Another Ambush Hero Enjoys Smaller Spotlight

Times Staff Writer

As former POW Jessica Lynch and her agents prepare for the release this month of her $1-million memoir, the airing of her first television interview and a TV movie about the attack on the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, another soldier considered by many to be the 507th's greatest hero is enjoying more modest rewards.

Reduced-priced license plates, just $3, for receiving the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War medal. A Kansas City Royals game ball. "And I get to go on free trips -- that's the best part," Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, said recently, a typically colossal wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek.

To Topeka for a parade, to Las Vegas for the Academy of Country Music Awards, to Florida soon, he hopes, and Alaska.

At sunrise on the morning of March 23, the vehicles and soldiers of the 507th were being torn apart in perhaps the most infamous ambush of the Iraq war.

Miller, a lanky, bespectacled welder whose marksmanship skills had been mediocre before the battle -- his bravery, like that of the others, untested -- set out alone to wreak havoc and terror on a contingent of Iraqis who were trying to lob mortars on several of the soldiers from a mere 50 yards away.

After he and four others were taken prisoner together, Miller convinced the Iraqis that the numbers on a scrap of paper they found in his helmet -- the unit's secret radio frequencies -- were just prices for power-steering pumps; the Iraqis tossed the scrap into a fire. And for three weeks he set about irking their captors with tone-deaf renditions of country singer Toby Keith's anti-terrorist anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

The Army investigated the ambush and determined Miller "may have killed as many as nine Iraqi combatants."

With a seemingly inherent aversion to speculation or bragging, the small-town Kansan has no doubt about what he did or did not do, how many he killed or wounded: "Seven in the mortar pit, one in the tree line, and I ran over one guy."

If it wasn't for his actions during the ambush, which earned Miller one of the military's highest awards, the Silver Star, several soldiers feel certain they would not have survived.

"We were all down, most of us wounded, and I looked up and saw Miller running by, bullets and rockets everywhere," recalled former POW Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30. "I said, 'Miller, get down!' He said, 'I gotta go, I gotta return fire' ... We were a big target, and if they'd have got off a mortar round we'd have all been dead. I tell you, Miller, ol' country boy, saved us."

As Lynch, whose rescue from an Iraqi hospital became one of the most dramatic stories of the war, readies for her media blitz, most of her fellow soldiers caught in the ambush have returned to their jobs: cooking, supplying radar parts and toilet paper, fixing broken axles.

They are back making $25,000 or $29,000 a year, some appearing at the occasional parade or other event, and struggling -- hard, in some cases -- with badly damaged body parts, memories of imprisonment, and of seeing their friends, as one put it, "shot so badly they were in pieces."

Eleven soldiers died in the battle, six were captured and nine were wounded, including some of those captured and some who were rescued or escaped.

Few from the 507th seem to resent the diminutive Lynch's fame and fortune. Separated from the other POWs and badly injured when her Humvee crashed, "Jessica is a hero in every way. Tiny little thing, she survived all that by herself. It's amazing," Johnson said, summing up the sentiments of many from the unit.

At the same time, some are less than pleased with the way the Pentagon and media have handled Lynch's story. Both got much of it wrong in the beginning, erroneously reporting that she fought to her last bullet despite gunshot and stab wounds, when in fact she was likely unconscious and probably did not fire a shot, investigators say.

"It wasn't accurate but it was a good story, and people high, high in the Pentagon got involved," said one 507th soldier, who asked not to be identified.

Not the Only Hero

When she was rescued, Lynch's fame grew. And the military and the media, some members of the 507th say, have focused so much on her that they have failed to tell the stories of others who fought, died, were wounded or captured in the same battle.

"When they rescued Jessica, that gave everyone a lot of hope because people still didn't know where we were, if we were still alive," said Johnson, a friend of Lynch's. "[The military and media] put a lot into that story, and there wasn't too much left once we were rescued. I don't blame anyone though.

"You want to know what the greatest injustice is?" Johnson continued. "Miller hasn't even been promoted."

After nearly three days and nights on the road, the 18 vehicles and 31 soldiers of the 507th -- plus two soldiers from another unit -- passed through a dark and quiet Nasiriyah about 5 a.m. The convoy took a now well-known wrong turn. Then another. Nearly two hours passed as the convoy felt about in the dark. Meanwhile, Iraqi irregular and Fedayeen Saddam fighters gathered to launch an ambush, according to Army investigators and members of the 507th.

"The first time we moved through, no one was manning the fighting positions; no one was out," said Sgt. Curtis Campbell, who lost a fist-sized chunk of his left hamstring to an Iraqi round before being rescued by Marines. "By the time the sun was coming up, the whole town, it seemed, was out -- and suddenly the fighting positions were all manned."

About 7 a.m., as many as 200 Iraqis began firing on the 33 Americans with AK-47s, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The 507th had a single heavy machine gun, a .50-caliber, which failed immediately.

The convoy broke into three groups, according to the Army investigative report. The first fought its way through the ambush and sped toward nearby Marine Task Force Tarawa, which organized a rescue mission.

In the second group, all five vehicles were quickly riddled with bullet holes and torn apart by rockets, and five of the 10 soldiers were wounded. With desert conditions causing weapons to malfunction -- a problem that hounded many of the soldiers of the 507th -- they were able to return only occasional bursts of fire. They would eventually be rescued by the Marines.

At the end of the convoy, the third group was also being devastated by the attackers. Within minutes, several soldiers were dead, with more to die shortly. Lynch was injured -- fellow soldiers thought she was dead -- after the Humvee she was riding in was hit by an explosive and crashed into the back of another vehicle.

Makings of a Myth

The mythical story of Lynch may have begun around the time her Humvee crashed.

After the ambush, the U.S. military intercepted a radio transmission describing a blond American woman who ferociously battled her attackers despite suffering gunshot and stab wounds. This was presumed to be Lynch, who was then missing, and the information was passed on to the media.

The soldier described in the intercept may, in fact, have been a slim, blond male sergeant from Salem, Ore., 33-year-old Donald Walters, though no one knows for sure. His body -- with several bullet and stab wounds -- was later found near the battle site in a shallow grave. The Army has not determined the precise circumstances of his death, but investigators wrote: "There is some information to suggest that a U.S. soldier that could have been Walters fought his way south of Highway 16 toward a canal and was killed in action."

Miller was driving a military tow truck when the ambush began, with Sgt. James Riley, 31, in the passenger's seat. The two stopped to pick up Walters and Pvt. Brandon Sloan, whose truck had become stuck in the sand. Under heavy fire, Sloan climbed aboard. Walters disappeared. Miller stomped on the throttle.

Moments later, the truck, riddled with bullet holes, began to slow, and the three were preparing to jump out when Sloan was killed by a shot to the forehead. Miller and Riley took off running toward the vehicles of Lynch, Johnson and others. Riley dove behind a truck and took command of several soldiers, most of them wounded. Miller kept running.

The reason, he said, was that he saw an Iraqi dump truck on the other side of the highway. He figured he could get the truck running and spirit them away.

As he neared, Miller dropped to his belly and crept up a sand berm. Peeking over the top, he saw the mortar pit right beside the dump truck. And he began his lone effort to pin down the Iraqi mortar men.

As an Iraqi went to drop a round into the mortar tube, Miller fired and the man fell, he said. Miller's M-16, however, jammed, and for the next hour, he would pop up, fire one round, and then drop back behind the berm to manually reload another.

"They didn't realize where the fire was coming from," Miller said. "They just saw their guys fall every time they'd try to set up the mortar."

After nearly an hour of pinning down the men around the mortar, according to investigators, Miller decided it was time check his back. He swept around, he said, and fired on an Iraqi approaching along a tree line. "That was the last guy I shot," he said.

When he turned back around, Miller said, numerous Iraqi fighters were closing on him. He threw his rifle as far as he could and raised his hands in the air. "I said, 'OK, you win.' I kind of figured they'd shoot me right there, though."

About the same time, Riley, commanding the soldiers that the Iraqis had been trying to kill with the mortar, decided it was time to give up. None of their weapons were working and most of the soldiers were wounded. He, too, raised his arms and stepped into the open.

The Iraqis quickly took the Americans prisoner.

Miller began irritating his captors immediately. After asking about the scrap of paper, the Iraqis wanted to know about his can of Skoal tobacco.

"I told 'em my chew was candy. Two or three of them opened it up and started eating. Idiots," he said with a roll of his eyes. "They saw their breakfasts again."

Over the next three weeks, the Iraqis moved the five POWs to seven different locations. In each cell he was kept, Miller carved the name of his wife, Jessa, and two children, Tyler, 4, and Makenzie, 15 months. He got sick, prayed a bit, and belted out lyrics from "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

"This big dog will fight/When you rattle his cage/And you'll be sorry that you messed/With the U.S. of A."

"I did that just to make 'em mad," Miller said with a hint of a smile. "They'd tell me to sit down and shut up. I would, for a while."

Possible War Crimes

Investigations continue into possible war crimes by the Iraqi captors. In interviews, the POWs and other members of the 507th were careful in describing the actions of the Iraqis. They said enough, however, to suggest that the investigators have plenty to look at.

When Iraqis captured wounded Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, another member of the company said, "They beat him up right there."

In captivity, Johnson said, "From what I could hear -- I couldn't see -- Miller got it the worst. He was always mouthing off. And they knew he'd killed a lot of Iraqis."

On their 11th day of captivity, the Iraqis took Miller's wedding ring. He went wild with anger.

"They'd tell him to shut up and he'd say, 'No! I want my wedding ring back! I want my wedding ring back!' " Johnson said. "I finally said, 'Miller, if you get your butt kicked over that wedding ring, your wife's going to kick your butt again.' "

Early on an April morning, in a house the POWs would later learn was just outside Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, a door flew open and a voice in English commanded everyone to get down. Marines swarmed the room. "If you're an American," one Marine shouted, "stand up."

The POWs were headed home.

Johnson is seeking a disability discharge after being shot in both legs. Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, who was hit in the face with shrapnel and shot in the arm, is getting married this week. Riley is back at work, now at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Hudson, who suffered several wounds in the fighting, is also back at work, at the home of the 507th, Ft. Bliss, Texas.

Miller was transferred over the summer to this post near Pike's Peak. He moved his family into a small home on the base.

On the living room wall above his Kelly-green Barcalounger, he hung his Silver Star, POW medal and Purple Heart -- which he diminishes, saying he wasn't badly injured. "They say part of it is for emotional injuries. Whatever."

At the center of the collection of awards is a poster memorializing the 507th. The eye is drawn to the unit's red flag and a group picture of the soldiers in their desert fatigues. It takes a moment to notice the ethereal, delicate images of the dead, hovering above the company.

Miller spends his off time these days playing with his kids, sitting in his big green chair. He hates the Army's early hours, but doesn't drink coffee to help him awake, preferring caffeine-free soda. He thinks about heading an Army motor pool. He fiddles occasionally with the wedding band the Army replaced for him.

Miller doesn't talk much about what happened, what it felt like to raise his hands in surrender and expect to be shot, about how he was treated by his captors, about killing people and watching his friends be killed. His wife has a hard time hearing the stories, and he has a hard time telling them anyway.

"It doesn't bother me if I don't think about it," Miller said. "So I don't think about it much."

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