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Explosion during surprise Iraqi attack sending wounded gunnery sergeant back to the States

LANDSTUHL, Germany—The day before he performed his Superman act, Gunnery Sgt. Bill Hale realized this Gulf War was nothing like the first one.

The maintenance chief from Pennsauken, N.J., was heading to Nasiriyah, supporting front-line Marines with "beans, bullets and Band-aids," as he puts it. Intelligence had radioed that a convoy ahead of them had been ambushed.

As his regiment pushed toward the city in southern Iraq, "you couldn't tell who the enemy was," Hale, 35, said Wednesday from his wheelchair at Landstuhl hospital, where he was one of three wounded Marines telling war stories to the media.

Iraqi soldiers wore civilian clothes and waved white flags—only to unearth buried weapons once they passed him. Women and children would crowd around U.S. troops, distracting them, then "the next thing you know," Hale said, rocket-propelled grenades "were aiming at you outside of windows."

For the 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Battalion, it had been a rough couple of days—sandstorms, rain and no sleep. Three miles south of Nasiriyah, they pulled off the open road and set up a command at an abandoned gas station. About 3 p.m. on March 25, with darkness approaching and chill in the air, his platoon searched enemy positions. A football field away, they found a building stocked with grenades, guns and Iraqi uniforms.

As they waited for combat engineers to blow up the building, Hale spoke with his lieutenant to figure out how to let his most-tired men sleep. He was walking behind a truck mounted with a machine gun when he heard an incoming round—a hissing sound followed by a white flash.

He looked up at the open truck door. It had a softball-size hole. "I could feel my heartbeat," said Hale, an 18-year veteran who had been readying for retirement.

He never fired a gun in the first Gulf War, although Iraqi Scud missiles landed close enough to get his attention. Now machine-gun, tank and mortar rounds were screaming in from three directions.

Safely behind a gas station wall, he started pairing his men and sending them for cover close to a 12-foot earth mound. Two by two, his six-man team made it—cooks, communications specialists and mechanics now in the heat of battle.

"Gunny, we're clear," someone yelled. "We got you."

It was his turn.

"I took a deep breath. Adrenaline kicked in. I said `Gotta go.'"

Hale started running, 25, 35 feet. Then he felt the explosion. "Next thing I knew I was airborne. I was playing Superman for 15 or 20 seconds."

He had flown, then flipped, landing flat on his back. He tried to stand, but his legs buckled. He yelled for his men. They grabbed him by the flak jacket that had likely saved his life and dragged him to safety.

Hale still doesn't know who or what hit him.

Despite painkillers, he still suffers crushing headaches. He thinks he has two herniated disks, as well as a dislocated right knee, torn tendons in his right foot and nerve damage that has numbed eight of his toes.

The nightmares still visit and loud noises startle him, so much he had to stop the first MRI they gave him in Landstuhl. Next stop for him is a hospital in Bethesda, closer to his wife, Anna, and 7-year-old boy, Chris.

"I'm torn between my two families," he says, the Marines fighting without him, and his wife and son in Jacksonville, N.C., and his parents and extended family back in suburban Philadelphia. As a Marine he wants to be with the men he trained. But the doctors say he needs to get himself healthy. "It's just a matter of will I be able to walk normally? Will I be able to run around the backyard with my son?"

He was asked about the adequacy of equipment and troops, whether supply lines were overextended and vulnerable. If Hale has opinions on these, he kept them to himself.

But he does have one opinion about this war that he shares. He remembers being hailed in Kuwait, entering Iraq as a liberator. This time it's different, he says: "I didn't expect to be fighting Iraqis."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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