When the Iraqi troops arrived that morning, three American servicemen lay dead at the bottom of the Isaki Canal.
The body of a fourth, Sgt. Rene Knox Jr., 22, had been recovered from a submerged Humvee. Patrolling without headlights around 4:30 a.m., Knox had overshot a right turn. His vehicle tumbled down a concrete embankment and settled upside down in the frigid water.
During the harrowing day-long mission to recover the bodies of the Humvee’s three occupants on Feb. 13, an Air Force firefighter also drowned. Five U.S. soldiers were treated for hypothermia. For five hours, three Navy SEAL divers searched the canal before their tanks ran out of oxygen.
What happened then, however, has transformed the relationship between the Iraqi soldiers and the skeptical Americans who train them. Using a tool they welded themselves that day at a cost of about $40, the Iraqis dredged the canal through the cold afternoon until the tan boot of Spec. Dakotah Gooding, 21, of Des Moines, appeared at the surface. The Iraqis then jumped into the water to pull him out, and went back again and again until they had recovered the last American. Then they stood atop the canal, shivering in the dark.
“When I saw those Iraqis in the water, fighting to save their American brothers, I saw a glimpse of the future of this country,” said Col. Mark McKnight, commander of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which had overall responsibility for the unit in the accident, his eyes tearing.
These are the stories that must be told.
Many U.S. soldiers say they fear even standing near the Iraqis because of their propensity to fire their weapons randomly. At Camp Paliwoda in Balad, where Americans from the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment are training a new Iraqi army battalion, the soldiers work at adjacent bases but are separated by a locked gate, razor wire and a 50-foot-tall chain-link fence.
Pfc. Russell Nahvi, 23, of Arlington, Tex., a medic whose platoon was involved in the accident, said he arrived in Iraq this month with preconceptions about the Iraqi forces. “You always heard never to trust them, to never turn your back on them,” he said.
The actions of the Iraqis that Sunday “changed my mind for how I felt about these guys,” he said. “I have a totally different perspective now. They were just so into it. They were crying for us. They were saying we were their brothers, too.”
Isn’t life something? Once we were enemies, now we are brothers. Freedom can change many things:
Plastic bags, car parts and pieces of clothing stuck to the dredging tool, but as the afternoon wore on none of the three Americans had been found. The Navy SEALs rushed back to base to warm themselves and refill their oxygen tanks. Abdul Mutalib had stripped to his long underwear; he refused to put down the tool, even when the Iraqis changed shifts.
It was about 4 p.m. when Gooding’s body was found. Cpl. Nabeel Abdullah, 36, a veteran of ousted president Saddam Hussein’s army, jumped into the water, wrapped himself around Gooding’s leg and rode the dredging device to the embankment.
About 15 minutes later the Iraqis found Lake. This time Abdul Mutalib jumped in to secure the body. He jumped in again when the dredging tool recovered Rangel.
The Iraqis gathered atop the canal, smoking and shivering in the gathering darkness. The Americans helped cover the Iraqis with blankets and embraced them. A U.S. military truck pulled up with food for the rescuers. The Iraqis hadn’t eaten all day. The U.S. soldiers lined up at the truck, heaping their plates with food. Instead of feeding themselves, they fanned out, distributing the plates to the Iraqis.
This is a story that should not die. This is a story that the MSM should not bury. This is a important story.