FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ, Iraq — Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Warren remembers too much about the suicide bombing.
The massive fire ball. The wounded. The dead.
The Virginia National Guardsmen was eating chicken tenders Tuesday on this U.S. military base in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul when the bomber struck.
Five KBR civilian contract workers standing in front of Warren absorbed the force of the blast and the shrapnel. Otherwise, Warren said, he would have died.
The Rocky Mount resident recovered his senses and started helping the wounded. Through the smoke and confusion, he carried some out on the backs of dining room tables. He remembers covering the dead with red Christmas tablecloths.
Like many other U.S. soldiers, Warren initially thought the explosion came from a mortar round. Insurgents have fired mortars at the mess tent more than 30 times this year. Usually, they fire more than one round within a short period.
“I was waiting for another one to come,” said Warren, who was awarded a special coin Sunday for his heroic acts by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker.
“It’s hard to get the pictures out of my mind. I try to stay strong for the rest of my guys,” said Warren, 44, a machinist for Norfolk Southern Railroad. “For the first two nights it was hard to sleep. I told the chaplain I don’t think it has hit me yet. I got absorbed in my work and that is how I deal with it.”
Warren is one of many soldiers from the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion who were still coping with memories of the attack this week while receiving awards and gathering to honor the dead. Some are having flashbacks. Others fight to sleep. Still others burst into tears thinking about it.
Spc. Jeff Wright said he was getting ready to dump his tray of food in the trash when the explosion knocked him down, skipping shrapnel across his right wrist and spraining his ankles and right knee.
Wright, 20, can’t remember certain details about the explosion. He is not sure if he has forgotten them or if his mind is blocking them to spare him.
The Westmoreland County resident helped carry several wounded men out of the mess tent before he was forced to leave.
“The smell was horrible. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I walked all the way back here,” said Wright, who was studying criminal justice at Virginia State University before he was deployed to Iraq.
As Wright waited to receive his Purple Heart from Schoomaker on Sunday, he talked about how he placed his uniform in a bag and is considering burning it because of the lingering smell.
Sgt. Douglas McManama remembers seeing the fireball in his peripheral vision. The blast knocked him to the floor and buried shrapnel deep in the back of his head. McManama, 32, came to and spotted a soldier with a serious leg wound lying next to him.
“I reached over and grabbed his hand and told him he was going to make it,” said McManama, an automotive technician from Sandston. He doesn’t know if the soldier survived.
McManama, who also received a Purple Heart on Sunday, still has pain in his head. The shrapnel is still there. He wears a cushion underneath his helmet to help him cope.
Hundreds of soldiers from across the United States filed into a cavernous movie theater on base yesterday to say goodbye to two 276th soldiers who died in the explosion: Nicholas C. Mason and David A. Ruhren. Both were posthumously promoted to sergeant.
During the memorial ceremony, Sgt. Roger Krause called roll in his platoon.
“Sgt. Ruhren,” he said.
“Sgt. David Ruhren.”
“Sgt. David A. Ruhren.”
Krause repeated the same steps with Mason’s name.
Three rifle shots followed as a salute. Then “Taps” played.
Two by two, soldiers lined up and saluted Ruhren and Mason’s helmets. Their dog tags hung from their rifle handles. Soldiers gently touched their boots. Others kissed their hands and placed them on their portraits.
Krause and his platoon leader, Lt. Edward Lewis, were the last to salute. When they finished, the many mourners prepared to leave. The theater was silent save the rip of body armor Velcro and clattering of weapons.
Jeremy Redmon is a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.