Under sudden fire from disguised Iraqi soldiers, U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Horgan could only watch as a missile zoomed toward him.
“It was just like in the movies,” Horgan said. “It was a whizzing noise. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna die.’ ”
As he tried to warn his crew, the missile slammed into Horgan’s Humvee, blasting him onto the top of the vehicle and knocking Staff Sgt. Jamie Villafane out the side.
For the next 10 minutes, their unit was engaged in a shootout with Iraqi troops -- a whirl of gunfire, shouts and smoke outside the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
Horgan, part of his right heel blown off, crawled to safety. Villafane ignored the shrapnel in his arm and captured four Iraqis, who wore military uniforms underneath their civilian robes.
On Thursday, five days after the ambush, the two injured Americans expressed relief to have survived. For Villafane, however, the horror of war also sealed a decision he had made earlier to leave the Army after 12 years.
“This kind of just put the icing on the cake,” Villafane, whose arm was in a cast, said at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, where he and Horgan were flown for treatment. “I’ve got a family and kids that are a little more important to me than to sit here and try to defend our country right now.”
Villafane and Horgan offered the first accounts of the war through the eyes of American combat casualties, giving witness to the difficulties that U.S.-led forces have run into while trying to secure territory.
A third injured serviceman confirmed suggestions that some U.S. troops have been caught unprepared by the fight that Iraqi forces put up.
“We were very surprised,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Menard, 21, of Houston, who suffered a bullet wound to his left hand. “We were told as we were going through Nasiriyah that there would be little to no resistance.”
He and other members of his battalion said they had been led to expect mass Iraqi surrenders like those from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Instead, “when we got in, it was a whole different ballgame,” Menard recalled. “They weren’t rolling over like we thought they would.”
It was the first combat any of the three wounded men had seen.
Villafane and Horgan, members of the 1st Battalion of the 30th Infantry Regiment out of Ft. Benning, Ga., came under attack Saturday afternoon after being sent to disperse what they thought were civilians grouped near a bridge south of Nasiriyah.
Their truck, backed by two other Humvees, an Abrams tank and a Bradley fighting vehicle, had just crossed the span when Horgan, who was manning the machine-gun turret, noticed something suspicious about the knot of people in front of him.
“They seemed kind of edgy, jumpy,” said Horgan, 21, from Helena, Mont.
The crowd started to run away. Moments later, a wire-guided missile bore down on the Americans, hitting the lead Humvee. The explosion threw Villafane out of the vehicle. Dazed by the blast, he began groping for his M-4 rifle.
When he found it, Villafane opened fire, oblivious to the shrapnel that had ripped through his left hand and arm. A second missile flew by his head, so close “you could see the wires as it went by,” he said.
That rocket struck the second Humvee, trapped on the bridge behind the lead vehicle.
As bullets whistled overhead, Villafane scuttled to the side of the span. Below him flowed a tributary of the Euphrates River, and on its banks were makeshift mud huts presumably built by the Iraqis, with caches of weapons close at hand.
Villafane, still wearing clunky chemical-protection gear, jumped down -- and found himself staring at the back of an armed Iraqi. He shouted at the man to drop his AK-47 rifle, then held him at gunpoint.
As he tried to bandage his wounded hand, three more Iraqi soldiers arrived, dressed in the flowing robes of Bedouin herders. They too dropped their weapons in surprise in front of the wounded American.
“You could see they were terrified,” Villafane said.
With his prisoners in tow, Villafane went back to find Horgan.
As the shootout raged around him, Horgan had managed to slide off the top of his disabled Humvee and onto the ground. Pain ripped through his right foot. He looked down; the boot sole was bloody and gaping.
He started to crawl toward the truck behind him. Horgan’s uninjured driver -- a young recruit barely out of high school -- provided gun cover while the pair crawled together to safety, talking the whole time to calm and encourage themselves. Horgan even tried to crack a few jokes.
“I was really trying to focus on not looking at my boot,” Horgan said. “If I focused on my foot, I would’ve freaked out.”
He said he was lucky, not just to have escaped more serious injury, but also to have buddies who guided him out: first his driver, named Lopez, and then Villafane, who eventually helped him limp to the Bradley vehicle, where both men waited to be evacuated to a medical unit.
“I feel like I got off easy,” Horgan said Thursday.
Villafane, 31, of Brentwood, N.Y., suffered shrapnel wounds that shattered his wedding-ring finger, sliced through tendons in his hand and damaged nerves. Shrapnel is still lodged in his forearm. He is expected to return to the United States in a few days for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Villafane worries about the troops in his unit, but he said flatly: “I really do not want to go back there.” His thoughts are on his wife and three children at Ft. Benning.
Villafane was critical of the Iraqi soldiers’ practice of disguising themselves as civilians.
“It was shocking that they would do that,” he said. But outmatched by U.S.-led firepower, “I guess they have to do whatever they have to do.”
Horgan is ambivalent about going back to the front lines to rejoin his friends. But the question is moot: Months of recovery and rehabilitation, also at Walter Reed, lie ahead before he can walk without crutches.
These days, he scans the war footage on TV for signs of his unit. He hasn’t seen any yet.
“Every time I turn on the news, there’s protests going on, and that irritates me,” Horgan said. “You might be against the war, but don’t be against the people who are fighting it.”
In the downtime before his unit went rolling into Nasiriyah, he and other soldiers had been watching tapes of the HBO war drama “Band of Brothers.”
After the ambush, Horgan still turned to movies, including “Black Hawk Down” and “The Matrix,” to describe what he went through.
Even so, “I’m the same person,” he said. “I just have a new story to tell.”