LANDSTUHL, Germany - Under sudden fire from disguised Iraqi soldiers, U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Horgan could only watch as a missile zoomed toward him. "It was just like in the movies," Horgan said. "It was a whizzing noise. I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'm gonna die.'"
As he tried to warn his crew, the missile slammed into Horgan's Humvee, blasting him onto the top of the vehicle and knocking his commanding officer out the side. For the next 10 minutes, their unit was engulfed in a shootout with enemy troops - a whirl of gunfire, shouts and smoke outside the southern Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah.
Horgan, part of his right heel blown off, crawled to safety. His commanding officer, Staff Sgt. Jamie Villafane, ignored the shrapnel in his arm and captured four Iraqis, who wore military uniforms underneath their civilian robes.
Yesterday, five days after the ambush, the two injured Americans expressed relief to have survived. But for Villafane, his arm in a cast, the horror of war also sealed a decision he had made earlier to leave the Army after 12 years.
"This kind of just put the icing on the cake," he said at the U.S. military hospital here, where he and Horgan were airlifted for treatment. "I've got a family and kids that are a little more important to me than to ... try to defend our country right now."
Villafane and Horgan offered the first accounts of the war through the eyes of U.S. combat casualties, giving witness to the difficulty that coalition forces have run into while trying to secure captured territory.
A third injured man confirmed suggestions that some U.S. soldiers have been caught unprepared for the fight put up by Iraqi forces.
"We were very surprised," said Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Menard, 21, of Houston. "We were told as we were going through Nasiriyah that there would be little to no resistance."
He and other members of his battalion had been led to expect scenes of mass Iraqi surrenders like those from the first Persian Gulf war. Instead, "when we got in, it was a whole different ballgame," Menard recalled. "They weren't rolling over . ... "
It was the first combat any of the three men had seen. Villafane and Horgan, of the 1st Battalion of the 30th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Benning, Ga., were attacked Saturday after being sent to disperse what they thought were civilians grouped near a bridge south of An Nasiriyah. Their truck, backed by two other Humvees, an Abrams tank and a Bradley assault vehicle, had just crossed the span when Horgan, at the machine-gun turret, noticed something suspicious about the knot of people before him.
"They seemed kind of edgy, jumpy," as though formulating a plan, said Horgan, 21, from Helena, Mont.
The crowd started to run away. Moments later, a wire-guided missile bore down on the Americans, hitting the lead Humvee. The explosion threw Villafane out of the truck. Dazed by the blast, he began groping for his M-4 rifle. When he found it, Villafane opened fire, oblivious to the shrapnel that had ripped through his left hand and arm. A second missile flew by his head, so close "you could see the wires as it went by," he said.
That rocket struck the second Humvee, trapped on the bridge behind the lead vehicle.
As bullets whistled overhead, Villafane scuttled to the side of the span. Below him flowed a tributary of the Euphrates River, and on its banks were makeshift mud huts presumably built by the Iraqis, with caches of weapons close at hand.
Villafane, still wearing clunky chemical-protection gear, jumped down - and found himself staring at the back of an armed Iraqi. He shouted at the man to drop his AK-47, then held him at gunpoint.
As he tried to bandage his wounded hand, three more Iraqi soldiers arrived, dressed in the flowing robes of Bedouin herders. They, too, dropped their weapons in surprise in front of the wounded American.
With his prisoners in tow, Villafane went back to find Horgan. As the shootout raged around him, Horgan had managed to slide off the top of his disabled Humvee and onto the ground.
He started to crawl toward the truck behind him. Horgan's uninjured driver - a young recruit barely out of high school - provided gun cover while the pair crawled together to safety.
Villafane, 31, of Long Island, N.Y., was hit by shrapnel that shattered his wedding-ring finger, sliced through tendons in his hand, damaged nerves and lodged in his forearm. He is expected to return to the United States in a few days for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Villafane worries about the guys in his unit but said flatly: "I really do not want to go back there." His thoughts are turned to his wife and three children at Fort Benning.
Horgan is ambivalent about going back to the front lines. But the question is moot: Months of rehabilitation, also at Walter Reed, lie ahead before he can walk without crutches.
Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.