ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT, PERSIAN GULF"I got blown up three times in one day," says Pvt. Jason Keogh, 26, of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, Charlie Company, which attacked Nasiriyah from the south late last month. Eyes wide behind gold-rimmed glasses, the Buffalo native rubs his shaved head reflexively as he recalls the battle, its mundanity and its monstrosity, in calm monotone.
He's in a wheelchair, shirtless, on the sunny deck of the Navy hospital ship Comfort, floating in the endless blue of the northern Persian Gulf. He's hooked to an IV, his right leg raised about 30 degreestop thigh wrapped in a bloody skin graft bandage, calf and ankle encased in an orthopedic contraption that looks like a Tinkertoy project gone awry. He arrived onboard on March 24, after field docs put a pin below his knee, where both bones were shattered by shrapnel. Here, he got more pins, and a rod in his foot. He's not sure whether he'll heal with a limp, or just lifelong pain. He's trading his story for cigarettes.
The first blast came at 1100 hours. Keogh knows this, because he'd just finished a cigarette and checked his watch. Rolling north in a tanklike amphibious assault vehicle marines call a "track," his convoy came under small-arms fire. Turret gunners fired back, but in minutes an explosionKeogh thinks it was a rocket-propelled grenaderocked the back. "It cannot be explained how much stuff we had in there," he says of the ammunitionmeant to stay his squad through a brutal city battlethat somehow exploded inside the track. The explosion killed several of the 30 marines on board, shattered Keogh's calf, rendered him temporarily deaf, and deposited a foot in his lap. The horror and fear of the moment were eclipsed by the shock. "It was funny, because it was kind of nonchalant," he says, remembering handing the foot back to its owner. "I said to Corporal Glass, 'here's your foot.' He said 'OK.' "
The second came on the medevac track, where corpsmen deposited Keogh after hoisting him out of the first vehicle's flames. Full of wounded Marines, the track kept heading north, into the city, into the fightbecause what was ahead couldn't be worse than what was behind: "There was nowhere else to go," says Keogh. Doctors inside applied a tourniquet to his leg, but enemy mortars found their mark and "blew out the front. That track was done." Unable to walk on his shattered leg, he scrambled out the back hatch, fell on his face. Saw muzzle flashes above, grabbed an M-16, started firing. Found a grenade stash, fired one: "It dropped right in front of me. I figured I'd better not do that again." He corrected his shot, unloaded grenades till the rest of the marines got off. Then they rolled to the roadside and waited for deliverance in the form of a helicopter. And waited some more: "There was nobody to get us out of there. Everybody was fighting."
Even though it didn't hit him, the third shot hurt the worst. A defensive circle of marines had surrounded Keogh's group of about six, huddled for hours now in the roadside ditch: "We shot anyone who came near. Civilian or notwe didn't care." A U.S. planean A-10 Warthog, Keogh saysflew into the firefight and unleashed a round. Keogh is not sure where the pilot aimedeventually, he took out a sniper firing from a nearby mosquebut the first round ripped a hole in the hip of Sgt. Jose Torres, 26, of Cleveland. "Usually they're our best friend," says Keogh of the planes that fly slow and low, taking out targets for ground troops. "They're supposed to know what's going on."
He lay with Torres for hours. "I thought for sure he was gonna die, because he was bleeding bad. Real bad." Torres survived; he's here on the Comfort, recovering from his eighth surgery, just beginning to talk about the battle. But Keogh thinks at least 20 company mates died before the Iraqis retreated, at dusk, in the face of oncoming tanks. "When we got hit," says the former UPS worker who joined the Marines a year and a half ago, in a burst of September 11-induced patriotism, "it all went to hell. They jacked us up." He sips Gatorade from a squeeze-top bottle. A nurse comes over, concerned that he's getting sunburned, asks him to put on his light-blue pajama shirt. "It feels good," he says of the sun, gazing out at the water, but he slips his hands in the sleeves.
Capt. Harry "Sam" Porter
"I can tell you what I know," says Capt. Harry "Sam" Porter, of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, through clenched teeth. His jawshattered like an eggshell, according to the doctors#150;is wired shut. He's got braces on his bottom teeth, stitches in his chin, and a golf-ball-size swelling in his left cheek. The 32-year-old reservist from West Chester, Pa., sits up in his bottom bunk and grins awkwardly at the awful coincidence: Before September 11 spurred him to rejoin the Marines, he was a salesman for a maxillofacial company, selling jaw and mandible plates to hospitals. "It's kind of ironic that my injury would be something I know so much about," he says.
Under cover of night late last month, his battalion set up a blocking position near a southern Iraqi town at the intersection of Routes 7 and 17. "My job was to reinforce the security of that perimeter," says Porter, "to make sure that no one could go west or east on Route 7." While he stood on guard in a chest-deep trench, troops sent ahead to storm the city suddenly backtracked. Porter turned to alert a sleeping sergeant, Jim Conley, that friendlies were on the way: "Next thing I remember, I'm waking up in my hole, my radio operator holding my head and crying, saying 'Don't move, sir.'" A humvee rushing through the pitch-black night to support the incoming unit had hit the trench, injuring Porter and killing Conley. Doctors say Porter will be out of commission for about six weeks#150;"I hope the war is done by then, for everybody's sake," he says#150;and that his jaw is a wait-and-see affair. "The word now is they'll send me back to Bethesda [Naval Hospital]," he says, smiling again. "I told my mom she'll have to find a way of loving me other than feeding me."
Lt. Andrew Turner
He's on the phone, and he's crying. Lt. Andrew Turner, 26, of Winston-Salem, N.C., wheels over to his tiny bunk in the portside intermediate care ward of the USNS Comfort. "This is Day 3, I think," he says of his stay here after the UH-1 helicopterthe "Huey" birds in movies like Platoon and We Were Soldiershe was copiloting crashed north of Jalibah, in southern Iraq. The nurse nods at the young man with spiky brown hair, whose surgery here put a plate in his broken left ankle, who woke up here three days ago with no memory of his crash, who now sports a line of ugly blue-threaded stitches under his chin, and whorecovered from his emotional momentis wheedling his visitors, asking, "Ladies like scars, right?"
After a 48-hour Marine Expeditionary Force support mission, providing transportation to ground-fighting troops in the city, Turner and his three crewmates were nearly done for the day. They'd just gassed up and were ready to fly home to Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait. It was dark, so Turner donned his night-vision gogglesrisking the "brownout" that comes with the transition from natural sight to NVGs. "This is where I can't tell you much," he says, peering out above a yellowing bruise under his purple-red and puffy left eye: "We took off, and I guess we crashed."
Of the Huey's four-man combat crewtwo gunnery sergeants in back, and the pilot captainonly Turner survived, the straight break in his ankle his worst injury. "Apparently, I was thrown," he says, relaying what squadron mates"Vipers" from the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron, HMLA 169have told him. The crash's cause is still unknown.
After healing on Comfort, Turner hopes to check back in with his squadron, with whom he's been flying for nearly a year, before heading home. It was a squadron officer on the phone earlier who had reduced the young pilot to tears of relief. "He won't tell you this," says Cmdr. Terri Lavoie, a nurse overseeing Turner's ward, of the call that told Turner what his memory can't yet. "But they told him he did the right thing"that he went back to search for his crewmates after the crash.