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'The third one hit on top of us'

Southern Oregon soldiers recall the shock of a mortar attack on their Army reserve unit of combat medics in Iraq

Like other combat medics in his unit, Sgt. Tyler Fowler heard the first explosion just before midnight on July — near the town of Balad some 60 miles north of Baghdad.

But Fowler, 20, a 2001 graduate of Phoenix High School, wasn't particularly concerned as he and others watched the military comedy Major Payne being transmitted onto a large screen from his laptop computer.

It sounded like an unexploded ordnance the engineers are always blowing up, he recalled. We didn't think anything of it.

A member of the U.S. Army Reserve's 915th Forward Surgical Team based in Vancouver, Wash., he was unwinding after another dusty, hot day in Iraq.

— Nighttime temperatures were cooling down to around 100 degrees, a relative respite from the ferocious heat of midday at Camp Anaconda.

But a second thunderous boom, this time much closer, grabbed their attention.

We looked at each other, then all started diving for our flak vests, he said. That's when the third one hit on top of us.

One of my buddies yelled, 'Anyone hit?' I responded, 'No!', then noticed squirts of blood coming out of my neck.

Interviewed by telephone Friday while recuperating at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, near Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Fowler suffered 11 shrapnel wounds in his head, neck, chest and legs.

The son of Becky Fowler of Jacksonville, he was among up to 13 soldiers wounded during the mortar attack, including two other soldiers hailing from Jackson and Josephine counties. Six were sent to the medical center in Germany.

Half a dozen pieces of jagged metal struck Army Spc. 4 Heather Bessey Stanbro, 24, a 1997 graduate of South Medford High School.

I didn't fully realize I had been hit at first, Stanbro said of the wounds from her head to her left foot. There was a wounded girl sitting on my right. I had her blood on my hair on my right side.

Fearing another round was imminent, Stanbro began low-crawling to her tent some 50 meters distant.

None of us knew if another one was coming ' they make a whistling sound coming in, she said. I wanted to get to my tent to find my squad leader.

I saw her, grabbed my M-16 (rifle) and a magazine and ran to the patient hold where I work, she added. I had so much adrenaline. I was worried about my friends. All the lights were out.

Fortunately, it was the last mortar round fired at them that night.

The daughter of Bob and Caroline Bessey of Medford, Stanbro is a medical specialist with the Army's 4th Infantry Division.

With her left foot infected by a shrapnel wound, she returned to her base at Fort Carson, Colo., on Friday after being hospitalized in Landstuhl. She and her husband, Jason, live near Fort Carson.

Before she left Iraq, military surgeons removed the shrapnel that had lodged in the big toe of her left foot, which has swollen to twice its normal size.

The other pieces lodged on the left side of her body likely will be removed this coming week, she said.

Grants Pass orthopedic surgeon Mark Foreman, 38, a major with the 915th, took a shrapnel wound to his right hand. He returned home Wednesday night to his wife, Jeanie, and two stepsons.

The shrapnel in his hand worked its way out last week, he reported.

I'm ecstatic to be home, said Foreman, who was a two-month newlywed before he was deployed in January. There is nothing like running water to make your day.

The three were among about 20 soldiers gathered that night under camouflaged netting constructed to detonate mortar rounds before they hit the ground.

We had our vehicles parked in a square formation to set up a perimeter, Fowler explained. The netting ' it looks like heavy-duty mosquito net ' was draped over the vehicles. It definitely saved us.

Fowler was about 20 feet from the explosion, Stanbro about 10 feet to his right and the same distance from the exploding shell.

Six pieces of metal tore into the right side of Fowler's neck, at least one within a whisker of his carotid artery. Another chunk is lodged in his right thigh, where surgeons have concluded they would do more damage removing it than leaving it, Fowler said.

The doctors aren't removing any of it since it will work its way out in six months to a year, he said. I guess I'll be setting off metal detectors for awhile.

His laptop absorbed some of the shrapnel which had been hurling toward Foreman, he said.

True story, the doctor confirmed.

It deflected a significant amount of shrapnel, Foreman said. It went through the front portion. The back panel stopped it. If it had been positioned sideways, it wouldn't have stopped it.

I'm hoping Toshiba will replace it for me, added Fowler, a Rogue Community College student before being mobilized Jan. 20.

His reserve unit was flying back to Vancouver this weekend. He is expected to return home soon.

Stanbro, who has served for 4&

189; years, doesn't know whether she will receive orders to return to Iraq.

It's still yet to be determined, she said. There is no concrete time line how long my unit will be there. I may go back.

Does she want to return?

In some ways I do, she replied, although noting she is thankful to be back with her husband. My other family is over there. We went through a lot of scary stuff together over there in Iraq. I miss them greatly. I'm worried about them.

Back home, family members have endured a roller coaster of emotions, from initial fear of the worst to elation over the soldiers' survival.

I'm so thankful it wasn't fatal, said Becky Fowler, who works in a local cardiac clinic.

When you are a mother, having watched your child grow up, your automatic parent kicks in something like this, she added. You want to be there to protect them from the ugliness of the world. ... It's been very difficult.

Bob Bessey, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War era, agreed.

We're very relieved she's back here (stateside), he said. We've been frightened about her safety the whole time, even though in her letters and e-mails she told us not to be worried.

The fact the military base is vulnerable also worried him, he said.

I feel a little bitter about that, he said. It's a very dangerous place to be right now.

They could have easily come home in pine boxes.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at