Sgt. Christopher Nelson admitted feeling a little edgy as the CH-47 Chinook (search) lifted off toward the Baghdad airport and home leave. Then, he heard "a loud boom," closed his eyes and prayed.
The next thing he knew, Nelson, 27, of Orange, Texas, was lying on the ground, surrounded by pieces of the U.S. helicopter.
I saw medics running around trying to get people out," Nelson said. "I smelled fuel, but couldn't see flames."
He didn't know it yet but the helicopter had been shot down, apparently from anti-aircraft missiles, near the town of Fallujah (search). Fifteen Americans were killed and 21 injured. Seven remain in serious but stable condition.
Now recovering from his wounds in Germany, Nelson and fellow Army sergeant, Raymond Littlefield, also 27, of Ephrata, Wash., spoke with reporters from their hospital beds at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (search).
The two men were among those with the lightest injuries, but it was unclear when they might be released from Landstuhl. Nelson suffered a broken ankle and hip, and had a large bruise over his left eye. Littlefield said he suffered a blow to the head, and his face was badly scratched.
"I got on and I was very excited," said Littlefield, who had been in Iraq for a little over six months with the 43rd Combat Engineer Company based in Fort Carson (search), Colo. He said his wife was expecting their third child and that he had hoped to be present at the birth.
In Colorado, Littlefield's wife said her husband had telephoned Sunday to tell her to check the television pictures of the Chinook's smoking wreck.
"I was really surprised anyone made it off that helicopter (alive)," she said. "It is terrible that he's injured, but at least he gets to come home to us."
The German hospital said it would discharge Littlefield quickly, and his wife said she was still hopeful he would be back in time for the birth.
Nelson and Littlefield described the scene on the helicopter moments before it was shot down. Everyone was looking forward to their trips, the soldiers said. Some were snapping photos out the open back of the Chinook. Others were swapping stories about their favorite sports teams and what they were going to do during leave.
Nelson too was excited. One of 12 helicopter passengers from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment of Fort Sill (search), Okla., he planned to visit his mother and one of his sons. But there was no relaxing while they were still in Iraq.
About two weeks ago, two of his comrades were injured when the vehicle they were all riding in struck a land mine.
"I heard a loud boom. I closed my eyes and I prayed that I would see my family again," Nelson said.
The attack was the deadliest single strike against American forces since the war began March 20 and there is debate in Washington about whether the Chinook was properly equipped with anti-missile defenses and other protection.
Still, Littlefield and Nelson voiced commitment to the U.S. mission in Iraq. Nelson re-enlisted at the end of September. Littlefield is still considering whether to stay in, but said he knows soldiers are needed there.
"We're going to be in Iraq for a long time," he said. "I'm proud to do it, there are a lot of people over there who need our help."