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CNN: SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT
Encore Presentation: Ambush at the River of Secrets
Aired July 23, 2007 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is a story that begins at the end. If nations did not go to war, and young people did not answer the call, there would be no story. But they do, and there is.
And this one starts with a picture of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, Charlie Company. From the moment they step on to Iraqi soil, they're on a collision course with the deadliest day of the war.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was something different that night.
STAFF SERGEANT BUTCH DREANY, U.S. MARINE CORPS: We were expecting contact.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of a sudden, just -- there was just gunfire.
STAFF SERGEANT MIKE SPRANO, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Firing back with everything they had.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were taking fire from the mosque.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a huge explosion in the back of the Humvee.
FOREMAN: And it will come on the bankings of the fabled Euphrates, for both Christians and Muslims, a great river of secrets.
From the start of this conflict, one part of Iraq has refused to be tamed, stretching from Baghdad, up the Euphrates, west to Syria, and south to Saudi Arabia. Al Anbar Province is home to the Sunnis, who had power under Saddam Hussein. More Americans have died here than anywhere else in this troubled country.
But, in the countryside of Vermont, in spring 2004, with the war going well, such worries are present, but seem distant for Pastor Nathan Strong, his wife, Vicki, and their grown children, Matthew and Heather. After all, when Jesse, the middle child, is called up with his Marine reserve unit, he assures him his time in Iraq will pass quickly.
NATHAN STRONG, FATHER OF JESSE STRONG: It felt like to us that part of his training at boot camp was to not tell mom anything.
(LAUGHTER) VICKI STRONG, MOTHER OF JESSE STRONG: Don't -- don't make mom worry.
I never, throughout the whole time he was there, thought he would be in a battle or on a front line of any kind.
HEATHER STRONG, SISTER OF JESSE STRONG: I think we all just tried so hard to be positive, and not worry.
MATTHEW STRONG, BROTHER OF JESSE STRONG: Maybe there was a little bit, you know, just saying, he's coming back, I'm not going to worry about it, and just kind of kept the positive in mind, and didn't think about it.
FOREMAN: Jesse Strong is a devoutly religious young man who has attended Liberty University, a religious school.
This is him talking to classmates about sin, forgiveness, salvation.
JESSE STRONG, U.S. MARINE CORPS: And those sins have been washed away, past, present, and future. The lord has taken care of that for you. And all you have to do is receive it by faith and accept it as a gift.
FOREMAN: He's admired for his sense of fun. He loves dancing, telling jokes, being outdoors. He can take care of himself.
Jesse's unit, based in Virginia, is a tight group. The guys have known and trained with each other for years. There is Chris Weaver from Fredericksburg, tall, intellectual, quiet most of the time, but wickedly funny at others. His father, David, and mother, Sharon, are terribly worried when he's called up. Still:
SHARON WEAVER, MOTHER OF CHRISTOPHER WEAVER: At the time, the death toll was fairly low. The number of Marines over there, he had a -- I mean, his chances of getting injured, even, was less than 10 percent. I mean, that is pretty low. And there again, you know, I thought, he's going to be doing engineering stuff. He's not going to be, you know, with a gun in his hand, fighting battles.
Chris' fiancee, Danell Weaver, is worried as well. But she already, coincidentally, shares the same last name. Now she will share this adventure as well. He wants to be a historian someday, with an emphasis on military history.
DANELL WEAVER, FIANCEE OF CHRISTOPHER WEAVER: He told me that he knew he would always go into the military since he was a little kid. His father was in the Navy. His uncles and his grandfather and everyone in his family was in the military at one time. And he just knew that it was in his blood, and that's what was going to happen.
FOREMAN: From the far west end of Virginia comes Jonathan Bowling. He's also very religious and just as committed to his community. He wants to be a state trooper, like his father, Darrell. Jonathan has already signed on with the police department. And he and his father ride motorcycles together for fun.
Darrell feels his son's police training might help him avoid combat. DARRELL BOWLING, FATHER OF JONATHAN BOWLING: But, as soon as I started to question him about it, he stopped me cold.
And he explained: You know, dad, this is a spot somebody has got to take. If I don't take it, if I don't go, somebody else will be in it. And I'm not going to have that.
I don't think you can say anybody wants to go to Iraq. But I think he felt that -- that, if troops were there, it was his duty to -- to be one of them.
FOREMAN: Jonathan's parents are divorced. His mother, Robin, shares her fears about her son's departure with his girlfriend, Tonya McFarling, who also hopes one day to marry her Marine.
ROBIN FERON, MOTHER OF JONATHAN BOWLING: I knew it was dangerous. And, so, I just prayed and hoped he would come home.
TONYA MCFARLING, GIRLFRIEND OF JONATHAN BOWLING: I thought they were training the Iraqis, and, as soon as they get, you know, everybody trained over there, that that will be it.
FOREMAN: The families are reassured when their Marines fly from California to Kuwait, and straight to a big, well-protected base in Iraq.
But the men know something their families largely do not: Combat engineers destroy enemy fortifications. They clear mines. They engineer battlefields. They will, in fact, be right in the middle of everything.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Ever since it was invented by the Soviets more than 60 years ago, the rocket-propelled grenade has been a favorite of rebel armies. Lightweight, easy to use, the spiraling flight of the grenade triggers a switch which arms the explosive. And, when it hits something, it blows up.
These and Kalashnikov rifles, another Soviet invention, are the backbone of insurgent weaponry. But the combat engineers of Charlie Company spent many days dealing with a much more pervasive threat, the seemingly endless supply of land mines and bombs improvised from old artillery shells.
DREANY: They really worked hard and they worked well together. We were really lucky.
FOREMAN: Mike Sprano and Butch Dreany were the staff sergeants leading the group, building checkpoints, clearing roadways. They make trips so many trips through the desert, hunting explosives, constantly finding hidden stores of weapons, that Chris Weaver, the aspiring historian, notes in his journal that it was becoming almost routine. "It is kind of fun driving through the desert," he writes. "The ever present threat of mines, however, always makes people uneasy."
They are occasionally shot at and sometimes shelled, but they rarely see their enemy.
SPRANO: We all had the sense of frustration that comes when you feel like you're fighting a ghost. And, so, whenever we got an opportunity to actually go in and fight somebody, we looked forward to it.
FOREMAN: The group looks forward to any break from the tedious, dangerous work: an impromptu dance by the always fun-loving and optimistic Jesse Strong, a wild ride in an Iraqi police car that the platoon had to move from one place to another. They blow the siren at the empty desert, and laugh endlessly.
Even Halloween is improvised, anything to relieve the crushing schedule of work and danger.
DREANY: We were in the country 217 days, and we did 222 missions.
FOREMAN: When a slightly built, quiet young man named Karl Linn transfers to the platoon, Weaver writes in his journal again: "I asked to have him in my fire team, because I wanted some young lackey that would follow my orders without any complaining. But Linn is good at much more than grunt work. It is quickly apparent he knows more about one thing than anyone else.
DREANY: Weapons. He became just infatuated with just weapons in general, especially foreign weapons, which became an asset, being in Iraq, because Karl already knew how to break down most weapons that we found. You know, I -- I would look at it and just go: Hey, Linn.
DREANY: Here you go.
FOREMAN (on camera): That's a pretty valuable guy to have.
DREANY: Oh, absolutely.
(voice-over): Linn comes from near Richmond, and was studying engineering at Virginia Commonwealth when he was activated.
DICK LINN, FATHER OF KARL LINN: He was always writing in the margins or doodling somehow.
FOREMAN: His father, Dick, has notebooks filled with his son's drawings and inventions.
LINN: Random collection of things here. Haven't sorted through all the -- all the papers and all the -- all the good stuff.
FOREMAN: Karl had helped his school establish a robotics team. And he was fascinated with the idea of joining the rough-and-ready Marines, unusual for a young man from a Buddhist home.
LINN: I think the idea appealed to him, you know, the -- if you're going to do something, then do the toughest thing, I think. Maybe it was for his -- you know, his own self-esteem or self- discipline. I -- I know he wanted to -- to pay society back for what he had been given. I mean, he felt a -- an obligation to help serve the country.
SPRANO: He volunteered for everything, and, within a week or two, you -- you couldn't even tell that he was new.
FOREMAN: The group is facing something else new anyway. They're transferred for the Haditha Dam, a large hydroelectric plant on the Euphrates River. Insurgents have just destroyed the police station there, and the area needs help. The engineers' new home is deeper and much more isolated in Sunni territory.
Jesse Strong writes a letter to schoolkids back in Vermont about the move to the river. According to Christian history, it once flowed out of the Garden of Eden. And its secret? The Bible says, when it dries up, Armageddon will begin. And Muslim lore says the riverbed hides a mountain of gold.
"It is a historic river," Strong writes, "and a lot of people live along its banks" -- a lot of potential enemies. All the coalition troops know, in the towns along the Euphrates, some people live secret double lives, friendly townspeople by day, fierce insurgents by night.
Jonathan Bowling tells his father on the phone, and Darrell knows what the move means.
BOWLING: They were going out to disarm reported bombs and explosives. That's dangerous stuff, but, then, as you go further out the Euphrates, much more dangerous, much more hazardous.
FOREMAN: It is worse than that.
One hundred miles southeast of his son's position, coalition forces are pounding Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold. Through November and into December, the coalition kills many insurgents and puts scores of others on the run. So, even as the Marines at the dam celebrate Christmas and the beginning of a new year, a tide of insurgents sweeps up the river toward them, furious over the losses in Fallujah, and intent on stopping the first free elections coming up at the end of January.
DREANY: We became a hotbed, if you will, for insurgent activity. And that's when, you know, firefights started to occur, and more mine strikes, and more IED strikes. Our actual engagement of the enemy picked up tenfold. SPRANO: And, then, once January hit, I mean, literally, within minutes of the new year, the base got attacked by mortars. And, then, the -- the next day, our platoon commander lost his arm in an ambush. And it just -- it started picking up like it hadn't before.
FOREMAN: With the engineers working furiously to build safe polling places, Chris Weaver sends a note home, saying he might be out of touch a bit.
D. WEAVER: And that was a big red flag to me, obviously. But...
FOREMAN (on camera): A red flag that told you what?
D. WEAVER: If he felt the need to warn me, that there was probably more danger than I wanted to know about at the time.
FOREMAN: The tension is palpable. The engineers patrol endlessly. They pass through an area where they plan to put a polling station.
Weaver writes in his journal: "It looked like a place where the end fight scene in a movie would take place. At least no one got hurt."
It is his last entry. Within days, it will seem as if someone on the river of secrets had been listening.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Modern militaries run on intelligence. Information about enemy troops, weapons, targets.
On January 26, 2005, military intelligence believes insurgent leaders are holed up nine miles south of the dam, in Hoklinya (ph) in a building in a mosque. At three in the morning, the combat engineers join a convoy of a dozen vehicles, 77 Marines preparing for what they call a hard hit.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A hard hit. Exactly. We were expecting contact. With a large group of Marines going to a known spot where a high value target was located.
FOREMAN: Right before the convoy rolls, a snapshot catches Jesse Strong standing in the bed of an open backed Humvee. Then he takes the tailgate position on the passenger side.
Next to him is Karl Linn, then Chris Weaver and Jonathan Bowling is just behind the cab. All four are filling in on this raid for fellow Marines who are sick with the flu.
Up front, Sergeant Bill Meyers commands their vehicle. SGT. BILL MEYERS, CHARLIE COMPANY: Our group is combat engineers. We were the bridge team. We were to search for weapons, and we were to assist in the assault of the building.
FOREMAN: The convoy rolls, lights out over the open desert, avoiding potential land mines and insurgent lookouts along roads. As they approach, the village of Hoklinya (ph) appears asleep.
Joe Tosaro (ph), a photographer with WABC in New York and his reporter, Jim Dolan, are embedded with the unit.
JIM DOLAN, REPORTER, WABC: It's about what you would expect from a small village in the dead at night. I don't recall seeing anybody outside or awake.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But there were people in the mosque. Definitely were lights coming from the mosque.
DOLAN: Seated right across from Jonathan Bowling, Andy Gentry is also taking in the small town.
ANDY GENTRY, CHARLIE COMPANY: We kind of got freaked out a little bit because we saw an ambulance that took off and the lights were on, but no sirens. That's strange.
FOREMAN: They press on to the house beside the mosque. The convoy arrays itself to watch around the area near the river. This is the actual videotape of that night.
Marines spill out of two vehicles and rush the target house. That's Bill Meyers' group leading the charge to blow the door, Bowling, Linn, Weaver and Strong. Surprisingly, the door is open.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go in.
FOREMAN: They throw a flash grenade to startle and stun whomever is inside. But the house is abandoned.
MEYERS: When you go into a building that's supposed to be housing 10 insurgents and there isn't even any furniture in the building, you kind of -- you kind of wonder what -- what's about to happen.
FOREMAN: The team searches every room, throwing flash grenades ahead of them. Nothing. Andy Gentry says no one wants to say it looks like a setup. But...
GENTRY: I'm pretty sure all of us saw it.
FOREMAN: The Marines load to leave, throwing out flyers promoting the historic upcoming Iraqi elections as they depart. Then -- the lead vehicle is hit. A roadside bomb, followed by rocket propelled grenades. Meyers' group near the back of the convoy is still moving.
MEYERS: Being as far back as we were, we heard the explosion. We heard some shots, but we weren't exactly sure what was going on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then as we drive past the mosque, we hear the first two pops. All of a sudden just, it was just gunfire from everywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is lighting up the sky. And it just seemed to be increasing into exponentially by the minute.
FOREMAN: Gentry is right across from Bowling, Weaver, Linn and Strong and instantly realizes, this is an insurgent ambush.
GENTRY: We didn't get the command to fire. Everybody else was shooting,. We just decided to join in. You know, we had fire coming from the mosque to our right, but we were taking fire from our left side, as well. You could see a couple of them running around and stuff. They had gun positions set up on us. They know what they were doing.
FOREMAN: An electric transformer is hit and explodes, the light exposing what later investigations will find: 75 to 100 insurgents shooting from prepared trenches, rooftops, the mosque.
MEYERS: You could hear the -- whoever is on the radio, saying that it's coming from the mosque.
FOREMAN: Gentry believes he's about to die.
(on camera) None of you guys in the back of the truck had ever been in a firefight before?
GENTRY: Not until then.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Some say the shooting lasts five minute; some say 20. But finally the convoy breaks free, racing to the edge of town. Amazingly, nobody in the back of Bill Meyers' vehicle is hurt.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure you're all right?
FOREMAN: Then a flash comes. From the mosque.
COOPER: All the young Marines in Charlie Company had this in common. Each one told his family that he wanted to serve, that he loved the Marine Corps and that he could not imagine fighting alongside finer individuals.
On this one night, however, the entire platoon's courage is being put to a terrible test. Once again, here's CNN's Tom Foreman. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
FOREMAN (voice-over): The gunfire grows sporadic as the convoy roars toward the edge of town. The plan is to regroup in the dark countryside and consider a counter attack.
MEYERS: We started pulling out of Hoklinya (ph). We picked up speed. I guess were doing about 50, 55 miles an hour.
FOREMAN: In the back of Meyers' Humvee all the men are OK, beginning to laugh over surviving their first fire fight. They're keeping their heads down. And then bam.
GENTRY: There was a loud freaking explosion. My ears were ringing. And I didn't know what happened.
MEYERS: I didn't know what it was. I had gotten blown over almost over onto the driver.
FOREMAN: A rocket-propelled grenade had been fired from the mosque, according to military investigators. In less than two seconds it flew almost 1,000 feet to the very limit of the weapon's range. It landed in the back of the speeding vehicle, just behind Bill Meyers' seat on top of Jonathan Bowling.
MEYERS: I yelled at the driver keep driving, keep driving. And there was so much commotion on the radio, I turned back and I looked close at Gentry and said, "What's going on?"
GENTRY: He said who is still with us?
MEYERS: He said it's bad. It's bad.
GENTRY: By the time I got to Strong, I realized we just took our first casualty.
MEYERS: He said, "I think Strong is gone. I think Strong is gone." I could look back and I could see that the guys on the right side were all slumped over. I knew it was definitely something bad.
FOREMAN: On the passenger side Jesse Strong was the furthest from the blast. As the Humvee finally escapes the range of the insurgent guns and stops, Meyers hurries to check on the others, too.
MEYERS: I didn't know they were as bad as they were, for the simple fact that it was hard to tell from my perspective, because the guys were, like I said, they were slumped over.
FOREMAN: Meyers has eight shrapnel wounds and a bullet lodged in his chest as he runs to get help from another vehicle. Of the 10 men in the Humvee, only the driver escapes injury. As medical corpsman rush to the stricken truck, the Marines remain hopeful.
GENTRY: When I got on the back of the truck, I think you know, we're going to be OK. Yes, we're hurt bad, but we're going to be all right. FOREMAN: Word spreads to Marines in other vehicles.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How bad?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know; they didn't say.
FOREMAN: The Humvee is still operable, so it begins rolling as quickly as possible back home.
(on camera) What was the ride like in the back of the vehicle?
FOREMAN (voice-over): At the dam, the four are rushed into a room where medical teams frantically begin to work.
GENTRY: They're all four right next to each other.
STAFF SGT. BUTCH DREANY, CHARLIE COMPANY: Jesse was obviously dead to me. Bowling and Linn were still breathing.
And Weaver didn't have a mark on him that I could see. But he was motionless.
FOREMAN: Jesse Strong and Chris Weaver are pronounced dead. Jonathan Bowling and Karl Linn are loaded onto a rescue helicopter. They die in the air.
In a single night, the engineers have lost half their men to injuries and death. They killed and wounded many more insurgents. But that's not on their minds as they gather for a memorial service in the morning sun.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The world is now going to miss out on what these four Marines had to offer.
FOREMAN: One by one, the members of Charlie Company pay their respects. A brief moment to say good-bye and to honor.
STAFF SGT. MIKE SPRANO, CHARLIE COMPANY: These were friends of ours. These were just great, great people. And yet, you know, what they died for was what we were still doing. And they were Marines and we were Marines. And we had to do what we had to do, and that's what we did.
FOREMAN: A transport helicopter full of troops will crash that day. And two soldiers will die in Baghdad, 37 American fatalities in all, more than any other day of this war.
But the engineers have work to do. They put aside their grief and keep preparing for the Iraqi election.
SPRANO: It was -- cry when you had time to cry and then work when it's time to work. FOREMAN: And after four 20-hour workdays, they open, operate and close two polling stations in defiance of the insurgents. Almost no one votes there; it doesn't matter.
DREANY: I've never been more proud of a group of individuals and what they were able to accomplish than what our platoon did in the days after the ambush.
FOREMAN: But word of the tragedy quickly travels around the globe and touches families that have prayed endlessly for anything but this.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Within hours of the ambush at the River of Secrets, the heart breaking memorial service at the dam, word reaches the other side of the world.
In the rolling hills of Virginia Jonathan Bowling's mom, Robin, has been unable to bear watching the news since her son left. But as this morning of January 26 rolled from Iraq over the ocean, she happens to walk past a TV at work.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people.
ROBIN FERON, JONATHAN BOWLING'S MOTHER: President Bush was on and they said, "We're breaking for some news," and it actually showed the ambush. And when I watched that, I don't know why but I knew my son was on that Humvee. So I waited, and the Marines came to visit me about two hours later, after I had seen the ambush on television.
FOREMAN: Jonathan's girlfriend Tanya is stunned. She just talked to him the day before.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He called me that morning about, between 9 and 10. He was in his jolly mood. It was my birthday.
FOREMAN: As a state trooper, Daryl Bowling (ph) had seen tragic deaths hundreds of times, often involving people he knew, but this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's been almost two years. And -- it's the first thing I think when I open my eyes. It's what I'm thinking about when I go to sleep. People say that -- time will help make things better, or it'll heal. I haven't found it to be that way so far.
FOREMAN: Chris Weaver's mother made him promise he would play it safe in Iraq.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was on the phone talking to my sister when the military van pulled into the driveway. I immediately started screaming, "No. No." And I wanted them to leave. And they wouldn't leave.
My sister's screaming on the phone, "What's wrong, what's wrong?"
FOREMAN: Now, a gold star, the age old symbol of a parent who's lost a child in war, hangs in the window of the Weavers' home. They loved being with their son, going places, talking about his future.
DAVID WEAVER, CHRISTOPHER WEAVER'S FATHER: We're not doing that anymore. That's -- that's the hardest part for me right now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Weddings.
WEAVER: Right. Weddings. Any of those type of things.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are very difficult. For myself, there are good days, and there are bad days.
FOREMAN: The young woman their son was to marry, Danelle (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not the first person in the world to lose the love of her life. And it's just -- I think that's the most disheartening. Is that it happens and everyone goes through it at one point in your life, just not this young usually.
FOREMAN: Dick Linn is driving in the rain on a business trip when the cell phone rings. The Marines are trying to find him. He drives 40 minutes back home, dreading the news he would hear. Then he goes to find his wife at her job.
DICK LINN, FATHER OF KARL LINN: It's the hardest thing I've ever, ever had to do. She -- she screamed about four times in a row. And I don't know which is more devastating than, you know -- knowing your son is dead or having to tell his mom.
FOREMAN: Karl's mother did not want to talk publicly about his death. But in private, she prays for him every day.
Jesse Strong was the first confirmed fatality; his parents, Vicki and Nate, the last to know. They have just returned home late when they hear a knock.
VICKI STRONG, MOTHER OF JESSE STRONG: They did not have to say a single word. We knew the only reason there would be two Marines in dress blues at our doorstep at 9:30 at night was because our son had been killed. So I immediately just -- I said, "Oh, Jesse," was my first word.
FOREMAN: Vicki calls their other children Heather and Matthew in Pittsburgh.
HEATHER STRONG, SISTER OF JESSE STRONG: She told me on the phone. I just said, "Tell Matthew." And I handed him the phone. And I started shaking uncontrollably for basically the whole night.
V. STRONG: It's like your life just suddenly stopped. And that everything you knew from the second up until that moment, totally changed.
FOREMAN: Jesse's room has not changed. His baseball glove still waits. His watch ticks on the dresser. His Bible rests by his bed.
FOREMAN (voice-over): The ground in Vermont was frozen when Jesse Strong died, so he could not be buried the day of his funeral. Instead, his parents chose Memorial Day and an old cemetery where Nate used to walk with Jesse and his other children. Nate had already selected a lot there for himself.
NATHAN STRONG, FATHER OF JESSE STRONG: We'd go to put flowers on the graves of the veterans, because nobody else went there, because it was so old and --
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