December 20, 2005
A Mission That Ended in Inferno for 3 Women
By MICHAEL MOSS
The 120-degree June heat and rising tension in Falluja had already frayed
the nerves of the Marine women when the cargo truck they were riding in
pulled onto the main road and turned toward camp. It was only a 15-minute
trip. But the blast took mere seconds to incinerate lives.
The suicide bomber had waited for his victims alongside the road, and then
rammed his car into the truck with deadly precision. The ambush ignited an
inferno - scorching flesh, scattering bodies and mixing smoke, blood and
Several of the women lost the skin on their hands. One's goggles fused to
her cheeks. After rolling 50 yards on fire, the truck flipped and spilled
the women onto the road, where enemy snipers opened fire. With their own
ammunition bursting in the heat, the women crawled and pulled one another
from the burning wreckage.
They were parched and dazed, and as one marine pleaded for water, another
asked over and over, "How do I look?"
"It was like somebody had ripped her face off," said Cpl. Sally J. Saalman,
the leader of the group, who was waving her own hands to cool them. "I told
her, 'It'll be all right, babe.' "
But it wasn't. Three women died: a 20-year-old who had enlisted to support
her mother, a 21-year-old former cheerleader and a 43-year-old single mother
on her second tour in Iraq.
Three male marines, including two who provided security for the cargo truck,
were also killed. Corporal Saalman and six other women were flown to a burn
center in Texas, where even morphine, she said, could not kill the pain of
having their charred skin scrubbed off.
The ambush in Falluja made June 23 one of the worst days in the history of
women in the American military. Yet it faded into the running narrative of
Iraq, tallied up as another tragic but unavoidable consequence of war.
At the White House the next day, President Bush spoke generally of the
insurgents' resolve: "It's hard to stop suicide bombers." Answering
questions over the next week about the attack, the Defense Department issued
assurances that the women had been adequately protected.
But an examination of the attack, pieced together through interviews in
Falluja and the United States, military documents and photographs taken by
marines at the time, shows the opposite. The military sent the women off
that day with substandard armor, inadequate security and faulty tactics, and
the predictability of their daily commute through one of the most volatile
parts of Iraq made them an open target.
The problems mounted in a lethal chain.
The cargo truck the women rode in was a relic, never intended for warfare
with insurgents, and had mere improvised metal shielding that only rose to
their shoulders. The flames from the blast simply shot over the top.
Their convoy was protected by just two Humvees with mounted machine guns. A
third was supposed to be there but had been diverted that day by a security
team that strained to juggle competing demands. But the Falluja area was so
dangerous that the local Marine commander typically had four Humvees when he
Perhaps most significantly, the security team let the suicide bomber pull to
the side of the road as the convoy passed, rather than ordering him to move
ahead to keep him away from the women. Marines involved in the operation
called the tactic, commonly used, a serious error.
"The females should never have been transported like that," said Sgt.
Carozio V. Bass, one of the marines who escorted the convoy. "We didn't have
enough people or proper vehicles."
If anything, the women needed more protection because of their work in
Falluja and the tension it was igniting, some marines said. They had been
searching Iraqi women for weapons and other contraband and felt certain the
task was infuriating insurgents. Even so, the military had the women follow
a predictable routine: traveling to and from their camp each day at roughly
the same time and on the same route through the city.
Some marines questioned whether they should have been traveling at all. Male
marines also worked at the checkpoints, but did not have to face the dangers
of the daily commute. They slept at a Marine outpost in downtown Falluja,
but Marine Corps rules barred the women from sharing that space with the
In the weeks that followed, the wounded women said, they were told not to
speak with reporters. Two sergeants said they were asked to chronicle the
attack in written statements, but the Marine Corps said it decided against
investigating the episode.
Marine officials defended the security measures that had been taken in
transporting the women and armoring the vehicles. They said that suicide
bombings were still infrequent in Falluja at that time.
"That convoy was as protected as many of the convoys that were run before,"
said Col. Charles M. Gurganus, who commanded Marine operations in Falluja at
the time. "There is absolutely no way that you can prepare for every
The day after the attack, however, the Marines in Falluja increased to five
the number of Humvees in the convoy transporting a new crew of women, added
more weapons for protection and stopped letting cars wait on the side of the
road for the convoy to pass. Eventually, they switched to armored Humvees
instead of cargo trucks.
The marines killed and wounded that day were part of the heavy toll that the
Marine Corps has borne since it returned to Iraq in early 2004 to replace
exhausted Army units.
Marine officials point out that they have inherited some of the most violent
turf in Iraq. But some marines said that their trucks, training and
personnel were more suitable for their traditional mission of establishing
beachheads than for combating a sustained insurgency. Since returning to
Iraq, the Marines have had one-sixth of the military personnel in the war,
but have accounted for one-third of the deaths, Pentagon records show.
And the deadly encounters, like the one in Falluja, take a toll far beyond
"I think about it every day, 24 hours a day," said Lance Cpl. Erin Liberty,
whose seatmate on the truck that day in June was so badly burned that her
body was identifiable only by dog tags. "You're never happy, you're never
sad, you're never mad. You're just pretty much numb to everything."
A Sense of Dread
For four months this year, about 20 women called Camp Falluja home. They
made up a sort of platoon, called the Female Search Force, working out of
the Marine camp, an asphalt and gravel base that lies a few miles outside
The Marines prohibit women from participating in direct ground combat. So
some of the women had performed duties in the mailroom, others in the radio
shack. In February, though, the military formed the group to help search
Iraqi women at the city's checkpoints.
But if screening Iraqis did not constitute a combat job, the daily commute
between camp and city would amount to one.
Each day at 5 a.m., the marines rose from their canvas cots and were taken
by truck to downtown Falluja. They often did not return until 11 p.m. On
good days, the women joshed with the Iraqis, their huge goggles bringing
either squeals or tears from children. But many older Iraqi women objected
to being searched.
"One lady came through and had a bunch of ID's on her," Cpl. Christina J.
Humphrey, of Chico, Calif., said in a phone interview from a base in
Okinawa, Japan. "I said I have to confiscate them and she grabbed my flak
By June, the checkpoints were sweltering and, the women said, a sense of
dread was setting in.
Eighteen members of the military had been killed in the Falluja area and
nearby Ramadi that month. Marine and Iraqi forces were encountering
explosives nearly every day. In the week before the women were attacked, an
Iraqi general survived a suicide car bombing in Falluja.
Cpl. Ramona M. Valdez, 20, who worked at the Statue of Liberty before
joining the Marines in early 2002 to support her mother in the Bronx,
regularly asked to be relieved from the checkpoint duty. The job even
spooked Petty Officer First Class Regina R. Clark, a 43-year-old Navy Seabee
from Centralia, Wash., who was in Iraq for the second time. She had taken
her previous tour in such stride that she had even shipped a stray dog back
This time was different. "She had bad feelings all around," said Kelly
Pennington, a friend in Washington. "Her whole attitude went from getting
the dog home to getting herself home safe."
Making sure the women's commute was safe was the responsibility of the men
who provided convoy security. "That was their job," said Corporal Saalman,
the group's leader, of Branchville, Ind.
Two weeks before the attack, the mood changed for the worse. The Iraqi women
became withdrawn, and the marines began to suspect trouble.
"It was like a cold feeling," Corporal Saalman said. "Everything was slow
The skies in Falluja on June 23 were beginning to clear from a sandstorm
when Sergeant Bass, the convoy member, prepared to help take the women back
His unit provided security for the short trip, dubbed the Milk Run, but
members had mixed feelings when they got the job a few weeks earlier. The
marines were already escorting five or more convoys of supplies and military
personnel in and around Falluja each day and Sergeant Bass and other team
members said they struggled to provide each convoy with full protection.
The problem was particularly acute when it came to Humvees.
Sgt. James P. Sherlock, whose Humvee would have been in the convoy that day
behind the women's truck, said he had been pulled off to patrol a nearby
highway that was seen as more of a threat.
"It was a manpower issue," Sergeant Bass said.
He said his section of the security unit had roughly 10 Humvees at its
disposal. But each vehicle required three to five marines, and by June their
numbers had dropped to about 30, which stretched them thin.
Sergeant Bass said no one raised any objection to using just two Humvees
that day because, while all of Falluja was dangerous, there had been no
recent attacks on that stretch of road. Moreover, he said, the Marines were
trying to lower their profile.
"We were trying to give the people some normalcy," he said. "We didn't want
to appear to them as being bullies."
Colonel Gurganus, the former commander in Falluja, said that while he
usually had an escort of four Humvees, that number rose to as many as eight
when other officers or dignitaries joined him.
There were no hard and fast rules on how many Humvees to use, nor were there
any on how to position the women in the convoy. Often, the women would mix
with the men in a second cargo truck, which Sergeant Bass said he preferred
because it made them a less enticing target.
The Marine compound in downtown Falluja, where the convoy was staged, is
easily observable from nearby buildings, and Sergeant Bass said he was
convinced that the insurgents did their homework.
"They planned this maybe for months," he said. "Scoped our convoy out and
saw typically where do the females sit. Maybe they had someone watching and
they called on the cellphone."
That evening, however, Corporal Saalman said she was focused on a routine
but necessary chore: calling the roll. So she had all the women climb onto
the bed of one truck.
Falluja should have been bustling on a Thursday evening in summertime. But
the streets had been deserted for much of the day, which the American
military had learned could be a signal that residents had been tipped off to
an impending attack.
"I even told my buddy, 'Something bad is going to happen today,' " Corporal
At 7:20 p.m., there was only one car on the road when the women's convoy
left. The marines in the lead Humvee waved the driver of a car to the side
of the road and later said that his demeanor had raised no alarms.
The driver waited, they said, for the lead Humvee to pass and then hit the
women's cargo truck, striking just behind the cab on the passenger's side.
The blast instantly killed the truck's assistant driver, Cpl. Chad W.
Powell, an outdoorsman and third-generation marine from West Monroe, La.,
and Pfc. Veashna Muy, 20, of Los Angeles, who was in charge of operating a
gun atop the cargo truck.
In the back, two of the women, Petty Officer Clark and Corporal Valdez, died
within moments, according to casualty reports. Lance Cpl. Holly A. Charette,
21, of Cranston, R.I., the former cheerleader, died three hours later after
receiving treatment at Camp Falluja, the records show.
"It was orange and black and red smoke, flames everywhere, coming at us,"
Corporal Liberty recalled. "I didn't see my childhood, or a big white light.
I just closed my eyes and I'm like, 'Wow, I'm going to die.' "
The marines in the rear Humvee heard the explosion, but were so far back
they did not know what had been hit. Sergeant Bass took a photograph that
shows a huge plume of smoke some 200 yards away.
Then came the radio call from the marines who were leading the convoy:
"We've been hit! We've been hit! We've taken mass casualties. Get the doc up
Sergeants Bass and Timothy Lawson ran, with the medic, just as snipers
across the road opened fire. When they arrived they found Corporal Liberty
trying to hoist a woman away from the burning truck.
"I tried to pick her up by the back of her flak jacket," said Corporal
Liberty, who is now being treated in North Carolina for an injured neck,
shrapnel in one leg and combat stress. "She was a big healthy woman with
lots of muscle, and she was down in the dirt and blood and I said, 'Come on
girl, we've got to go.' "
Another marine grabbed Corporal Liberty and told her to let go. The woman
was already dead.
The women took shelter at a storefront about 100 yards off the road and the
few men who were present had to run back and forth carrying the wounded. In
all, 13 women and men were injured.
Against orders, two men from the second cargo truck jumped out and raced
ahead to help, including Cpl. Carlos Pineda, a 23-year-old from Los Angeles.
When smoke from the flaming truck cleared for a moment, a bullet found the
gap in the armor on his side and sliced through his lungs.
His widow, Ana, said she later received a letter he wrote the day before,
saying he had narrowly escaped harm in another attack. "He said, 'I feel my
luck here is just running out.' "
When another Marine unit arrived on the scene, the dead and wounded were
loaded onto the second cargo truck and the convoy pressed on to camp. One of
the two Humvees then broke down, and one of the injured women had to be
moved to the cargo truck.
In the back, Corporal Saalman started to sing. First, "America the
Beautiful," then "Amazing Grace."
"I have this thing ever since I was little, if I get scared or I'm worried
or someone else is worried, I sing," said Corporal Saalman, whose nickname
It calmed her platoon, the marines said, and between verses she consoled the
woman whose scorched head lay in her lap.
Wrong Armor for the Mission
Long before that June day, Marine commanders were wrestling with a vexing
problem: their troops lacked the right protection for a war exacting its
toll in roadside bombs.
To carry out its traditional mission of leading invasions, the Marines have
lightly armored amphibious vehicles to get them onto dry ground and trucks
to ferry them and their supplies on the back lines. The cargo truck that
carried the security checkpoint workers through Falluja each day was
conceived of in the early 1990's without armor for noncombat supply lines.
"We equip for what we fight and the truck was not designed to be an armored
vehicle," said Maj. Gen. William D. Catto, the leader of the unit
responsible for equipping marines, in an interview at his headquarters in
In November of 2003, as the Pentagon was ordering the Marines to relieve
Army troops in Iraq, General Catto's team told Oshkosh Truck, which makes
the cargo truck, to help create an integrated armor system, according to
records released to The New York Times.
"During the fall of 2003, we noted the alarming increase in the number of
Army vehicles under attack," Col. Susan Schuler, a Marine procurement
official, said in an e-mail message. "Therefore, anticipating that Marine
units would return to Iraq in early 2004, we had to address vehicle
hardening of all our fleets."
General Catto said the plan was ideal but was taking too long. In the
meantime, they began buying ceramic panels used on military aircraft, but
could not get enough from the single company that was making them.
So they obtained metal plates, which were neither as strong nor as tall as
the factory armor that was being developed.
The women's truck that was hit in Falluja had been fitted with the plates
and General Catto said he had been told that they repelled the blast. But
the makeshift shielding, just 36½ inches tall, left the women's necks and
A year earlier, when four marines were killed in Ramadi after a roadside
bomb hit their Humvee, their company leader told The Times that a few inches
more of steel would have saved their lives.
A contract to produce the new factory armor for the cargo trucks, which is
double-walled and 46 inches high, was awarded in September 2004, but the
Marine Corps said it could find only one company to make it: Plasan Sasa,
based in Kibbutz Sasa, Israel.
With nearly 1,000 cargo trucks in Iraq, General Catto said he would like to
have multiple companies making the armor, but Plasan Sasa holds the rights
to the design. However, Plasan's chief executive, Dan Ziv, said his firm had
more than kept pace with the Marines' schedule. "We are not the bottleneck
at the moment," he said.
The armor kits take 300 hours of work to install, and General Catto said
that with the marines so pressed by the war, they could not easily give up
their trucks to have the work done. The first trucks retrofitted with
factory armor began showing up in the field on May 31, the Marines said, and
as of last week half of its cargo trucks had this armor installed. That
leaves about 460 trucks in Iraq with the same protection as the truck that
carried the Marine women in Falluja.
Despite the June 23 ambush, Corporal Saalman said she was willing to return
Sergeant Bass, who has returned to a marketing job in San Diego, said he had
turned the events over and over in his head. "I don't want to blame
everything on the Marine Corps," he said. "Leaders make mistakes and aren't
Then he added: "We were undermanned and overtaxed, and that is not out of
the norm for the Marine Corps. But in a wartime situation it really hindered
our capability and sometimes our willingness to do things."