Marines tell tale of narrow escape in Iraq

Sgt. Sam Pennock and Cpl. David Kammerer, of the U.S. Marines, and HM2 Nathan McDonell, of the U.S. Navy.
Sgt. Sam Pennock and Cpl. David Kammerer, of the U.S. Marines, and HM2 Nathan McDonell, of the U.S. Navy.NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

For the young men of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, the Iraqi national elections in January marked a high point in their tour of duty.  “I hope [the Iraqis] make the most of this opportunity,” said one young leatherneck. “The fate of their country is in their hands now.” 

The Marines were vital to providing a secure environment in Ramadi for Iraqis to participate in the historic election process and have continued to work toward eliminating insurgent forces in the area.

On a recent Sunday, the Marines began yet another offensive to crack down on insurgents — enforcing a curfew, setting up checkpoints, searching cars and sealing off sections of the city to prevent people from entering or leaving as they carried out raids.

Just after the elections, the Marines of Golf Company took advantage of momentary breather to explain to NBC News what it feels like to come under attack and survive in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

They recalled one of their fiercest battles in Iraq last November in Ramadi, a tale of bravery and tragedy that underscored the daily threat facing the coalition forces.

'Gotta get shootin'
“I gotta get shootin’ —I  gotta keep shootin’. Cuz if I stop shootin’ they’re gonna hit us again,” recalled Sgt. Sam Pennock, a Humvee machine-gunner with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “The only thing I could think about was tryin’ to kill the bastards that were shootin’ at us.”  

Pennock recalled how on Nov. 8 -- months ago now but a recent memory for him -- his unit was called in to help fellow Marines trapped in an ambush. They didn’t know much more than the fact their comrades were under ferocious attack and taking casualties in the center of Ramadi.  “We just rushed to our trucks and punched out,” said Pennock, 25, of Osawatomie, Kan.

“Everybody mentions Fallujah, but it was pretty intense here, too,” said Navy Corpsman Nathan McDonell, 27, of Daytona Beach, Fla. Traditionally, Navy combat medics have accompanied their Marine brothers into combat. Hospitalman-2nd Class McDonell, known as “Doc” to his fellow grunts, was the medic on board Pennock’s Humvee. “Almost every time we went out, we got hit. It was unreal,” McDonnell said. 

But that day in November was especially bad. As the Golf Co. Marines reached their colleagues who were under attack, they quickly realized that this was not just a minor skirmish.

“I could see Mark 19 [grenade] casings and all kinds of small arms casings all over the ground,” said Pennock, who usually has the best vantage point sitting up in the gun cupola, manning the massive .50 caliber machinegun mounted on top of his Humvee.

But the great view comes with a price and also leaves Pennock exposed, riding with half his body outside the Humvee. “The sound of automatic weapons fire was deafening. At that point, we could tell it was a fairly large fight we were getting into.”

Cpl. David Kammerer, a soft-spoken 23-year-old from Cherry Tree, Pa., was the driver of Pennock’s Humvee. “Once we noticed the daisy-chained IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices], we knew we couldn’t go any further,” said Kammerer. “That’s when all hell broke loose.”

‘Sensory overload’
Daisy-chained Improvised Explosive Devices are an infantryman’s worst nightmare and arguably the most deadly weapon used by the insurgency. 

“Essentially, they wire up a line of 155-mm artillery shells all connected to one fuse. They lay them along a road and wait for us to come by,” Pennock said. “Then, they detonate one and it sets off a chain reaction. When that happens, you got nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”

The series of explosions rocked the 2-ton armored Humvee. The IEDs peppered the vehicle with shrapnel, gouging chunks out of the armor plating and blowing holes through the rear fenders.

“We were the lead vehicle so we took the brunt of it recalled McDonell. “The company commander’s vehicle was also hit. Small arms fire was coming in at us from three sides.” 

With their vehicle crippled by the IEDs, the Marines had to get out and defend themselves. All three quickly dismounted and began laying down suppressive fire with their M-16A4 assault rifles.

“You go on auto pilot. Your brain just shuts down and you just search and destroy,” said Pennock. “I was shooting at the muzzle flashes coming from the surrounding buildings. Rounds were zipping all around me, pinging off the Humvee.” 

“It’s sensory overload. You can’t believe it’s happening. You train for something like this, but until it happens, you can’t prepare for it,” said McDonell. “What goes through your head?  Keep fightin’, don’t quit.”

According to the Marines, the insurgents who had attacked them were well trained and well disciplined. Far from being just a rag-tag band of hoodlums and thugs, this particular group of insurgents was well-schooled in the tactics of guerilla warfare.

“They had laid out the ambush pretty well,” Pennock said.  “Essentially, they lured us in by using Echo [Company] as bait, and then let us have it, first with the IEDs followed by small arms.”

“These guys were good,” said McDonell. “They didn’t just spray and run. I was engaging them from about 50 meters laying down some pretty heavy fire and they didn’t blink.”

From bad to worse
But just when things couldn’t possibly get worse, the Marines heard a noise that they had come to dread while operating in Iraq: A jet-like whoosh that cut through the chatter of automatic weapons fire.

“The first four RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades] came by and just completely missed us,” said Kammerer.

“One of the warheads whizzed right by my head,” Pennock said. “At this point, we were basically trading punches for a good two to three hours.”

It was only a matter of time before one of the insurgent's punches connected with the Marine Humvee. “Finally, that one from the side hit us,” said Kammerer. We didn’t even see it coming. I just felt like I was hit by a train."

An RPG warhead had found its mark on the front section of the Humvee exploding on impact. “It knocked me cold,” said Pennock. “I felt a flash of heat and everything went black.” 

The impact was so great that it had disabled Pennock’s machinegun.  “I knew I had to get that gun working if we were gonna survive.”

But the RPG had taken out more than just the sergeant’s gun. “I was the first one to see O’Brien hit,” said Kammerer, referring to Cpl. Mark O’Brien, a 22-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y., who had been sitting in the right rear seat shooting out of the Humvee’s open door. “He had been hit pretty bad and was screaming. I yelled to Doc that O’Brien’s been hit.”

The RPG warhead turned out to be a HEAT [High Explosive Anti-Tank] round designed to pierce through armor plating. Upon impact, a steel rod punches into the armor and melts its way through. The results can be devastating.

Recovering Marine
“The rocket blew right through the door and basically went right through O’Brien,” said Pennock. “It severed his arm and leg.”

“Doc” McDonell had avoided being hit by the RPG himself by mere seconds. “I had moved from the right front of the vehicle to the left rear to get a better shooting angle,” said McDonell. “As I passed O’Brien, I yelled something to him and then I was knocked down. The last thing I remember was the sound of something that sounded like a dial tone. I don’t know if lost I consciousness, but when I came to, I heard Kam yelling that O’Brien’s been hit.”

“I could hear him screaming through the thick, grayish black smoke,” continued McDonell. “At that point, I ran around the vehicle, grabbed him and just did what I could do to help my friend. I must say that out of the casualties I’ve seen so far, he’s been the worst.” 

“What people sometimes forget is that Doc ran around under fire to pull him out,” said Pennock. “There was so much heavy machinegun fire coming I don’t know how he didn’t get hit.”

“It’s scary because we’re all exposed to fire,” McDonell said. “But when you see your friend, just like that,  You’re in shock but you do what has to be done.”

McDonell did the best he could to stabilize O’Brien until the Marines were able to get him on an ambulance.  “He’s recovering – he’s doing well,” McDonell said recently.

All four Marines involved in the attack will be decorated for valor. But the only thought on their minds now is to just get through the rest of their deployment and for all the Marines in their unit to return home safely. 

“I just want to do ordinary things like go to the mall or walk to the bathroom on carpet and have a flushing toilet,” said McDonell. “Just go somewhere where I don’t have to put on 50 pounds of gear and carry a weapon.”