Opinion
12:55 am
Sat May 25, 2013

Sole Survivor: Iraq Rescue Mission Ended In Tragedy

Originally published on Tue June 4, 2013 10:52 am

Lance Cpl. Travis Williams, 29, is an Iraq War veteran — and the only post-9/11 Marine to lose every other member of his 12-man squad. It happened in August 2005, when Williams and his teammates were sent on a rescue mission in Barwanah, Iraq.

"That morning, we loaded into the vehicle," Williams recalls. "And I get tapped on the shoulder, and I got told that I need to bounce up to the next vehicle. I said, 'Catch you guys on the flipside.' And that was the last thing I ever said to them."

"Next thing I know, I just hear the loudest explosion. And I see, that's my squad's vehicle that got hit. The bomb flipped it upside down, it ripped it completely in half, and everything inside of it was just parts," he says.

A helicopter was sent to recover his squad's remains. "So the guys from the rest of our platoon had to go out there with blankets and cover up these body parts, so dogs don't come and grab my friend's arm and have a meal," Williams says.

Williams was attached to Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, out of Columbus, Ohio. "When I got back into our room for the first time, it was just a mess, you know. We had to spend the next couple of days just packing all this shit up, and mailing it home to their families. Mailing their letters that they hadn't mailed, and cleaning up the dishes that they hadn't cleaned up and — there's dirty laundry," Williams pauses. "It was all I had left of my friends."

He faced hard challenges once he returned home. "I knew that I would meet these guys' parents, their girlfriends and their brothers and sisters and — it's hard because I feel guilty for being the one guy left," he says. "But I also feel a responsibility. I better make sure that everybody knows who these guys were, what these guys did."

There was his own grief to deal with, too. "I am most proud of not blowing my head off by now," Williams says. "It's just a whole lot easier if you're dead. But that shouldn't be your tribute to your dead friends. When they're looking down on you, they don't want you to be living in the moment that killed them. You made it. You got home. You should honor their memory by living the life that they didn't get to live."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition Saturday by Yasmina Guerda. Special thanks to Michael M. Phillips.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On this Memorial Day weekend, we're checking in with StoryCorps and our Military Voices Initiative. It's a project honoring men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Today, we hear from Lance Cpl. Travis Williams, an Iraq War veteran. He is the only Marine after 9/11 to lose every other member of his 12-man squad. It happened in August 2005; Lance Cpl. Williams and his squad had been sent on a rescue mission in Barwanah.

LANCE CPL. TRAVIS WILLIAMS: That morning, we loaded into the vehicle. And I get tapped on the shoulder, and I got told that I need to bounce up to the next vehicle. I said, catch you guys on the flip side - and that was the last thing I ever said to them.

The next thing I know, I just hear the loudest explosion. And I see, that's my squad's vehicle that got hit. The bomb flipped it upside down, and it ripped it completely in half; and everything inside of it was just parts. And we've got to wait for the chopper to come recover them. So the guys from the rest of our platoon had to go out there with blankets, and cover up these body parts so dogs don't come and grab my friend's arm and have a meal. (Sighs)

When I got back into our room for the first time, it was just a mess, you know. (Swallows hard) We had to spend the next couple days just packing all their (bleep) up and mailing it home to their families; mailing their letters that they hadn't mailed, and cleaning up the dishes that they hadn't cleaned up. And there's dirty laundry. It was all I had left of my friends.

And when I got home, I knew that I would meet these guys' parents, their girlfriends, and their brothers and sisters. And it's hard because I feel guilty for being the one guy left. But I also feel a responsibility. I'd better make sure that everybody knows who these guys were, what these guys did and - you know.

I am most proud of not blowing my head off by now. It's just a whole lot easier if you're dead. But that shouldn't be your tribute to your dead friends. When they're looking down on you, they don't want you to be living in the moment that killed them. You made it. You got home. You should honor their memory by living the life that they didn't get to live.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Iraq War veteran Lance Cpl. Travis Williams, remembering the 11 men from his squad who were killed in Iraq on Aug. 3, 2005.

WILLIAMS: Squad leader Justin Hoffman, team leader David Kreuter, team leader Brett Wightman, team leader Aaron Reed, Lance Cpl. Eric Bernholtz, Lance Cpl. Michael Cifuentes, Lance Cpl. Edward August Schroeder, Lance Cpl. Timothy Bell, PFC Grant Fraser, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Bloem, PFC Christopher Dyer. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Grant Fraser and Christopher Dyer were incorrectly identified as privates first class. Both men were lance corporals.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This interview was recorded in Missoula, Mont., as part of the Military Voices Initiative. And like all StoryCorps recordings, it is archived at the Library of Congress. You can download the podcast on npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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