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Soldiers find themselves stage props for Rumsfeld speech

BAGHDAD, Iraq—It was supposed to be a big day for Staff Sgt. Michael Hertig and Spc. Jesse Blancarte.

Hertig put on his clean desert camouflage uniform, and Blancarte carried the flag representing his unit.

Third Infantry Division headquarters had informed them they would be among a group of soldiers honored Wednesday at a "hero's luncheon," where they would meet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In the end, the two 3rd Brigade soldiers became little more than stage props for Rumsfeld's speech at Baghdad International Airport.

"I was happy to be there," said 21-year-old Blancarte of Frostproof, Fla. "But it wasn't what I expected."

Both soldiers are expected to receive Army commendations for their actions on April 6 during the assault on Baghdad.

"That was the longest day of my life," Blancarte said.

Blancarte had just crawled out of the hatch of an armored personnel carrier when he heard gunfire. He didn't hear the rocket-propelled grenade explode inside the carrier.

"I woke up on the floor of the track," said Blancarte. "Everybody was knocked out."

Two of the eight people in the vehicle were wounded. One, 19-year-old Pfc. Gregory Huxley Jr., was dead.

Shrapnel had clipped a vein in Staff Sgt. Shawn Johnson's leg. Blancarte put a field dressing on the bleeding wound before moving to treat Sgt. Scott Barker, whose leg had been ripped open by six pieces of shrapnel.

The battle, meanwhile, heated up, and the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Donnie Roberts, got hit in the temple by shrapnel. Blancarte treated his wounds. In the end, all three of his patients survived.

"We had two new guys, and I had to keep my cool," he said. "I just kept telling them that it was going to be all right and kept them busy loading ammo."

Hertig, 32, of San Diego, had been told Rumsfeld might pin the Army's Silver Star on him.

While leading a security convoy on April 6 for the brigade's headquarters unit, which included Col. Dan Allyn, Hertig discovered an exposed flank along the route. Hertig maneuvered his Bradley Fighting Vehicle to a position where, over the next hour, he killed 10 Iraqi soldiers.

Later, when the headquarters group was attacked, Hertig organized perimeter security. After the battle, he escorted ambulance units carrying wounded soldiers to a hospital 30 miles away, through enemy territory.

"His selfless sacrifice, extraordinary courage and inspiring battlefield presence was decisive in saving the lives of over 15 soldiers and Iraqi civilians," Allyn said.

Though prepared for combat, Hertig and Blancarte were not prepared for what awaited them Wednesday at the airport, site of 3rd Infantry Division headquarters.

They were told they would be put on stage with Rumsfeld and that the defense secretary would honor them by shaking their hands. The two soldiers waited outside the hangar for nearly four hours and then were put on stage with about 13 other soldiers.

Waiting for Rumsfeld, an Army official encouraged soldiers to come up on stage and tell jokes. Each was given a corps coin—considered a token of appreciation—after telling a joke.

Rumsfeld arrived, gave his speech and left without shaking the hands of the soldiers on the stage or even mentioning them.

In Washington, Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, explained that Rumsfeld's time is limited when he travels.

"While he would love to have the time to meet and shake hands with any number of service men and women, he just can't physically do that," Lapan said. "Part of the objective of his trip was to thank troops and commanders and praise them for a great job. And while some may not have gotten the chance to shake his hand, he understands their sacrifices and appreciates all that they did."

After the speech, Hertig and Blancarte laughed about the day's events on the way back to camp.

"You'd think we could've at least got one of those corps coins," Hertig said. "But it was still nice to be there."


(Jessica Guynn contributed to this article from Washington.)


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SOLDIERS