The Black Hawks arrived in 13 minutes.
The first one landed in a nearby field and sank in soft sand. Its spinning blades sent sand and dust everywhere and were so low that Staff Sgt. Kent Kirkham was practically on his knees as he wrestled aboard one of the critically wounded.
The second chopper landed on the road. On it, they put Spc. Peter Richert, the gunner pulled out of the wrecked Humvee. It was not a flight he would ever forget.
The stretcher beneath him carried the body of Staff Sgt. David Berry, his squad leader.
And the flight was uncomfortable, made all the more so because Richert’s right foot, barely attached after shrapnel from a roadside bomb tore apart his leg, was caught between the stretcher and the back of the chopper.
“Richert was my best friend,” said Kirkham, leader of the squad that came to his aid. “I was worried about him. That could have been us.”
Richert’s squad, code-named Assassin 2-2, was part of Bravo Battery of the Kansas National Guard’s 161st Field Artillery. But on a dark road the soldiers knew as “Wild West,” Shiite militants had done the ambushing, the killing.
Two of three roadside bombs had found their mark after midnight on Feb. 22, 2007. So had rockets and mortar rounds lobbed into Bravo’s base. Seven Guardsmen were going home early, one in a coffin.
“If you want to get as close to hell without getting there, it was that night,” said Spc. Travis Waltner, part of Berry’s squad, who narrowly missed getting caught in the blasts.
“Get much closer … you probably ain’t alive.”
By the time the companion squad, Assassin 2-3, pulled into home base, Convoy Support Center Scania, the charred, mangled Humvee had already been towed back.
They were all exhausted and emotionally spent. When Spc. John Duncan saw Staff Sgt. Mike Seefeld of 2-2 standing by the wreckage, still in the blood-soaked fatigues he wore when he helped save the survivors, he wept “like a damn baby.”
After the attack, command took the squads off patrol duty, and few objected.
“We didn’t go outside the wire for a week,” said Waltner, who barely escaped the first of the three roadside bombs. “We didn’t want to go outside, for the love of God. You just got your ass handed to you.”
“The walking dead,” was Sgt. Nathan Reed’s description.
Some would wonder if they’d even survive the final four months of their deployment.
“I love you dad,” Duncan e-mailed his father. “I think not worrying would be an act of futility. I’m worried too.”
As hard as that night was on the soldiers and families of Bravo Battery, it was just one of thousands of similar episodes in a nearly five-year war that has often left U.S. troops bloodied, angry and in mourning.
Generally only the worst get more than a passing glance back in the States: a brief account of the facts, an expression of grief from a loved one, a testimonial from a fellow warrior.
Berry’s name was among 80 others that month; he was the sixth Guardsman.
With a reduced regular Army, the Pentagon’s strategy has been to use them to fill in the gaps. Nearly 40,000 Army Guard troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds more gather in armories across the country awaiting the call.
Both Duncan’s father and the father of Spc. Tyler Wing and Spc. Sean Wing — both out there with Berry that night — belong to the same battalion as their sons. They will likely be in Iraq next year.
Bravo came home in July.
The unit demobilized at Fort McCoy, Wis., and on July 22 boarded buses for the all-night drive to Pratt.
When they reached Goddard, the soldiers were surprised to see a group of American Legion veterans form a motorcycle escort for the final leg of their nearly two-year odyssey.
In Pratt, they got onto open trailers for a parade down Main Street. Crowds filled the sidewalks, a band played, flags fluttered and fireworks exploded in the summer sky.
At the ceremony inside the Pratt Community College auditorium, Kansas Adjutant General Tod M. Bunting and all of their wounded comrades welcomed Bravo home.
During 15 months in Iraq, Bravo earned 13 Purple Hearts, 17 Bronze Stars, one Meritorious Service Medal, 29 Army Commendation Medals and 125 Combat Action Badges. And Berry received a posthumous promotion, to sergeant first class.
Some in Bravo have mixed emotions about the war. A current of anger crackles just below the surface.
“I really feel that terrorism is something that should be stopped, but the whole time I was there, even that night, I just kept saying, ‘Why are we over here?’ ” Duncan said. “Why did Richert have to lose his leg? Why did Berry have to die? Give me an answer.”
Kathy Berry doesn’t have one. She just knows that she used to count the days until her husband would be home, and “now it’s so many days since he’s been gone.”
She won’t tarnish his memory, so she doesn’t question the policies that cost Berry his life.
Nor will Staff Sgt. Jerrod Hays, his best friend since junior high. He nearly lost his own life that night with Berry in the Humvee. “I see him die every night before I go to bed, again and again and again.”
Still, he’d go back. “I truly believe in what we we’re doing,” Hays said. “I will until the day I die. Again.”
About this series This story was constructed from dozens of interviews with the soldiers of Bravo Battery and family members who were involved with the events of Feb. 22, 2007. The Star’s Washington correspondent, David Goldstein, talked to the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and visited several of their hometowns for interviews. The quotes are those recalled later by the participants after they returned home from Iraq.