Peace in Mosul shattered by gunfire, downing of a U.S. helicopter

MOSUL, Iraq—In the eyes of the infantrymen, the patrol Friday afternoon was going great. Not merely quiet and routine but positively peaceful.

The streets of Mosul were festive, filled with children dressed in their best frilly dresses and neatly pressed trousers. This week Muslims are enjoying the festival of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.

Small neighborhood parks were awash in bright colors as children mobbed the swings and hand-turned small Ferris wheels, waving and smiling at passing American soldiers.

Most shops were closed, and the few cars on the streets were filled with families.

Not a single shot had been heard nor any boom from a dreaded improvised explosive device for the first three hours of the patrol.

The second platoon of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry of the 172nd Stryker Brigade, home based at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, Alaska, was on a leisurely swing through many of the neighborhoods, rich and poor, in eastern Mosul. Staff Sgt. Joel Burger, a native of Iowa, was in one of the two rear hatches of platoon leader Lt. Joe Vanty's Stryker, a tank-like vehicle on wheels. I was in the other.

Burger had just remarked with a grin that this was the quietest patrol he could remember and that if I had brought that peace with me, "you're welcome to hang around for another seven months until we go home."

Earlier, we had watched two OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters flying a mother-hen mission over our heads, keeping watch on their ground-bound buddies. The OH-58D is small and carries only a pilot and co-pilot.

The peace was shattered in an instant. There was the loud rattle of AK-47 rifles, punctuated by louder sounds of a machine gun. There was trouble and it was close at hand.

Vanty, a native of West Hartford, Conn., ordered his three Strykers to turn toward the sound of the guns and into a nearby neighborhood.

The radios suddenly were crackling: "Chopper down! Chopper down!"

Vanty got a grid coordinate from the wingman in a second OH-58D and plugged it into a tracker screen with a map of that part of Mosul. We were two minutes away from the crash site. The blue dots that represented the Strykers crawled across the computer screen, and then we were there.

Everyone bailed out of the armored vehicles and into the mud beside the road, slogging up a small rise and looking down into an excavated area. We slipped and slid down into the garbage-strewn pit. I had to look twice to recognize the twisted and shattered wreckage as a helicopter among the empty cans, old shoes and bits and pieces of urban debris in the pit. Tiny wisps of smoke drifted off the helicopter into a clear blue sky.

Vanty and his soldiers swarmed over the wreckage, tugging and lifting pieces of bent metal, and, with great physical effort, extracting the body of an American Army aviator. He was a big man, and getting him onto the stretcher on the uneven slippery ground was a difficult task that took half a dozen men.

A medic felt for a pulse in his neck and slowly shook his head. I looked at his booted feet and gloved hands, flopping loosely as they began carrying him away.

I thought how this man had laced up those boots this morning and pulled on his gloves—small chores, little acts of living he would never do again.

I thought too of how in a few hours a casualty notification team would pull up outside an ordinary American home, visiting grief, heartbreak and utter tragedy on an unsuspecting family.

The stretcher was gently carried to one of the Strykers, even as the rest of the platoon and many more arriving soldiers tore the wreckage apart with their hands and lifted large pieces of it up so that others could bring out the second aviator.

He, too, was placed on a stretcher, but this time the medic found a pulse. Faint, but there, if only briefly. We heard later that this man died as well.

Charlie Company's commanding officer, Capt. Kent Park of Houston, rolled in and swiftly followed up on the OH-58D wingman's report that the helicopters had received ground fire from the vicinity of a nearby mosque.

At the al-Sadiq Mosque, the sidewalks and gutters were littered with hundreds of empty shell casings. With their Iraqi translators, Park and others went house to house asking neighbors what they had seen and heard. They also talked to the imam at the mosque.

Iraqi police arrived in their blue-and-white SUVs and pickups after about two hours and shed some light on the shell casings. They said they had been outside the mosque when insurgents fired on them from two directions and they fought them off.

The incident may have had nothing to do with the downing of the OH-58D helicopter and the deaths of the two Americans.

At nightfall, the helicopter wreckage had been retrieved and removed by cranes and flatbed trucks, and the incident was still being investigated to see if it was in fact a hostile action that brought the chopper down.