I didn’t know it at the time, but a lesson that lasted maybe a minute — maybe two — during boot camp at Fort Sill, Okla., probably saved my life ten years ago.
Here’s the short version: When you hear incoming artillery, drop to the floor immediately.
Preferably, behind cover.
But to the grizzled war veterans, including myself who spent his first year based out of Taji, Iraq, just north of Baghdad as a helicopter photojournalist flyboy, this was the closest I’ve come to incoming rockets. Well, I do imagine that it wasn’t the first time I was in some terrorist’s cross hairs, but it’s hard to know for certain in those situations that don’t have anything to add to this particular story.
Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the first attack on Forward Operating Base Garry Owen, which is the event from which my Combat Action Badge hails from.
It was right at zero-five-hundred. Most of the base was still asleep. But there were also units that were ready to step-out on patrol missions. One of those was from a logistics unit, but more on that later.
The wind blew just the right direction. Well, blew the right direction for me.
Some Iraqi terrorist set up improvised rocket launchers and pointed them toward the base that I was at for a matter of days. Like everyone else from the Long Knife brigade headquarters company, we were in transient tents.
The bad guy then sent seven 107mm rockets our way.
Well, not really.
But to the average person reading this, it would seem like something out of We Were Soldiers, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, or Lone Survivor.
We would later go back to the tent and determine the path of the shrapnel with laser pointers. The guy across the tent from me had shrapnel that was caught by his sleeping bag. One of the paper pusher S-1 guys found a huge piece of the rocket that caused all the commotion in my area of the base.
Me? The laser pointer went toward my cot, only four inches from the top of it. Thankfully, our rocket wasn’t the first one to land, so everyone in my tent was already on the floor or going to the floor when it impacted. Otherwise, there was a good chance that myself and several others would have gotten Purple Hearts from the shrapnel alone. I can only imagine if it had come through and sliced into myself, or if I had been on my side and found a vital organ.
After all the commotion, the artillery guys had an easy time determining the specifics about the rockets, as the one that landed near me had embedded itself and didn’t explode completely into shrapnel. You could still read “107mm” stamped on the metal.
But I do know that heroic actions occurred that morning. A damn good American died that day while ensuring his younger troops were safe. I never met him, but every year I remember to say his name.
It’s been a decade now, and it’s still important that we say his name. Sgt. 1st Class George Stanciel.
The retaliation was swift, but I’m not talking about all that. Much of that story is in the links below and throughout this article. We adapted to a previously unknown threat, and a lot of people got out of their comfort zones and overcame an enemy that was summed up as: “The team found the rockets’ launchers and called in an explosive ordnance disposal team to destroy them. The local Iraqi army troops later detained a small group of perpetrators nearby.”
The terrorist(s) who launched those rockets? Nobody knows who he is. Whenever he dies — has he already died? — no one will ever know. He has already been forgotten.
Stanciel, though, will live on. At the time of his death, he was assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion’s forward support company stationed out of Warner Barracks, Germany. He was the distribution platoon’s enlisted leader, their platoon sergeant.
For historical reference, you can see multiple sources — including my own released work from a decade ago — down below. I’ve set the links up so that you can click them and go straight to the other websites. Some might require an additional login, most shouldn’t.
My story in the Long Knife News magazine was so long that it was jumped across three pages. In the news world, most stories will only jump to another page once, not through three pages.
— Download the PDF directly, here. —
Later, I was home on leave for my son’s birth, so I missed the major badge pinning ceremony were other parts of that day were recounted. I never expected some of the people to do some of the things I later learned of. One instance is of my old boss and then-Sgt. 1st Class Damian Steptore – one of the heroes of the day, who never really bragged about what he did.
As luck would also have it, I had an American flag in my camera bag which was already destined to be my soon-to-be-born son’s flag. That camera bag and flag were between me and harm’s way.
It’s amazing to look back. But it’s more important to remember those lost, such as Sgt. 1st Class Stanciel. He left behind a full family, and would be 50 years old today. According to the Stripes link below, he was survived by his wife, Shequita; sons Giovanni and Kortney; and daughters Mehri, Jamera and Jacoby.
In memoriam of this fateful day and of Stanciel, I offer a brief list of media that chronicled the events.
Even though I never met Stanciel, I make it a point to honor him, and all other troops who have fallen in defense of our country. Rest in Peace, until we meet at Fiddler’s Green.