road, a bomb exploded at the back corner of Nappier's Humvee. It shook Nappier in his spot at the gun turret and left his ears ringing, but no one in the vehicle was injured.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Nappier told the driver.

The men sped back to the base for much-needed rest. They would get very little.

Back at Junction City, few in the battalion could sleep. Many were angered that the convoy had taken so long to move after the ambush. But more than anything, the men complained about the lack of armor on their vehicles. Two men had been killed, and del Valle was in critical condition. They could have been saved if the Humvees were armored, the men thought. Low-powered rockets typically used by insurgents can ricochet off protective glass on well-armored Humvees. "If he had bulletproof glass on that Humvee," Rambo said, "who knows, maybe that rocket wouldn't have gone through it."

Instead of much-deserved sleep, many of the men poured into the workshop run by Nathan Allen. Superiors had turned down Allen's request to be part of the convoys, saying the short and stocky former Marine was needed more as a welder. Petty Officer George Parsons of Winter Park was ordered to work with Allen. As soon as the battalion had arrived at Junction City, the pair began, in the make-do manner of most reserve units in Iraq, creating armor for the vehicles from loose scraps that they found. They traded tires and oxygen tanks for some steel plating that a Marine battalion didn't need.

"I didn't want those guys going out there again without the proper armor," Allen recalls. "We worked all night and all Saturday trying to get the armor installed."

The lack of armor on U.S. military vehicles in Iraq had been a frequent complaint among reservists long before Spc. Thomas Jerry Wilson of Nashville confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld three weeks ago at a battlefront powwow, asking why his unit was forced to scavenge for used metal and bulletproof glass to protect its vehicles. (Rumsfeld's now-infamous reply: ''You go to war with the Army you have... not the Army you want or wish to have.'')

The Humvees that rode as protection for the Seabees' convoys had only a ceramic shield inside the door panels that was supposed to stop bullets from entering the vehicle. But photos taken by Seabees of the Humvee attacked in Trucker Town show that a bullet or a piece of shrapnel easily shredded the door.

By the end of the Saturday following the ambush, the men had installed armor in a half dozen vehicles. They bolted scraps of metal inside of the door panels and covered portions of the windows with quickly welded steel plates. They would soon need it. The men received orders that afternoon that the convoy crew would not get any more rest. They would head out the following day for their next foray into the dangers of Iraq.

On the afternoon of May 2, less than two weeks into their deployment in Iraq, the Seabees again rolled toward some of the country's most dangerous terrain. A six-vehicle Humvee convoy was to drive 30 minutes east into the desert toward Baghdad, to a shimmering palace on a hill. Once a fortress where Saddam Hussein entertained foreign guests, its new management, the U.S. military, now calls it Camp Blue Diamond. The Seabees were to seek this oasis and to escort their leader, Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, across the dangerous Sunni triangle.

Just outside the gates of Junction City, the convoy spotted an explosive planted by insurgents. The convoy was traveling too fast to stop once it was spotted, so the vehicles continued on. The convoy buzzed past, and remarkably, the bomb failed to go off. It seemed like a lucky turn.

On the way back from the palace, an Iraqi herder guided her cattle across the road, a cause for alarm. It's common for insurgents to use civilians to block a convoy's way in order to stage an ambush. The men might have stopped a few days earlier, but having learned from the attack in Trucker Town, the lead Humvee quickly went off-road to avoid the herd. The rest of the convoy followed, avoiding being trapped again. After a hairy ride, the convoy made it back to Junction City without incident.

Kubic called his officers over. He wanted to inspect the Humvees attacked in the ambush. "Before you're going to brief me on any of that, let's go out and see the damage," the admiral said. Kubic told them to give him a play-by-play. Orders came over the vehicle radios that the Seabees should get ready to address Kubic. They spilled out of the vehicles and gathered near the rear of the convoy.

On the horizon, a sandstorm ripped across the desert. Some of the men were restless. They took off their bulletproof jackets and helmets, leaving their vehicles in a line between them and the mess hall to the right. That afternoon, the battalion had received its first mail shipment, and Nappier used the downtime to read his first letter from his wife. He decided to space it out, reading a section a day, since he knew the mail arrived rarely. He climbed onto the hood of his Humvee.

That's when the first mortar landed. It fell harmlessly in the open compound. At first, nobody knew it was an attack. Some thought it might be outgoing artillery from the Marines or Army soldiers who also occupied the base. Or perhaps it was the routine detonation of a roadside bomb found by one of the patrols. Either way, no one had time to react before the next mortar struck.

It landed smack in the center of the gathered men. Nappier, who had jumped down from the Humvee, was so close to the explosion that he never actually heard it. He saw the impact and the ripples of the blast heading toward him in what seemed like slow motion. It struck him like a jackhammer to the chest, sending him flying toward the convoy. Another Seabee standing next to him took the brunt of the impact. Nappier shook the man.

"Wake up, wake up," Nappier begged his dead colleague.

Nappier spotted Rightsell leaning on one arm nearby. "Rightsell, you all right?"

"I'm right here, dude," Rightsell said, not realizing yet that he was injured.

"You're in a pool of blood," Nappier said.

Rightsell looked down and saw his own blood spreading across the gravel.

"Oh shit," he thought. "Oh shit, I'm hit."

Nearby, Allen had been working on fabricating more armor when he heard the first explosion. He ducked his head out of the shop just in time to see the second one come down. With the vehicles between him and the impact, he couldn't see that it had struck the group of men, but soon he heard the screams.

Without a helmet or body armor and knowing another mortar could be on its way, Allen ran into the center of the carnage. Allen found Parsons, his assistant in the welding shop. "My legs! My legs!" Parsons screamed. His left ankle was shattered, and the bones in his right leg were crushed like eggshells. Allen helped bandage his friend and then moved on to the others.

The first dead man Allen spotted was 37-year-old Petty Officer Trace Dossett. A week earlier, Dossett had left an answering machine message for his parents in his native Wapello, Iowa. He had a cold and was homesick. Back in Leesburg, Dossett had two daughters, a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old. "I love you," he said in the message, which his parents have kept, "and I'll see you soon." When Allen found him, Dossett was already pale and lifeless. The only injury Allen could see was a small hole under his right ear.

"It wasn't any bigger than the tip your finger, and there was no blood coming out of it," Allen recalls. He watched as rescuers checked him for a pulse three times to be sure.

The blast sent so much shrapnel in every direction that anyone standing nearby had pieces in him. The explosion threw Rambo into the side of one of the vehicles and peppered him with shards of metal.

Rightsell took one piece of shrapnel in his right Achilles' heel and another just below his backbone. Medics who arrived at the scene figured he was paralyzed. "Can you move your feet?" they kept asking him.

Rightsell tried continually to move his toes. "Oh, man, no I can't. Oh shit, I can't move my legs."

As rescuers carted Nappier away, he still clutched the letter from his wife. He held it all the way as helicopters evacuated the wounded. "I woke up one time and a nurse was trying to take it out of my hand. There was no way I was letting her have it."

While the wounded waited for treatment, two Marine snipers who guard Junction City visited them. According to the Marines, a pair of insurgents had driven up to the walls of the base in an old pickup. They set up a homemade device and lobbed two quick mortars before fleeing. The Marines said they didn't get far.

"We got the motherfuckers," the snipers said. "You don't have to worry about the men who did this again."

Five Seabees, all from Florida, didn't survive. Their average age was 36. They left behind four wives and four children. The dead were Dossett; Jenkins; 36-year-old Petty Officer Michael Anderson of Daytona; 37-year-old Petty Officer Ronald Ginther of Auburndale; and the youngest of the dead, 33-year-old McHugh.

The following day, as the wounded headed for treatment in Germany, the battalion had the horrific job of cleaning up the scene. Allen and the others scrubbed the equipment the men were wearing and the guns they were holding. Allen spent an hour scouring a rifle.

"It took me three bottles of water to scrub the blood off," he said. "It just wouldn't come off."

The bloody clothes torn off to treat wounds had become a rotting, foul mess in the desert heat. As the men collected them, they saw names scribbled in the waistbands of the dead. They carried them to a field and set them ablaze. Allen didn't take part in the burning, but sticking his head out of the workshop, he could see the smoke drift over the desert.

Getting ready to retire from the Navy, Adm. Kubic recently packed up his home in Norfolk, Virginia, and prepared to move permanently to his summer house on the Virginia shore. As the movers arrived, Kubic recalled in a phone conversation that he had covered 3,100 miles running combat patrols while in Iraq. Firefights with insurgents and roadside bombs were common. But that day at Junction City, Kubic says, he had seen more carnage than at any other time. When the mortar fell, he saw what looked like a funnel cloud lift body parts and equipment over the convoy. Afterward, he remembers a gunnery sergeant grabbing him and pulling him toward a protected building.

"I imagine I did what you'd call a scared rabbit run, zigzag, so you don't get hit. They'd love to pick off an admiral, so they pulled me away right quick."

As he ran, Kubic left behind the dead and injured Seabees. He also left questions about why the men were gathered there that day, why they were in combat to begin with, and why they were ordered to fight without the proper armor. Kubic, who recently turned over command of the 1st Naval Construction Division in preparation for his retirement, defended his actions.

"There were reports that came out right after it happened that the men were in formation," Kubic says. "They were not in formation. Troops are not permitted to stand in formation, and no one gave that order."

Kubic's explanation doesn't placate family members of the dead, some of whom have called for an inquiry into what happened. Not long after the men returned, McHugh's mother, Joyce McHugh of Boca Raton, called for criminal charges against the men who issued the orders for the men to gather that day. Joyce McHugh contends that her son might otherwise still be alive.

"They didn't have the cover to be standing out there in the open like that," she said. "They had had a series of mortar attacks hit the camp, so why were they told to just stand out there in the open? That's what I want to know."

McHugh's aunt, Marilyn Duff of Chicopee, Massachusetts, blames his superiors for his death. Duff wonders, constantly, if he suffered, asking anyone with knowledge of that day whether he died instantly. He did, fellow sailors say, but it hasn't consoled her.

"I cannot for the life of me understand the idiotic decision to call the men out that day," she says. "That is what will haunt me for all the days of my life."

Dossett's family also questions why the men were assembled there. The family has publicly criticized the Navy for sending the Seabees into the field without the proper armor and for sending troops trained to be construction workers into battle. Dossett's mother, Cheryl Dossett of Wapello, Iowa, says the family hasn't been able to get over the anger.

"Those Seabees were not over there to fight," she says. "They were over there to help Iraqis and build schools. They should not have been anywhere near those insurgents."

The circumstances of her son's death won't leave her in peace.

"There was hostile fire everywhere," Cheryl Dossett says. "So why did that admiral tell them to gather out there?"

Meanwhile, the Seabees themselves are cautious not to criticize their superiors. None of them would publicly question the admiral's order. None of them defends the decision either, instead coming up with a rationale. Rambo, from his home in Clearwater, justified it by saying if it hadn't been them, it would've been somebody else.

"I think they were aiming for the mess hall anyway," Rambo says. "That mess hall was full of people. If it hit there, it would've been worse, so it would've happened either way."

Many of the 34 injured Seabees are struggling to return to construction and labor-intensive jobs now that they've lost much of their physical abilities. Back at his apartment in Boynton Beach, Rightsell rests his injured legs on an ottoman stretched out in front of him. Braces keep his left leg from moving. He walks with crutches now and has actually taken a few agonizing steps on his own. He's in constant, numbing pain but rarely takes pills for fear that he'll get addicted. During his recovery, he has lost 40 pounds from his once bodybuilder frame. "Hey, buddy?" he yells to William Jr., who's watching cartoons in the other room. "Can you get something for me?" William Jr., a perfect miniature of his father, sprints into a bedroom to get an address book. "He's been my little helper through this."

Before Iraq, Rightsell ran a home-remodeling business with three employees. He put it on hold to serve his time, and now he has been forced to close it while he recovers. He has another year and a half of recovery before he knows if he'll be able to walk without the aid of crutches. His family is preparing to move, and there are boxes everywhere in his small apartment. His wife has had to do most of the packing. She also works and takes care of their three kids. There's little Rightsell can do to care for them.

"I keep telling my wife I'm gonna walk, I'm gonna work again. I believe it. I do."

Many in the battalion have called for Allen to be honored for helping to treat the wounded after the mortar attack. Allen doesn't want the recognition. The scene of his friends bleeding to death still haunts him. "How can I not think about it? I think about it all the time. Every day."

After surgery in Germany, del Valle was flown back to the States to recuperate. He woke up two days after the ambush with a severe concussion that took away his motor skills and left him unable to talk. When he could finally speak, he had a severe, and possibly permanent, stutter. His superiors gave del Valle a 30-day convalescent leave, and he arrived back in Miami just in time for his twin boys to be born. He had just found out that seven of his colleagues had been killed in Iraq, and he knew he might have to return after his month off.

"There were a lot of mixed emotions seeing my sons being born," del Valle says. "I was sad for our loss but happy to be home."

Del Valle's now back to work at his post in Homestead, where he fights wildfires and manages Forestry lands. The stutter slowly faded. Fully recovered now, he thinks he may be sent back to Iraq.

Few of the men express regret over what happened. In fact, some have signed on to return. Del Valle says he's ready, even though it means leaving his newborn twins at home. Rambo volunteered to return to Iraq in February. He's still recovering and suffers pain just about everywhere from the 23 pieces of shrapnel that hit him. The Navy told him they'd consider his request.

"You never know what they need," he says, "so I'm not sure they'll call me up again. They might."

The injured Seabees talk about returning in ways that sound lifted from a Navy recruitment ad. They use a lot of the same phrases. "That is what we signed up to do," Rightsell says. "No matter what you think of the war, we were over there to do a job." Beyond the clichés, Rightsell and the others sometimes concede, there's something energizing about being there. The reservists left behind daily routines for days behind gun turrets and the constant threat of death, but there was a buzz that was irreplaceable.

"I don't want to sound all 'hoorah,'" Rightsell says, "but most of the guys, we're just into it."

Just days back stateside, Nappier signed up for another six years. "Everybody thought it was the drugs talking at the time," he says. He walks with a severe limp now and may never be able to work again. The Navy has talked about forcing him to take a medical retirement. "I'm going to fight it," Nappier says from his home in Royal Palm Beach. "I'm not letting them retire me." He keeps the letter his wife sent him, the one he clutched all the way to Germany, in a coffee cup in his living room.

Nappier talks about second chances, but not in the way you might expect. Like the others, he feels no regret for signing up for the convoys or for joining the reserves in his late 30s. "The Star-Spangled Banner" still plays when his cell phone rings, and he still wears American-flag T-shirts with the sleeves cut off to show his Seabees tattoo. He and his comrades were asked to fight without armor, to take orders that put them in jeopardy, to man the front lines despite pushing middle age. But Nappier and some of the others now demand a chance to return to Iraq, a place that took almost everything from them.

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