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Saturday, September 13, 2003

The price of Freedom

By Henry Winckel, The Porterville, CA Recorder

Olga Gonzalez's heart sank as she placed the phone to her ear, and the voice at the other end of the line identified himself as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Gonzalez's 20-year-old son was stationed in Iraq. "Do you have a son named Angel Hernandez?" the sergeant asked. Gonzalez replied she did. She thought, "Oh my God, what happened? Is he going to tell me he's been killed?" She braced herself. "Your son's been hurt," the sergeant said. "It isn't critical, but it is serious. He might have nerve damage. We're going to get him out of Iraq and transport him to a hospital in Germany."

Gonzalez spent the next few days worrying about her son's condition. She wondered how serious the injury was. She wondered if there would be permanent damage. Then she received an even more disturbing phone call. It was from the mother of Hernandez' girlfriend who was stationed at an Army base in Hawaii.

"She told me she'd heard that Angel has been shot in the head and killed," Gonzalez said.

Hernandez enlisted in the Army two years ago after graduating from Porterville High School.

He believed freedom comes with a price.

"People have to do things for their country to make it free," he said.

At the time, Hernandez did not anticipate he'd be fighting in a war. But two years later, in March of this year, he was on board a plane with his unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

They were headed for northern Iraq.

"They told us we're going to get there in 10 minutes," Hernandez said. "I was praying. I was a little bit scared. But I felt confident in my squad."

Squad members did last minute checks to make sure their equipment was OK, then parachuted into the dark, night sky.

They landed in about a foot of mud. It had rained earlier that day.

"It was pitch black, and it was cold," Hernandez said. "It was about 30 degrees."

He unhooked his parachute, set up his machine gun, then headed off to find other members of his unit.

The squad traipsed through the mud for about 11/2 miles before arriving at a landing strip. Their job was to clear it so that planes could land.

They worked through the night.

"At daybreak we were exhausted," he said.

That day, planes carrying supplies, food and ammunition began landing.

Hernandez said his unit was the only one to land in northern Iraq. They communicated with the local people, the Kurds, using hand and arm signals.

"They love us, they love Americans. " Hernandez said of the Kurds. "They're good people."

One of the locals used his tractor to help the American troops pull their trucks, which had been airdropped the night before, out of the mud.

The unit stayed at the air strip for five days before heading south to Kirkuk. They established headquarters in a former Baath government building, then set about patrolling the city and its surrounding areas.

"Kirkuk is pretty much stable. It's mostly the Baath party members in little towns on the outskirts that are the problem," Hernandez said. "They really don't like us out there."

Hernandez' squad would travel to outlying villages and conduct house by house searches. Sometimes they searched whole villages. They rarely found anything.

During the day, temperatures soared to 115 degrees. Moving about in bullet proof vests and other army gear proved draining.

"We were lucky if we had water to take showers," Hernandez said.

Nights were filled with the sounds of gunfire. Just about everyone in Iraq has an assault rifle, Hernandez said.

On July 31, the unit was told about a man in an outlying village who was selling rocket propelled grenades, commonly known as RPGs, and assault rifles to Iraqis.

Two squads set out in trucks to apprehend him. It was 10 p.m.

The trucks were driven with their headlights off to make them more difficult to spot. Soldiers used night-vision goggles to see.

Hernandez was standing in the bed of the truck facing forward. His hands gripped his machine gun which was mounted on the roof of the cab.

The trucks reached a bridge.

"We waited and let the first truck go, before we started to cross," Hernandez said. "That way both trucks don't get stuck on a bridge if there's an ambush."

The first truck crossed the bridge and continued down the road. Hernandez's truck started across, but suddenly there was a deafening explosion.

The truck had been hit by an RPG.

The driver took the force of the grenade, which hit him in the head and upper body. He was killed instantly.

Three others, including Hernandez, were hit by shrapnel.

"It was so loud, and it happened so fast, I really didn't know what had happened," Hernandez said. "I lost my weapon. And then I heard one of our guys yell, 'The driver got killed! The driver got killed!'"

Hernandez, running on adrenaline, grabbed the driver's rifle and took up a position on the bridge. At first he didn't realize he'd been wounded.

He'd taken six pieces of shrapnel in his upper leg.

The squad remained on the bridge for about 20 minutes before medics arrived.

"I didn't realize how serious the injury was until the medics saw it," Hernandez said.

He was taken by stretcher to a helicopter, then flown to a hospital in Tikrit where he was operated on.

As he lay recuperating in his hospital bed, he kept replaying the events of July 31 in his mind.

"I was thinking about the other guys, if they were all right," he said. "And I was thinking about that night - how could we do something better.

"But mostly I was thinking about the guy that died. I felt bad for his family."

Three days later, Hernandez called his mom and told her he was fine. He also told her he'd been given a 30-day convalescent leave, and would come home soon.

About two weeks later, he returned to his home in Terra Bella.

"He showed up at 2 in the morning," Gonzalez said. "I was worried he was going to come home limping, but then I saw him all complete, and he was fine. It felt great to see him."

Hernandez's leave ends Monday. He'll be flown to a base in Italy.

He doesn't know whether he'll be sent back to Iraq, but said he wants to return.

"I feel I kind of left them one man short," he said. "The more people we have, the better it is."

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