Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Death of Staff Sgt. Hector Leija
"Any man's death diminishes me." -- John Donne
© NEWSWEEK.com Audio commentary by Glenn Kutler of Iraq Coalition Casualties
January 29, 2007
‘Man Down’: When One Bullet Alters Everything
By DAMIEN CAVE
BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 — Staff Sgt. Hector Leija scanned the kitchen, searching for illegal weapons. One wall away, in an apartment next door, a scared Shiite family huddled around a space heater, cradling an infant.
It was after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, on Haifa Street in central Baghdad, and the crack-crack of machine-gun fire had been rattling since dawn. More than a thousand American and Iraqi troops had come to this warren of high rises and hovels to disrupt the growing nest of Sunni and Shiite fighters battling for control of the area.
The joint military effort has been billed as the first step toward an Iraqi takeover of security. But this morning, in the two dark, third-floor apartments on Haifa Street, that promise seemed distant. What was close, and painfully real, was the cost of an escalating street fight that had trapped American soldiers and Iraqi bystanders between warring sects.
And as with so many days here, a bullet changed everything.
It started at 9:15 a.m.
“Help!” came the shout. “Man down.”
“Sergeant Leija got hit in the head,” yelled Specialist Evan Woollis, 25, his voice carrying into the apartment with the Iraqi family. The soldiers from the sergeant’s platoon, part of the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, rushed from one apartment to the other.
In the narrow kitchen, a single bullet hole could be seen in a tinted glass window facing north.
The platoon’s leader, Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, ordered his men to get down, away from every window, and to pull Sergeant Leija out of the kitchen and into the living room.
“O.K., everybody, let’s relax,” Sergeant Biletski said. But he was shaking from his shoulder to his hand.
Relaxing was just not possible. Fifteen feet of floor and a three-inch-high metal doorjamb stood between where Sergeant Leija fell and the living room, out of the line of fire. Gunshots popped in bursts, their source obscured by echoes off the concrete buildings.
“Don’t freak out on me, Doc,” Sergeant Biletski shouted to the platoon medic, Pfc. Aaron Barnum, who was frantically yanking at Sergeant Leija’s flak jacket to take the weight off his chest. “Don’t freak out.”
Two minutes later, three soldiers rushed to help, dragging the sergeant from the kitchen. A medevac team then rushed in and carried him to a Stryker armored vehicle outside, around 9:20. He moaned as they carried him down the stairs on a stretcher.
The men of the platoon remained in the living room, frozen in shock. They had a problem. Sergeant Leija’s helmet, flak jacket, gear and weapon, along with that of at least one other soldier, were still in the exposed area of the kitchen. They needed to be recovered. But how?
“We don’t know if there’s friendlies in that building,” said Sgt. Richard Coleman, referring to the concrete complex a few feet away from where Sergeant Leija had been shot. Sergeant Biletski, 39, decided to wait. He called for another unit to search and clear the building next door.
The additional unit needed time, and got lost. The men sat still. Sergeant B, as his soldiers called him, was near the wall farthest from the kitchen, out of sight from the room’s wide, shaded window. Sergeant Woollis, Private Barnum, Sergeant Coleman and Specialist Terry Wilson sat around him.
Together, alone, trapped in a dark room with the blood of their comrade on the floor, they tried to piece together what had happened. Maybe the sniper saw Sergeant Leija’s silhouette in the window and fired. Or maybe the shot was accidental, they said, fired from below by Iraqi Army soldiers who had been moving between the buildings.
Sergeant Woollis cited the available evidence — an entrance wound just below the helmet with an exit wound above. He said the shot must have been fired from the ground.
The Iraqis were not supposed to even be there yet. The plan had been for Sergeant Leija’s squad to work alongside an Iraqi Army unit all day. But after arriving late at the first building, the Iraqis jumped ahead, leaving the Americans and pushing north without searching dozens of apartments in the area.
The Iraqi soldiers below the kitchen window had once again skipped forward. An American officer later said the Iraqis were brave to push ahead toward the most intense gunfire.
But Sergeant Leija’s squad had no communication links with their Iraqi counterparts, and because it was an Iraqi operation — as senior officers repeatedly emphasized — the Americans could not order the Iraqis to get back in line. There was nothing they could do.
An Iraqi soldier rushed in and then stopped, seemingly surprised by the Americans sitting around him. He stood in the middle of the darkened living room, inches away from bloody bandages on the carpet.
“Get away from the window!”
The soldiers yelled at their interpreter, a masked Iraqi whom they called Santana. Between their shouts and his urgent Arabic, the Iraqi soldier got the message. He slowly walked away.
A few minutes later it happened again. This time, the Iraqi lingered.
“What part of ‘sniper’ don’t you understand?” Sergeant Biletski yelled. The other soldiers cursed and called the Iraqis idiots. They were still not sure whether an Iraqi soldier was responsible for Sergeant Leija’s wound, but they said the last thing they wanted was another casualty. In a moment of emotion, Private Barnum said, “I won’t treat him if he’s hit.”
When the second Iraqi left, an airless silence returned. The dark left people alone to grieve. “You O.K.? ” Sergeant B asked each soldier. A few nods. A few yeses.
Private Barnum stood up, facing the kitchen, eager to bring back the gear left. One foot back, the other forward, he stood like a sprinter. “I can get that stuff, Sergeant,” he said. “I can get it.”
The building next door had still not been cleared by Americans. The answer was no.
“I can’t lose another man,” Sergeant B said. “If I did, I failed. I already failed once. I’m not going to fail again.”
The room went quiet. Faces turned away. “You didn’t fail, sir,” said one of the men, his voice disguised by the sound of fighting back tears. “You didn’t fail.”
The piercing cry of an infant was easily identifiable, even as the gunfire outside intensified. It came from the apartment next door. The Iraqi Army had been there, too. In an interview before Sergeant Leija was shot, the three young Iraqis there said that their father had been taken by the soldiers.
“Someone from over there” — they pointed back away from Haifa Street, toward the rows of mud-brick slums — “told them we had weapons,” said a young man, who seemed to be about 18.
He was sitting on a couch. To his right, his older sister clutched an infant in a blanket; his younger sister, about 16, sat on the other side.
The young man said the family was Shiite. He said the supposed informants were Sunni Arabs who wanted their apartment.
The truth of his claim was impossible to verify, but it was far from the day’s only confounding tip. Earlier that morning, an Iraqi boy of about 8 ran up to Sergeant Leija. He wanted to tell the Americans about terrorists hiding in the slums behind the apartment buildings on Haifa Street’s eastern side.
Sergeant Leija, an easygoing 27-year-old from Raymondville, Tex., ignored him. He and some of his soldiers said it was impossible to know whether the boy had legitimate information or would lead them to an ambush.
That summed up intelligence in Iraq, they said: there is always the threat of being set up, for an attack or an Iraqi’s own agenda.
The Iraqi Army did not seem worried about such concerns, according to the family. The three young Iraqis said they were glad that the Americans had come. Maybe they could help find their father.
Sergeant. Coleman tried using a mop to get the gear, and failed. It was too far away. With more than an hour elapsed since the attack, and after no signs of another shot through the kitchen window, Sergeant B agreed to let Private Barnum make a mad dash for the equipment.
Private Barnum waited for several minutes in the doorway, peeking around the corner, stalling. Then he dove forward, pushing himself up against the wall near the window to cut down the angle, pausing, then darting back to the camouflaged kit.
Crack — a single gunshot. Private Barnum looked back at the kitchen window, his eyes squeezed with fear. His pace quickened. He cleared the weapons’ chambers and tossed them to the living room. Then he threw the flak jackets and bolt cutters.
He picked up Sergeant Leija’s helmet, cradled it in his arms, then made the final dangerous move back to the living room, his fatigues indelibly stained with his friend’s blood. There were no cheers to greet him. It was a brave act borne of horror, and the men seemed eager to go.
As Private Barnum gingerly wrapped the helmet in a towel, it tipped and blood spilled out.
Sergeant B sat down on a chair outside the two apartments and used the radio to find out if they would be heading back to base or moving forward. He was told to stay put until after an airstrike on a building 500 yards away.
The platoon, looking for cover, returned to the Iraqis’ apartment, where they found the family as they were before — on the couch, in the dark, around the heater.
Specialist Wilson continued the conversation he started before the gunshot two hours earlier. The young Iraqi man said again that the Iraqi Army had taken his father. “Will you come back to help?” he asked.
“We didn’t take him,” Specialist Wilson said. “The I.A. took him. If he didn’t do anything wrong, he should be back.”
The Iraqi family nodded, as if they had heard this before.
Speaking together — none of them gave their names — they said they had lived in the apartment for 16 years. Ten days ago, before the Americans arrived, Sunnis told them they would kill every Shiite in the building if they did not leave immediately. So they fled to a neighborhood in southern Baghdad where some Shiites had started to gather in abandoned homes. But again, a threat came: leave or die. So less than a week ago, the family returned to Haifa Street.
And now the airstrike was coming.
Sergeant B told the family that they should go into a back room for safety. He asked if they wanted to take the heater with them (they did not), and he reminded everyone to keep their mouths open to protect their inner ears against the airstrike’s shockwave.
A boom, then another even louder explosion hit, shaking dust from the walls. One of blasts came from a mortar shell that hit the building, the soldier said. The family stayed, but for the Americans, it was time to go.
Over the next few hours, the platoon combined sprints across open alleyways with bouts of rest in empty makeshift homes. Under what sounded like constant gunfire, the soldiers moved behind the Iraqi soldiers, staying close.
At one point, the Iraqis detained a man who they said had videos of himself shooting American soldiers. The Iraqi soldiers slapped him in the head as they walked him past.
About an hour later, a sniper wounded two Iraqi soldiers who were mingling outside a squat apartment like teenagers at a 7-11. Private Barnum wrapped their wounds with American bandages. He and the rest of the platoon had been inside, taking cover.
“Stay away from the windows,” Sergeant B kept repeating. The point was clear: don’t let it happen again. Don’t fail.
Downstairs in the lobby of a mostly abandoned high rise on Haifa Street, the sergeant and his men sat on the floor, exhausted. They were waiting for their Stryker to return so they could head back to base. In 14 hours, they had moved through a stretch of eight buildings on Haifa Street. They had been scheduled to clear 18.
Upstairs, Iraqi soldiers searched rooms and made themselves at home in empty apartments. Many were spacious, even luxurious, with elevators opening into wide hallways and grand living rooms splashed with afternoon sun.
Under Saddam Hussein, Haifa Street had been favored by Baath Party officials and wealthy foreigners. The current residents seemed to have fled in an instant; in one apartment, a full container of shaving cream was left in the bathroom. In that apartment’s living room, a band of Iraqi soldiers settled in, relaxing on blue upholstered couches and listening to a soccer game on a radio they found in a closet.
They looked comfortable, like they were waiting to be called to dinner.
Sergeant B and Specialist Woollis, meanwhile, talked about what they would eat when they got back to their homes in California. The consensus was chili dogs and burgers.
Sergeant B also said he missed his 13-year-old son, who was growing up without him, playing football, learning to become a man with an absentee father. After 17 years in the Army, he said, he was thinking that maybe his family had put up with enough.
“I don’t see how you can do this,” he said, “and not be damaged.”
A few hours later, the word came in: Sergeant Leija had died.