INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 8, 1997
THE COMPANY CLERK, Spec. John Stebbins, ran into the street to get Pfc. Carlos Rodriguez, who had been shot in the groin and was howling in pain. Stebbins tried to drag him by his body armor, but Rodriguez was a tall, solid kid, and short, stubby Stebbins couldn't pull him.
Rodriguez had both hands over his crotch, and blood was pumping out from between his fingers and flowing from his mouth. Stebbins reached around Rodriguez's waist and half-carried, half-dragged him off the street. Rodriguez's head dragged in the dirt.
One of the Delta commandos ran over and helped haul Rodriguez into the courtyard of a house, where he was added to a rapidly expanding group of wounded men. A makeshift command post had been set up inside the house, which stood roughly a block from the wreck of pilot Cliff Wolcott's Blackhawk.
It was dusk now, and the men gave up on the ground convoy that was supposed to meet them at the crash site. They knew the convoy was lost and badly mauled. They had seen the vehicles drive past just a few blocks west about an hour earlier.
Everyone dreaded the approaching darkness. They were without their main technological advantage - their NODs (night optical devices), which allowed them to see in the darkness. The men had left them behind, assuming the midday mission would only take an hour. Most of them had left without their canteens, too, thinking they could do without water for an hour.
Now the force faced the night thirsty, tired, bleeding, running low on ammunition, and literally in the dark.
Sgt. TIM WILKINSON was inside the wrecked Blackhawk, tending to the wounded, when he got a radio call. The men holed up in the building across the street desperately needed another medic. Rodriguez was in terrible shape.
Wilkinson, who had roped down to the crash as part of a 15-man combat search-and-rescue team, gathered up his medical kit. Then he turned to his wounded fellow medic, Master Sgt. Scott Fales, and deadpanned an absurdly cinematic request.
``Cover me,'' he said. Wilkinson was the team comic.
Head down, legs pumping, he ran and ran, plowing across the wide road, bullets snapping all around him. He burst into the courtyard and saw two of the big Delta sergeants wrestling with Rodriguez, trying to get the terrified private under control.
He started an IV, then realized he was almost out of fluids. Fales had extra fluids at the crash site, but that meant another foray through the gunfire. Crouching and running at the same time, Wilkinson took off across the road again. He made it safely, and loaded up bags of fluids. With the bags cradled in his arms, he made yet another panicked dash across the road, the rounds screaming over his head. He arrived in the courtyard unscathed.
Wilkinson moved Rodriguez and the other wounded into a rear room. Then he turned to Capt. Scott Miller, the Delta ground commander.
``Look, I've got a critical here,'' he said. ``He needs to get out right now. The others can wait, but he needs to come out.''
Miller didn't respond. He just gave the medic a look that said, We're in a bad spot here, what can I say?
WHEN THE SUN had slipped behind the buildings to the west, Stebbins was finally able to get a good look at the Somalis who had been firing at him from windows and doorways. He squeezed off rounds carefully, trying to conserve ammunition. His buddy, Pfc. Brian Heard, tapped him on the shoulder and shouted, ``Steb, I just want you to know in case we don't get out of this, I think you're doing a great job.''
Stebbins was trying to figure out whether Heard was serious or just goofing when the ground around them shook. Heavy rounds were shattering the wall behind them, taking down their cover.
Three more ear-shattering rounds hit the wall, and Stebbins was knocked backward. It was as if someone had yanked him from behind with a rope. He felt no pain, just a shortness of breath. He was dazed and covered with white powder from the pulverized mortar of the wall.
``You OK, Stebby? You OK?'' Heard asked.
``I'm fine, Brian. Good to go.''
Stebbins stood up, infuriated, cursing at full throttle as he stepped back out into the alley and resumed firing at a window down the street. Four other Rangers joined in, shooting at the same window. There came a whoosh and a crackling explosion, and Stebbins and Heard screamed and disappeared in a ball of flame.
Stebbins woke up flat on his back this time. He gasped for air and tasted dust and smoke. Up through the swirl he saw darkening blue sky and two clouds. Then Heard's face came swimming into view.
``Stebby, you OK? You OK, Stebby?''
``Yup, Brian. I'm OK. Just let me lie here for a couple seconds.''
As Stebbins gathered his thoughts, he heard a voice from behind him. One of the D-boys was looking down at him from a window. His voice sounded cool, like a California beach bum's.
``Where's this guy shooting from, man?''
Stebbins pointed out the window.
``All right, we've got it covered. Keep your heads down.''
From his window perch, the Delta marksman let go a round from his M203 grenade launcher, dropping it right into the targeted window. There was an enormous blast. Stebbins figured the round had detonated some kind of ammo, because there was a flash throughout the first floor. Black smoke poured from the window.
The evening grew quiet. Stebbins saw lights flick on in the distance and was reminded that they were in the middle of a big city, and that in some parts of it life was proceeding normally. There were fires burning somewhere back toward the Olympic Hotel, where they had roped in. It seemed like ages ago.
A voice shouted across the intersection that everyone was to retreat back to the building across from the crash site. One by one, the men on Stebbins' corner started sprinting across the intersection. The volume of fire had died down.
Stebbins heard a whistling sound, and he turned to see what looked like a rock hurtling straight at him. It was going to hit his head. He ducked and turned his helmet toward the missile, and he was engulfed in fire and light.
His eyes were closed, but he saw bright red when the grenade exploded. He felt searing flames. He smelled burned hair and dust and hot cordite, and he was tumbling, mixed up with Heard, until they both came to rest sitting upright and staring at each other.
``Are you OK?'' Heard asked after a long moment.
``Yeah, but I don't have my weapon.''
Stebbins started to crawl back to his position, looking for his weapon. He found it in pieces. There was a barrel but no hand grip. He could feel dust up his nose and in his eyes, and he could taste it. He tasted blood, too. He figured he'd just cut his lip.
He needed another weapon. He stood up and started running for the courtyard, figuring he'd grab a rifle from one of the wounded men. He kept falling down. His left leg and foot felt as if they were asleep. Some of the other men ran out and dragged him into the courtyard.
Stebbins was covered with dirt and dust, his pants burned off, his leg bleeding. Wilkinson helped him into the back room where the other wounded were gathered. It was already dark there, and Stebbins smelled blood and sweat and urine. There were three Somalis huddled on a couch; the D-boys had handcuffed the man of the house and sat him down with his wife and child. Rodriguez was in the corner, moaning and taking short, loud, sucking breaths.
The Somalis moved to the floor, and Wilkinson eased Stebbins down on the couch and started cutting off his left boot with a big pair of shears.
``Hey, not my boots!'' he complained. ``What are you doing that for?''
Wilkinson slid the boot off smoothly and slowly and removed the sock. Stebbins was shocked to see a golf ball-sized chunk of metal lodged in his foot. He realized for the first time that he'd been hit. He had noticed that his trousers looked blackened, and now, illuminated by the medic's white light, he saw that the blackened flaking patches along his leg were skin. He felt no pain, just numbness. The fire from the explosion had cauterized his wounds.
One of the D-boys poked his head in the door and gestured toward the white light.
``Hey, man, you've got to turn that white light out,'' he said. ``It's dark out there now, and we've got to be tactful.''
Stebbins was amused by that word: Tactful. But then he thought about it - tactful, tact, tactics - and it made perfect sense.
Wilkinson turned off the white light and flicked on a red flashlight.
``You're out of action,'' he said. ``Listen, you're numb now, but it's going to go away. All I can give you is some Percocet.''
Wilkinson handed Stebbins a tablet and some iodized water in a cup. Wilkinson then handed him a rifle. ``You can guard this window,'' he told him.
``But as your health-care professional,'' Wilkinson added, ``I feel I should warn you that narcotics and firearms don't mix.''
Stebbins just shook his head and smiled.
Finally he was left to sit there alone on the couch, clutching his rifle, listening to Rodriguez moaning and sucking air and to the Somalian woman complaining with words he didn't understand that her husband's handcuffs were too tight. Stebbins realized he had to urinate badly. There was no place to go. So he just released the flow where he sat.
He caught the woman's eye.
``Sorry about the couch,'' he said.
Chapter 24: Trying to save a wounded Ranger.