FORWARD OPERATING BASE HAMMER — A routine meeting on Aug. 18 became a saga of tragedy and heroism when one young Iraqi man gave his life to save his family and his friends in the U.S. Army.
The Soldiers he saved that day say they will never forget the man’s sacrifice.
The plan was to visit a leader of the al-Arafia Concerned Citizens Program. After a hectic month of raids and route clearance missions, the scouts of 2nd platoon, Troop B, 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, weren’t worried about that day’s particular mission.
“It was a pretty darn routine day, honestly,” said Staff Sgt. Sean Kane, of Los Altos, Calif., acting second platoon sergeant. “We were going to head to the house and talk with one of the leaders.”
The scouts had visited the neighborhood before and, according to 1st Lt. Mike Barth, of El Segundo, Calif., second platoon leader, they thought the area was reasonably safe because of the watchfulness of the area’s Concerned Citizens group in the area.
“He (the leader) is a very good friend,” Barth said. “He is a respected man in the neighborhood. We had sat down with him many times and knew a number of his kids. A couple of his children speak a little bit of English, and we had made friends.”
In the early evening, Barth, Kane, Pfc. David Menillo, of Fairfield, Conn., the platoon medic, and Josh Berner, of Tehlequah, Okla., Barth’s driver, along with an interpreter, sat down to talk with the leader about the Concerned Citizens and how the platoon could help.
Barth had a cordon of several Bradley Fighting Vehicles set up along the road to provide security, as well as a small contingent of security personnel comprised of Concerned Citizens.
“This is a very respected man in the neighborhood Barth said. “He is always surrounded by family. Basically, the whole neighborhood is his family, so there wasn’t a need for extra security.”
A man approached Barth’s cordon and asked to enter the sealed off courtyard of the house.
“We had seen him before,” said Sgt. William Morris, of Orange County, Calif., a Bradley Fighting Vehicle commander in second platoon. “Our driver speaks a little Arabic, and the guy explained he wanted to go to his house.”
The man had far more sinister motives. He walked up to the local leader’s guards and requested to see the leader about buying a house in the neighborhood. Upon hearing who it was and what he wanted, the leader agreed to meet with the man after he had been searched.
As the guards searched the man, the guards discovered he was wearing a suicide vest. The guards ran toward the leader’s house in an attempt to warn everyone in the courtyard.
“They all came around the corner at virtually the same time screaming ‘Ali Babba, Ali Babba!’” Berner said. The phrase “Ali Babba” is a widely used Iraqi slang term for a very bad person.
The next few moments were a blur of motion as Soldiers and Concerned Citizens ran for cover.
Barth and Menillo ran to a window to see if the threat was coming from the street, while Berner grabbed the platoon interpreter and attempted to get him behind a wall in the courtyard.
As the bomber rounded the far corner of the courtyard, Kane sprang up with his weapon and started moving toward him. Before he could get off a shot, one of the leader’s sons ran up, wrapped his arms around the bomber and began pushing him out of the courtyard. With his sight picture obscured by the son, Kane could not get off a clean shot.
As the leader’s son wrestled with him, the bomber detonated the vest, killing both men instantly.
“My leg was hit, and my Kevlar was blown off along with my earplugs and eye protection,” Kane said. “My weapon flew out of my hand. The next thing I know, I’m face down in the grass trying to get my bearings.”
Stunned from the attack, Kane attempted to make it to a bathroom in the courtyard for cover.
Meanwhile, Berner was trying to protect the interpreter.
“He stopped to see what was going on, and I just grabbed him and tried to get him behind the wall,” Berner said. “I turned right because I was expecting small-arms fire, and the detonation threw me into the wall.”
Collecting his wits, Berner saw that the interpreter was sprawled out and stunned on the ground. Berner finished getting him behind the wall and thought of the women and children in the courtyard.
“I just ran back out and started grabbing them,” he said. “None of them were hurt, but I wanted to get them into the house or behind the wall. I didn’t know if we were going to take small-arms fire or anything like that. I yelled to (the interpreter) to tell them to get inside.”
The detonation threw both Barth and Menillo into the adjacent courtyard wall.
“For the first 15 seconds after the explosion, everything was real quiet,” Menillo said. “I heard Sgt. Kane yell he was hit and tried to find him.”
When Menillo got into the bathroom, he said he was shocked by what he saw, but Kane was not seriously injured.
“I just grabbed his leg and started checking it,” Menillo said. “I moved on to his ankle and didn’t find anything. I got him up. I thought his leg was busted up from where the blast was in the courtyard and where he was.”
After Menillo retrieved Kane’s gear, Berner started helping him to the vehicle.
According to Barth, the leader’s son took 90 percent of the blast and ultimately saved everyone in the courtyard.
The incident was over minutes after it started.
“The son was definitely a hero for acting the way he did,” Barth said. “His actions saved four American lives that day and the lives of his father and family.”
Barth believes Kane’s actions also saved the lives of his platoon members. As the bomber was running into the courtyard, the first thing he saw was the muzzle of Kane’s weapon. Barth said he believes Kane’s quick reaction and decisive thinking caused the bomber to lose confidence and freeze up.
“A lot of things kept that situation from being worse,” Barth said.
The leader’s son, killed by the bomber, had served chai (tea) to Barth and Kane several times before.
“He was high-spirited and really believed in what the group (Concerned Citizens) was doing,” Kane said. “I have no doubt the bomber was trying to kill American Soldiers. It was very calculated the way the bomber tried to do it. If he hadn’t intercepted him, there is no telling how bad it could have been.”
Berner remembers on the ride back, how he and Kane shared a quick smile to let each other know they were all right.
“He just kind of looked over at me and smiled,” Berner said. “We had been in a roadside bomb incident before that, so this was the second time we had been in that situation. I think we both realized that, as bad as it was, we walked away both times.”
Even though the incident is over, it has lasting effects.
Leaders of 3rd HBCT, the Iraqi National Police and Jisr Diyala leaders met with the father to acknowledge his sacrifice and thank him for his son’s actions.
Both Barth and Kane were present at the ceremony to offer support to their friend and to provide security.
The father was given a plaque and a ceremonial pair of spurs from Lt. Col. John Kolasheski, of Louden, Tenn., commander of 3-1 Cav. Regt.
“You cannot put a price on a life, but we would like to give you a few tokens of appreciation for your sacrifice,” Kolasheski said. “This is a tragic event we are recognizing, but it represents an outstanding change in this area.”
Barth admits it has been difficult talking with the family because of the pain they are experiencing. He has thanked the family for their sacrifice.
“They will always be friends,” Barth said. “This tragedy has strengthened that.”
Berner has relied on the experience of members of his platoon to help him with the incident.
“I’ve talked with Sgt. Kane about it,” he said. “He helped me put in perspective. Being younger, I don’t have the life experience to really understand it. He has been a big help. It's just one of things that I will never forget.”