KARBALA, IRAQSgt. Jason Sypherd turned from the edge of his rooftop perch and puked. On the street below, roughly 300 yards away, lay a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a dead Iraqi fighter and the body of a 10-year-old boy, killed an instant earlier by a bullet from Sypherd's M-4 assault rifle.
Moments before, Sypherd and members of the 1st Platoon of Bravo Company had been engaged in a firefight against members of the Fedayeen Saddam militia. The fighter, in his 20s, darted out into the street carrying the grenade launcher. Sypherd aimed and hit him in the leg. The man dropped the launcher and was hit by gunfire from a Bradley fighting vehicle. Still on his feet, the man finally was felled by Staff Sgt. Luke Carr.
Sypherd turned his gun back to the grenade launcher lying in the street and saw two small children run toward it. He stared for a half second. Fighting was intense in central Karbala on Saturday as the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne division moved into the city. Bradley fighting vehicles, tanks, and hundreds of light infantry moved through the city. The Bravo and Charlie companies of the 3rd Battalion had the most fearsome engagements, exchanging fire with paramilitary officers and mercenaries from five Middle Eastern countries. One American soldier died and about 130 Iraqi combatants were killed.
The Iraqi fighters were mostly armed with Soviet-style AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The grenade launchers have proved dangerous to American troops and helicopters, and soldiers have been instructed to get them out of the hands of Iraqi fighters. But the Fedayeen militia fighters value them, too, and go to great lengths to try to recover them from fallen soldiers.
In Karbala, the Fedayeen sent children into the street to retrieve AK-47s and grenade launchers from fallen fighters.
On the rooftop, above an intersection in the center of the city, Sypherd shouted to his squad members: "Hey, those are kids!" Then he shouted down to the kids: "Don't pick it up, don't pick it up!" The kids continued to move toward the grenade launcher. At 300 yards away, Sypherd knew that the children could not hear him. He fired a warning shot, skipping the round off the ground and above the children's heads. They did not run back. Sypherd aimed and pulled the trigger twice. Nearby, Sgt. Troy Hanner did the same. One child fell to the ground. The other ran away. Sypherd turned away from the edge of the roof. "It was the most horrible thing I have ever done," Sypherd said later.
Third Battalion commanders said that Sypherd and Hanner were justified in shooting at the children, and denounced an enemy that forces kids into the line of fire. "Every target we hit was legitimate," said Capt. James McGahey, the commander of Bravo Company. Lt. Col. Chris Holden, the Battalion commander, called off artillery and mortar fire that was being aimed into enemy positions after children were reported running into the street to recover AK-47s. But Holden said Sypherd made the tough, but correct, decision to fire a warning shot and then kill the child to ensure that militants did not recover the grenade launcher. "The solider did the right thing," Holden said. "Everything revolves around the accomplishing the mission and protecting the soldiers."
By Sunday, the city was quiet. Sypherd and the soldiers of the 2nd rigade marched through the streets and encountered little, if any, resistance. Sypherd's platoon smashed their way into a courtyard after a missile came at them, thinking they were under attack from a rocket-propelled grenade. But the projectile later turned out to be a stray American Javelin missile.
The comparative quiet was fine with Sypherd. "Everyone was smiling and waving," he said. "It was completely different. It was as opposite as day or night." Both Henner and Sypherd tried to do their best to forget about the boy, but had little success. Henner said that he had decided after 11 years in the Army not to re-enlist. "After this one, I'll be done," he said. "I think I have had enough."
At midday on Saturday, the Bravo Company's march across Karbala came to a " tactical pause" inside a schoolhouse. As other soldiers laughed and joked around. Sypherd sat alone on a wall staring at his feet. His face was red from the sun. He grimaced as he tried to escape his thoughts and failed.
At the end of the day, Sypherd was again sitting in a dark room, surrounded by soldiers but alone in his thoughts. "I can't imagine anyone sending their kids out into that," said Sypherd. Sypherd, 24, began thinking of his own two boys, age two and four, back home at Fort Campbell, Ky. And then his mind drifted back to Saturday and the boy he shot. "I keep telling myself maybe that round didn't hit," Sypherd said, his head bent low. Then he paused. "But I know it did."
Sypherd raised his head. "I keep trying to think of something else," he, said " But I can only think of that boy." Sypherd paused again before speaking. "War is a bitch."