A clash of wills at ‘Firecracker’

Times Staff Writer

ON July 4, a squad of Marines was ordered to an intersection nicknamed “Firecracker,” the most dangerous in this city. The group’s mission was to set up a position to watch for people placing bombs and to fight insurgents.

For much of the squad, from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, this was their second combat tour in Iraq. But the fight at Firecracker was the fiercest they had seen. The Marines recently returned from Iraq. This is their story, told in their own words. The account begins with the squad leader, Cpl. Caesar Hernandez, 22, of Delray Beach, Fla., and continues with Cpl. Justin Kaminski, 21, of Baltimore; medical corpsman Frank Sanchez, 20, of Los Angeles; and Lance Cpl. Greg Crans, 20, of Bath, N.Y.

The battle started at night, before Hernandez’s squad reached the intersection.

Hernandez: Right outside of friendly lines, it must have been about 10 or 15 minutes into my patrol, an explosion went off. I was at the front of the patrol, and it hit the rear of the patrol.


Immediately the training kicks in. I pulled my lead element of the patrol back and had them set up a 360-degree defense. I started asking on the [patrol radio] if everyone was all right. My second-team leader, Cpl. Kaminski, he wouldn’t roger up. So I immediately thought: “They got hit in the rear.”

Kaminski: I am the last guy in the formation. One of my jobs is to make sure no one is behind us, no one is following us. So I was looking behind us. I turned back around, and Sanchez is about to turn a corner. So I was jogging a couple steps, trying to close the gap. That is when it went off. I saw the flash, the fire and the flame, just where he was standing. I remember little stuff hitting me and then being pushed back.

I was unconscious, then I woke up on the ground. There was still smoke in the sky, stuff was falling out of the sky. I stood up and remembered the flash of light right on top of him. I ran to where the smoke was, right where it hit. But he wasn’t there. I started yelling his name and running forward.

Sanchez: The rest of the squad was around the corner. It was just me and Kaminski. I turned back to make sure he was still there. I took a step, and I saw a big flash of light in front of my face, and I felt heat coming up. And I heard the boom. The next thing I know, I was laying facedown on the pavement. I didn’t know what was going on, all the dust was everywhere. I just assumed I was dead.

Then I heard Kaminski yelling my name. I couldn’t hear out of my right ear, so I didn’t know where it was coming from. I started looking around. I couldn’t find my weapon. I was crawling around looking for my rifle. I found my rifle and tried to get up. From the waist down, the blast numbed me up. I couldn’t feel my legs.

Kaminski: Cpl. Hernandez and Lance Cpl. Crans came running around the corner, and they were asking if anyone was hit.


I yelled, “Doc was hit.” That is the first thing [Sanchez] says he remembers, me yelling, “Doc was hit.” He mumbled, “I’m all right.”

I helped him up, and we helped him get his weapon, which was probably 2 feet in front of him. We pushed around the corner where everyone else had pushed around, and he fell immediately. I was checking him out.

There was a puddle on the ground. I looked at it and thought it was blood.

Sanchez: My legs gave out. I was trying to put a tourniquet on my leg, trying to stop the bleeding. I was freaking out. But it was water. Luckily, I had the day pack full of water. That stopped most of the shrapnel from hitting my back. When I got to Charlie surgical, I emptied my pack. The bottom water bottles were torn up. There was shrapnel. But the water bottles stopped it.

I had shrapnel all over me. [The bomb] was pretty big. The blast tossed me 10 feet. That kept most of the shrapnel away from me. If [more] shrapnel would have hit me, I would have been dead.

THE squad went back to base, sent Kaminski and Sanchez to the surgical station, then set out again for Firecracker. The troops arrived shortly before midnight at the house they would occupy. Some of the homes around Firecracker were abandoned, but many, including this one, still had families living in them. The squad ushered the Iraqi residents into a back room, where they would be protected from an attack. Meantime, the Marines took up fighting positions on the roof and in some of the second-floor rooms.

The next day, fighting broke out in the early afternoon when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the side of the house. The RPG, designed to pierce the armor of tanks, has become one of the main weapons insurgents fire at American positions.


Cpl. Joseph J. Zigler, 23, of Stow, Ohio, and Lance Cpl. Daniel Turczan, 28, of Flushing, N.Y., were on the second floor of the house, peering out two windows, shielded by camouflage netting and a small piece of ballistic glass.

Zigler: It was 15, 20 minutes after I took post, the first RPG slammed into the building. When it hit the wall, it was just to the left of the window one of my Marines [Turczan] was in. That broke the window and sent a lot of glass and debris into the room. It is so loud you cannot decipher if it is one gun or 12. My ears felt like they were going to blow up.

Turczan: It was pretty loud. The first RPG messed up my hearing. After that, everything was muted; it was kind of dulled. I got into the prone [position] and then we got hit by a [machine gun] for about 30 seconds or so. It was spraying into the room.

I looked up once. To the side. I saw my team leader, Cpl. Zigler. He was taking cover too. You can’t really see rounds flying. But what I did see was holes start to appear in the wall, in the masonry and stuff. It must have been 400 rounds coming in. But it has the same emotional impact as waiting for a stop sign.

The thing that goes through my head is: “I am not hit, and I am in the best position to be in.” It wasn’t always like that, but after a couple months here, you get desensitized to getting shot at. You basically do your job.

We got fired on by another RPG. I knew kind of where the fire was coming from. I saw how the glass was broken. I saw impact where most of the bullets hit. I was able to make a line back to the building across the street, 250 meters away. That building had a lot of bricks in the window so I figured that is where they were shooting from. At that point, I started shooting back.


THE Marines in another second-floor room, Lance Cpl. Gabriel Soto, 20, of Coral Springs, Fla., and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kobus, 21, of Dalton, Mass., also began returning fire.

Soto: Once the fire stopped, I got up and started looking out the windows to see what I could see. I couldn’t see too much, but we got engaged again. An RPG hit, and then we started taking rounds.

Cpl. Kobus was right there. He comes and engages with a Milkor 32 [grenade launcher]. When he was out of rounds, I started engaging with my M-16. We couldn’t see anything. It was too crazy.

I am glad I didn’t completely freeze up and just kind of hide in a corner. That is what you are told, everyone is different. You can be the hardest guy, and you might cower in the corner. And the guy who you think would just hide might be the only guy getting shots off. I didn’t think I was the harder guy. I was more like, “Really, I hope I don’t freeze up.” Before this I was always hoping: If I get shot at, I hope I don’t piss myself. I hope I friggin’ send some rounds back.

AS the fighting continued, Hernandez ordered a team to go with him to the roof to try to get a better view of the insurgents firing at them. Among them were Cpl. Cory Schneider, 19, of Dayton, Ohio, and Lance Cpl. Michael Wilson, 19, of Foley, Ala.

Schneider: As I was running up the stairs, an RPG hit the wall right where I was running up. It was pretty scary, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t expecting it. I was expecting to make it to the roof without interruption. The whole building shook. It knocked me down.


Wilson: We ran to the roof with our gear, our weapons and ammunition. We were trying to figure out where we were being fired at from.

I remember another blast going off just before we got to the roof. We think it was an [improvised explosive device] because it was in the road. It threw a lot of stuff, asphalt, straight up, and it landed on the roof we were on. Shortly after that, we started taking more small-arms fire.

You are focused on one thing. You hear better, you see better, everything is better. I guess it is the adrenaline. I really don’t know.

FROM behind the protection of a wall that surrounded the roof, Hernandez and his squad members could scan the entire area around Firecracker. When the attackers fired another RPG, two Marines spotted the triggerman. Four hours had passed since the initial attack, and the Marines were starting to tire. The squad had a rocket called a lightweight antitank weapon, or LAW. The LAW rocket is the Marines’ equivalent of an RPG and can be used to attack fortified positions.

Schneider: I saw the actual back-blast where the [RPG] came from.... That is where he was firing from. There is a lot of yelling when you are in contact. If you are not yelling, you are not going to be able to hear each other.

As you get exhausted, it is your training that kicks in and keeps you going even if your mind is not there. Not that I am saying my mind wasn’t there. But it was muscle memory. You keep doing what you are supposed to be doing.


Kobus: The building they were shooting at us from wasn’t as high as ours so we had a little bit of protection. We had a little bit better angle on them. As soon as they took their RPG shot, I popped up and saw the guy holding the launcher in his hand. He started running for the door.

Hernandez: Lance Cpl. Kobus had a visual and said that he was going to take the LAW rocket shot. It is kind of like a bazooka. I told the guys on post to lay down suppressive fire so he can take the shot. We gave him covering fire and he went out there.

Kobus: All I was worried about was taking the shot. If I can make the shot, I thought, we would stop taking fire, we would get the guys who were shooting at us. I shot it pretty much right as he ran into the door. It went into the window. It blew up. The only thing we saw was a little flash and a lot of smoke coming out.

Soto: The LAW rocket explosion wasn’t as big as I thought it would be. I saw it go straight in, though. At that point they completely slowed down their fight. I don’t think we got engaged after that.

When you are being engaged that much, your adrenaline is pumping so much you want the battle to keep going. It was good because you are like, “I do not have to worry about being shot at anymore,” but the same time it is “damn, I want to shoot a little bit more.”

Crans: We broke down the enemy’s will to fight for the rest of the day. The enemy didn’t know how much force they were dealing with.


Turczan: Basically it quieted down. They stopped shooting at us, and we didn’t have anything to shoot at.

People started coming back on the street -- residents of the neighborhood. After the shooting stopped, a couple minutes later, people started getting on with their lives. I imagine they are used to it. It must be something that happens a lot to them. This has been going on in the country for a while now.

Wilson: If you could have seen the room Turczan and Cpl. Zigler were in, you would be amazed that they were in one piece. There were bullet holes in the windows. Bullet holes inside the room on the walls. You just thank God they were OK.

I didn’t know what to expect in Iraq. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew I might die. This is my first tour. I would say definitely this fight was the most intense. When other people bring it up, I keep thinking to myself, “How did I get so lucky?”

Kobus: Just thinking back on it, it was the most exciting day of my life. Nothing I have ever done compares to it. It is a memory I will keep for a while.

Zigler: I will save all the war stories for when I get home. I do not want to worry anyone too much. They know what goes on. My fiancee knows when something happens. My mom is the same way. They can always tell in my voice. But we kind of leave it at that. You think about it a little. You do think about it, but you can’t think about it too much. You have a job to do.


THE battalion returned home last month after handing central Ramadi off to another group of Marines. All of the Marines in this article made it back safely. In all, 17 battalion members out of about 900 were killed during their seven months in Iraq.

Sanchez and Kaminski both recovered from their injuries and returned to duty. For his leadership during the July 4 fight, Hernandez was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. Kobus was promoted to corporal and now has his own squad. Crans was also promoted and will soon lead a squad.

The battalion is due to return to the Middle East next year. The men are scheduled to serve as a reserve force ready to be called into Iraq if reinforcements are needed.



‘Firecracker’ explodes

Marines on a mission to secure the dangerous “Firecracker” intersection in Ramadi, Iraq, became engaged in a fierce battle that started July 4 and ended the next day. How the fighting unfolded:


1 An explosion hits a squad of Marines on its way to take up position in the intersection. The blast injures the squad’s medical corpsman, forcing a temporary return to base.


2 The Marines take over a house overlooking the strategic intersection. They soon begin taking fire from insurgents in a building about 500 to 800 feet south.

3 Insurgents hit the house with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. A group of Marines heads to the roof for a better vantage point.

4 Four hours into the battle, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kobus fires an antitank missile from the roof, hitting an insurgent position. The insurgents stop firing.


Sources: Cpl. Caesar Hernandez, Times reporting, Google Earth; Graphics reporting by David Lauter and Julie Sheer


Illustrations by Lorena Iniguez Los Angeles Times