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10/30/2020 2:42:12 PM
Posted: 12/22/2003 3:22:53 AM EST
Tacoma News Tribune
December 22, 2003

Stryker Crews Find New Vehicles Can Take A Punch

By Michael Gilbert, The News Tribune

SAMARRA, Iraq - Like many soldiers in the Stryker brigade, the crew of Charlie 1-4 had their worries about how their vehicle would hold up if it were struck by a roadside bomb.

Count them as big believers in the Stryker after their encounter with an improvised explosive device on a dirt street a week ago.

"If it had been a Humvee, we'd all be dead," said Sgt. 1st Class Mike Farnum, the senior man aboard Charlie 1-4 when it was struck by the IED the afternoon of Dec. 13.

Only the driver, Pfc. Chris Hegyes, 21, was injured, suffering a broken right foot and ankle. The rest of the crew was unharmed.

Their vehicle was destroyed - not by the blast, soldiers said, but by a fire in the engine compartment that spread throughout the vehicle and ignited their ammunition.

A second Stryker was hit by an IED on Saturday en route to a raid in Samarra, not far from the location of the Dec. 13 attack. Soldiers said it knocked off the left front wheel and damaged the hub, but no passengers were hurt and the vehicle continued on under its own power.

An OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter crew spotted a pickup driving away from the scene and radioed its direction of travel to other Strykers in the raiding party.

They maneuvered on the truck, surrounded it and detained five men armed with four AK-47 assault rifles, said the brigade spokesman, Lt. Col. Joseph Piek.

That the Stryker was able to continue after the bombing, and that the others could move quickly to catch the pickup, demonstrated the vehicle's agility and ability to take a punch, Piek said.

"That's very good news for us," he said.

In the Dec. 13 strike, the crew from Crazyhorse Troop of the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment were at the end of a seven-vehicle convoy. The scouts were showing infantrymen around town in preparation for the brigade's Operation Arrowhead Blizzard, which was to begin in less than 48 hours.

As it turned out, the news the next day that Saddam Hussein had been captured postponed the start of Blizzard by two days.

The convoy had been riding around the city for a few hours when they headed out at 1 p.m. to return to a staging area outside the city.

"We caught some slit-your-throat signs, but that was about it," Farnum said.

They were passing by a dirty two-story brick house - like all the other dirty mud-brick houses in Samarra - when the blast occurred directly under the center front section of the vehicle, crew members said.

"That was the loudest damn explosion I ever heard in my life," said Sgt. Johnathan Vines, 23, who was standing in the rear right-side hatch.

Soldiers said the front of the vehicle lurched upward, then bounced back. Farnum, 37, who was riding across from Vines in the left rear hatch, said a great cloud of dirt and smoke instantly flew up around them.

They didn't know whether it was a bomb or a rocket-propelled grenade, but immediately the soldiers opened fire in all directions. They call it suppressive fire, and it's meant to kill or chase off anyone who might be waiting to follow the first explosion with another attack.

Inside, their medic, Pvt. James Nguyen, a 20-year-old from Seattle, went to work right away on Hegyes. The blast occurred almost directly under the driver, whose compartment is at the left front of the Stryker.

"I kept yelling at him. I thought maybe he was unconscious," Nguyen said. "I heard him making these moaning sounds, and I knew he was hurt."

Hegyes managed to crawl over his driver's seat but then stopped moving in the tight space between his compartment and the rest of the vehicle the soldiers call "the hell hole."

So Nguyen grabbed him and pulled him through.

"Then I put him on the floor and laid on top of him because I thought we were under fire," he said.

Instead, he saw his teammates laying down suppressive fire in all directions.

"Then I took him to the nearest building, found a corner and put him down and told him to stay there. I was pointing my weapon out in the street. I fired three or four times.

"Then Tillotson (Spc. Cody Tillotson, 20) came over and helped me pick him up and take him to another Stryker."

Spc. Clayton Womack said Nguyen began treating Hegyes right away.

"He had his boot off and ankle and foot wrapped in like 30 seconds," Womack said.

Womack said he used the fire extinguisher on the flames that were licking from the engine compartment, but to no avail.

The fire spread and set off secondary explosions when it reached the two antitank rockets, 40 mm grenades, 15-pound shaped charges and other ammunition.

All the crew members' belongings were in there, too - their clothes, their personal photos, all their snacks, a PlayStation, everything.

"We lost all the things that make us comfortable and remind us of home," Farnum said.

Soldiers from their unit and the 296th Brigade Support Battalion rounded up replacement clothes, some poncho liners the soldiers call "woobies," and sleeping bags.

They haven't had a chance to tell their families back home about their ordeal and put in orders for care packages.

Likewise they haven't been able to send best wishes to their driver Hegyes, a Sacramento native who they said served as the crew's deejay, serving up everything from Sinatra to rap.

"He's a good kid, a great soldier," Farnum said. "He was all worried that it was his fault when it happened."

Crew members were cheered, though, by the news that their comrades in the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment on Saturday bulldozed the house where the IED had been set. After the blast the crew found wires running from the crater to the house and up to the rooftop, Farnum said.

Their only regret was that they weren't there to watch, the soldiers said.

Farnum said the crew did a great job reacting to the explosion, getting everyone out of the vehicle and getting medical care for Hegyes. If there's a next time, he said, they'll be better at catching or killing whoever sets it off.

"Oh, we'll get the guy," Farnum said. "Unless he's a world-class Olympic sprinter, he won't get away the way we've got it set up."

And for the folks at the Stryker factory, he said, "Tell 'em thanks. They did their homework."
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