December 20, 2005
Fatally Exposed

A Mission That Ended in Inferno for 3 Women


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 dirt.

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 ventured out.

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 men.

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 eventuality."

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 the numbers.

"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 Falluja.

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 jacket."

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 home.

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 moving."

Shorthanded Forces

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 to camp.

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.

'Flames Everywhere'

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 Saalman said.

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 here."

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 is Songbird.

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 Quantico, Va.

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 36 inches tall, left the women's necks and heads exposed.

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 to Iraq.

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 perfect."

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."