FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq – It was a brilliant, sunny day with blue skies and warmer than usual weather in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (search). Hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down for lunch in their giant chow hall tent.
It was about noon Tuesday when insurgents hit their tent with a suspected rocket attack. The force of the explosions knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats. A fireball enveloped the top of the tent, and shrapnel sprayed into the men.
Amid the screaming and thick smoke that followed, quick-thinking soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot.
"Medic! Medic!" soldiers shouted.
Medics rushed into the tent and hustled the rest of the wounded out on stretchers.
Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters outside. Others wobbled around the tent and collapsed, dazed by the blast.
"I can't hear! I can't hear!" one female soldier cried as a friend hugged her.
Near the front entrance to the chow hall, troops tended a soldier with a gaping head wound. Within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.
The military asked that the dead not be identified until families could be notified.
Soldiers scrambled back into the hall to check for more wounded. The explosions blew out a huge hole in the roof of the tent. Puddles of bright red blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor.
Grim-faced soldiers growled angrily about the attack as they stomped away.
"Mother [expletive]!" one mumbled.
Sgt. Evan Byler, of the Richmond, Va.-based 276th Engineer Battalion (search), steadied himself on one of the concrete bomb shelters. He was eating chicken tenders and macaroni when the bomb hit. The blast knocked him out of his chair. When the smoke cleared, Byler took off his shirt and wrapped it around a seriously wounded soldier.
Byler held the bloody shirt in his hand, not quite sure what to do with it.
"It's not the first close call I have had here," said Byler, a Fauquier County, Virginia, resident who survived a blast from an improvised explosive device while riding in a vehicle earlier this year.
Byler started walking back to his base when he spotted a soldier collapse from shock on the side of the road. Byler and Lt. Shawn Otto, also of the 276th, put the grieving soldier on a passing pickup truck.
The 276th, with about 500 troops, had made it a year without losing a soldier and is preparing to return home in about a month.
"We almost made it. We almost made it to the end without getting somebody killed," Otto said glumly.
At least two other soldiers with the 276th were injured, but it was not clear how serious their wounds are.
Insurgents have fired mortars at the chow hall more than 30 times this year. One round killed a female soldier with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (search) in the summer as she scrambled for cover in one of the concrete bomb shelters. Workers are building a new steel and concrete chow hall for the soldiers just down the dusty dirt road.
Lt. Dawn Wheeler, a member of the 276th from Centreville, Va., was waiting in line for chicken tenders when a round hit on the other side of a wall from her. A soldier who had been standing beside her was on the ground, struggling with shrapnel buried deep in his neck.
"We all have angels on us," she said as she pulled away in a Humvee.
Wheeler quickly joined other officers from the 276th for an emergency meeting minutes after the blast.
Maj. James Zollar, the unit's acting commander, spoke to more than a dozen of his officers in a voice thick with emotion. He urged them to keep their troops focused on their missions.
"This is a tragic, tragic thing for us but we still have missions," he told them. "It's us, the leaders, who have to pull them together."
Just hours before the blast, Zollar had awarded a Purple Heart to a soldier from the 276th who was wounded in a mortar attack on another part of the base in October.
Zollar eventually turned the emergency meeting over to Chaplain Eddie Barnett. He led the group in prayer.
"Help us now, God, in this time of this very tragic circumstance," Barnett said. "We pray for your healing upon our wounded soldiers."
With heads hung low, the soldiers trudged outside. They had work to do.