BAGHDADSitting in the turret of an upside-down Avenger truck, James Vogel began to pray as the water from the canal began to rise around him. "I've made it this far," he thought to himself. "Please God do not let me die like this."
In the streets of Baghdad, the war feels like it is over. There is little opposition left. Fighting bunkers are abandoned. Iraqi tanks have been left unattended. Now much of the work is keeping the peace.
On Friday afternoon, Vogel and his team chief, Sgt. Brian Jimenez, were going on one of the first keeping-the-peace missions for the Army's 101st Airborne Division, providing an armed escort for a psychological operations loudspeaker truck. The mission was to disperse a crowd that was looting houses in a Baghdad suburb.
After the psyops team stopped the looting, Vogel and Jimenez escorted the truck back to its command post. Vogel and Jimenez operate an Avenger truck, a top-heavy humvee armed with eight Stinger missiles and a .50-caliber machine gun. It is a weapon system designed to shoot down enemy aircraft. But this has been a frustrating war for the Army's air defenders.
The threat of chemical weapons delivered by helicopters and aircraft meant that the Army needed to bring the Air Defense Artillery. But in reality, even if the Republican Guard had the will to fly, the Iraqi Air Force had no chance of getting off the ground, with American military putting craters in runways. That left air defenders scrambling for a role in the war, which ended up to be setting up tactical checkpoints and running armed escorts.
The task will become all the more common as war morphs into peacekeeping. The problem is that the Avenger is a capable but imperfect escort vehicle. It has a powerful machine gun, but its top-heavy design means it is not the least nimble.
That became very apparent as Jimenez, a 26-year-old soldier from Olathe, Mont., drove behind the psyops truck on a dusty road beside a canal outside Baghdad. The dust rose up around the truck, obscuring the road. Then suddenly the side of the road gave way. The truck lurched to the right. Jimenez pulled the wheel to the left. But the roadway under the Avenger continued giving way.
Within seconds, the Avenger flipped upside down into the canal, landing on its turret. "It was like slow motion; I was in the turret and then everything went black and water started rushing in," Vogel said. Vogel, 26, looked around. He was still sitting in his gunner's seat, but now he was upside down, his head underwater. For two minutes he twisted around in his seat thinking about his wife, thinking he was going to die, praying that he would not. Finally he managed to get to the small air pocket in the turret.
In the front of the truck, Jimenez tried to open his door. But it was jammed against the bottom of the canal. Jimenez began to panic. He thought of Vogel, trapped in the top of the turret. Jimenez stripped off his body armor, mask, and Kevlar helmet, then squeezed out the window. "Vogel, are you taking on water!" Jimenez shouted. Yes, came the muffled response. Jimenez looked around and saw the ax strapped to the bottom of the Avenger. Jimenez shouted for Vogel to move his head away from the side of the turret and took a swing at his truck with the ax.
To help cut top heaviness, the turret is made of fiberglass and wood, not metal. Jimenez hacked a hole in its side, then grabbed Vogel's head and pulled it out of the flooded turret. A few more minutes and a few more ax swings and Vogel was completely out of the truck and on the side of the road. "That is something you can't teach a solider to do," Lt. John Brock, the platoon leader, said later. "It was extremely quick thinking by Sergeant Jimenez. If most people were in his shoes, Vogel would be dead."
As Jimenez and Vogel rested, neighboring Iraqis drawn by the commotion brought them water, bread, and tea.