January 24, 2008
Poquoson Soldier recalls lethal attack
The first of three West Point-based Guardsmen wounded last year in Iraq returns home.
Army Sgt. Andy Corbett from the West Point-based National Guard unit survived
after insurgents attacked his Humvee in Iraq last year. (Photo by Dave Bowman, courtesy of The Daily Press)
By Stephanie Heinatz
Courtesy of The Daily Press
It was Oct. 25, sometime after 8 p.m. Baghdad time, when five Soldiers from the Virginia Army National Guard piled into their mine-resistant vehicle.
Leading a convoy of similarly armored military trucks, they headed off their base near Baghdad International Airport and onto the streets of Iraq's capital.
In military parlance, their job was "route clearance," something that they'd been doing since arriving in Iraq in August, said Sgt. James "Andy" Corbett, a 25-year-old Poquoson native. In civilian terms, they were hunting for the hidden roadside bombs that have become the largest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.
In the front passenger seat of the lead vehicle, Corbett understood that on this night, his men were in the most dangerous position.
"The front is a scary place to be," he said. "You're at the tip of the spear. If something is going to happen, you're likely to get hit first."
That night, Corbett's truck did get hit. Hard.
Only three of the five Soldiers survived the attack. More than 40 military troops with ties to the region have been killed in Iraq since the United States invaded in 2003. But this attack marked the first time that a local unit with local men — the West Point-based 237th Engineer Company — was hit in such a traumatic way, news of the ambush moved throughout the community within days.
Corbett is the first of the three survivors to come home.
Recalling that night during an interview at his parents' home in Poquoson, there wasn't a single detail that Corbett couldn't remember. Like his physical injuries, the memories were burned into him.
Sharing the front of the truck with Corbett was Pfc. Eric T. Holt of Williamsburg, who navigated the highway like an expert. Standing in the turret, manning a machine gun from the opening in the roof, was Spc. Joshua G. Primm, also of Williamsburg.
In the back seat was Sgt. Derek R. Banks, a 2001 Bethel High School graduate, and Spc. David E. Lambert of Cedar Bluff, in Southwest Virginia.
The night was dark, Corbett said,.but they knew what they were looking for. Because of increased insurgent activity on that stretch of road, the five Soldiers had spent their time "behind the wire," studying the types of bombs previously found.
Large clusters of homes lined the multilane highway. The Soldiers headed down it — largely free of traffic, given the time of night — and scanned the roadside.
A bomb planted nearly 50 yards away from the driver's side of the truck exploded, sending deadly projectiles across the highway and into the truck.
A giant fireball engulfed them. Corbett knew instantly that they'd been hit. "The air was on fire," he said. "Everything was on fire."
The road map in his hand lit up. The blast blew Primm out of the truck's turret and onto the ground.
"It blew out both eardrums," Corbett said. "My left lung collapsed."
Corbett's face was burned so badly, his eyes nearly swelled shut. His hands were covered with second- and third-degree burns.
In the back seat, the blast killed Lambert. Banks was mortally wounded.
"There was a lot of running around. We got on the radio, and within minutes, helicopters were over us, watching to make sure we didn't get hit again," Corbett said.
He got out of the truck and shed his body armor, which had caught fire. "Primm and I were basically running around in our T-shirts, trying to get everybody out of the truck to evacuate."
Holt, in a testament to their training and the power of adrenaline, tied a tourniquet around his own leg and pulled himself out of the truck through the gunner's hatch.
"Everything happened so quickly," Corbett said. "Every wasted 30 seconds was another 30 seconds that we weren't in a hospital, getting help."
Within what seemed like 10 minutes, Corbett said, they were in a combat support hospital and prepping for long flights to Germany's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Banks, Corbett and Primm were later flown to Brooke Army Medical Center, Texas, where physicians specialize in severe burns. On Nov. 14, Banks died from his wounds.
Corbett, whose burns are barely visible today, spent his early recovery time dazed by medication.
Holt was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The three survivors took it hard when Lambert died and then when Banks didn't make it. But they've learned to lean on each other, to reach out and talk to each other. They've learned to appreciate their comrades still in Iraq who call and e-mail every day to check in.
"I can talk to my mom and dad and wife about it," Corbett said. "But they don't understand like other Soldiers understand."
Primm remains in Texas at the military's specialty burn hospital. Holt is recovering at Walter Reed.
Both are doing well, Corbett said, and on their way to returning home themselves.
"Some people will ... spend the rest of their lives thinking about a near-death experience and how they could have died," he said. "For us, it was a near-life experience."