April 14, 2005
By Maj. Cotton Puryear
CAMP SPEICHER, IRAQ -- A chaplain from the Virginia National Guard underwent a baptism of fire while serving in Iraq in his first assignment out of the Chaplain Officer Basic. Chaplain Gary Malone completed the course at Fort Jackson and requested to be sent to Iraq as soon as possible, and he ended up deploying to Iraq with a unit from the New York National Guard with several other chaplains from the Virginia Guard. Malone and his assistant, Spec. John Rossi of the New York Guard, were traveling in a convoy that came in contact with enemy forces after they delivered an Easter Service to troops in the field.
“During the past several months, Rossi and I have desperately wanted to visit soldiers in our unit that run supply convoys,” Malone explained. “They have had numerous contacts with enemy forces and have proven themselves to be well trained and capable. Rossi came into my room and indicated he had arranged us to travel to another forward operating base (FOB) and spend Easter weekend with these soldiers. We call them the ‘Outcast Express’, and Easter weekend provided us with the opportunity to go and minister to the them.”
Malone and Rossi provided an Easter service that included communion on the hood of their HMMWV. After the service, they loaded up and began to convoy to a more isolated FOB to deliver supplies to soldiers there.
“We arrived there and spent the day enjoying the company of these great soldiers that serve their country,” Malone said. “We loaded up in the late afternoon and headed back. There is a little town that had strong ties to Saddam Hussein along the route. Just as we came out of the town, an escort helicopter spotted a vehicle drop an artillery shell in the middle of the road. That allowed us to stop short of where the enemy wanted us to stop. We went into a formation that allows us to maximize our ability to fight from our vehicles. The front gunner reported several IEDs daisy chained in front of his position and they had detonated.”
Malone said that Rossi was sitting to his right and was getting ready to get out of vehicle and heard a little voice that said, "Wait." Small arms came from the right and his vehicle took a direct hit from what they later discovered to be a mine. “It appeared to be a bouncing land mine because the shrapnel hit the vehicle in straight lines at shoulder level and below,” Malone explained. “The concussion dazed me and I don't remember blacking out, but can't remember the moments right after the detonation. My head was turned and the back of my helmet hit the door and my right ear felt like I was under water.”
The unit began to take small arms fire from the right and left simultaneously. “I remember thinking are they ever going to get off of us,” Malone said. “The front gunner reported additional IEDs going off adjacent to his position. The choppers were all over us providing good information and fire support in the fight. I now tell pilots how much my mom truly loves them.”
An artillery fire mission was called in, as well as additional choppers and F-15s came in to give the unit in contact more fire support. “The fast movers just wanted to turn everything into a parking lot,” Malone said. “The firefight lasted for 20 minutes, and it took almost an hour for us to get out of the kill zone.”
Malone said that there were moments that the sign posted back at base came to mind. “The sign reads, "Is today the day?" We had several vehicles disabled by enemy fire. I was waiting to hear "Man Down!" but that never came over the radio.
Several soldiers were injured with ear injuries, burned feet from spilled fuel, and a lower back injury caused when a soldier was taken off his feet from an IED detonation.
“My prayer that morning was that God would wrap his arms around each and every soldier and keep them safe,” Malone said. “The prayer included a passage from King David. ‘May those who choose to stand up and call themselves our enemy, may they humbly fall at our feet.’”
Malone said the soldiers shared stories of shrapnel going past their ear, in front of their legs and around the inside of their vehicles. “How often do you lose vehicles and not people?” Malone said. “It happens because God listens to our prayers and he answers them. That is what the soldiers told me.”
Malone is scheduled to return as the chaplain of 2nd Battalion, 111th Field Artillery upon his return from Iraq.