Waving Flag
LTC Kurilla

The soldiers with LTC Kurilla were searching fast, weapons at the ready, and they quickly flex-cuffed two men. But these were not the right guys. Meanwhile, SSG Konkol's men were clearing toward us, leaving the three bad guys boxed, but free.

Shots were fired behind us but around a corner to the left.

Both the young 2nd lieutenant and the young specialist were inside a shop when a close-quarters firefight broke out, and they ran outside. Not knowing how many men they were fighting, they wanted backup. LTC Kurilla began running in the direction of the shooting. He passed by me and I chased, Kurilla leading the way.

There was a quick and heavy volume of fire. And then LTC Kurilla was shot.

Last steps

LTC Erik Kurilla (front right), the moment the bullets strike.(2nd LT front-left; radioman near-left; "AH" the interpreter is near-right.)


Three bullets reach flesh: One snaps his thigh bone in half.


Both legs and an arm are shot.



The Commander rolls into a firing position, just as a bullet strikes the wall beside 2nd lieutenant's head (left).

Kurilla was running when he was shot, but he didn't seem to miss a stride; he did a crazy judo roll and came up shooting.

BamBamBamBam! Bullets were hitting all around Kurilla. The young 2nd lieutenant and specialist were the only two soldiers near. Neither had real combat experience. AH had no weapon. I had a camera.

Seconds count

Kurilla, though down and unable to move, was fighting and firing, yelling at the two young soldiers to get in there; but they hesitated. BamBamBamBam!

Kurilla was in the open, but his judo roll had left him slightly to the side of the shop. I screamed to the young soldiers, "Throw a grenade in there!" but they were not attacking.

"Throw a grenade in there!" They did not attack.

"Give me a grenade!" They didn't have grenades.

"Erik! Do you need me to come get you!" I shouted. But he said "No." (Thank God; running in front of the shop might have proved fatal.)

"What's wrong with you!?" I yelled above the shooting.

"I'm hit three times! I'm shot three times!"

Amazingly, he was right. One bullet smashed through his femur, snapping his leg. His other leg was hit and so was an arm.

With his leg mangled, Kurilla pointed and fired his rifle into the doorway, yelling instructions to the soldiers about how to get in there. But they were not attacking. This was not the Deuce Four I know. The other Deuce Four soldiers would have killed every man in that room in about five seconds. But these two soldiers didn't have the combat experience to grasp the power of momentum.

This was happening in seconds. Several times I nearly ran over to Kurilla, but hesitated every time. Kurilla was, after all, still fighting. And I was afraid to run in front of the shop, especially so unarmed.


The Commander fights...


...and fights, as more bullets kick up dust. And then help arrived in the form of one man: CSM Prosser.

Prosser ran around the corner, passed the two young soldiers who were crouched low, then by me and right to the shop, where he started firing at men inside.

A man came forward, trying to shoot Kurilla with a pistol, apparently realizing his only escape was by fighting his way out, or dying in the process. Kurilla was aiming at the doorway waiting for him to come out. Had Prosser not come at that precise moment, who knows what the outcome might have been?

Prosser shot the man at least four times with his M4 rifle. But the American M4 rifles are weak - after Prosser landed three nearly point blank shots in the man's abdomen, splattering a testicle with a fourth, the man just staggered back, regrouped and tried to shoot Prosser.

CSM Robert Prosser goes "black."

Then Prosser's M4 went "black" (no more bullets). A shooter inside was also having problems with his pistol, but there was no time to reload. Prosser threw down his empty M4, ran into the shop and tackled the man.

Though I have the photo, I do not remember the moment that Prosser went "black" and ran into the shop. Apparently I turned my head, but kept my finger on the shutter button. When I looked back again, I saw the very bloody leg of CSM Prosser inside the shop. It was not moving. He appeared to be shot down and dead.

I looked back at the two soldiers who were with me outside, and screamed what amounted to "Attack! Attack! Attack!" I stood up and was yelling at them. Actually, what I shouted was an unprintable string of curses, while Kurilla was also yelling at them to get in there, his M4 trained on the entrance. But the guys were not attacking.

When the bullet hit that canister, Prosser—who I thought might be dead because of all the blood on his leg—was actually fighting hand-to-hand on the ground. Wrapped in a ground fight, Prosser could not pull out his service pistol strapped on his right leg, or get to his knife on his left, because the terrorist—who turned out to be a serious terrorist—had grabbed Prosser's helmet and pulled it over his eyes and twisted it.

Prosser had beaten the terrorist in the head three times with his fist and was gripping his throat, choking him. But Prosser's gloves were slippery with blood so he couldn't hold on well. At the same time, the terrorist was trying to bite Prosser's wrist, but instead he bit onto the face of Prosser's watch. (Prosser wears his watch with the face turned inward.) The terrorist had a mouthful of watch but he somehow also managed to punch Prosser in the face. When I shot the propane canister, Prosser had nearly strangled the guy, but my shots made Prosser think bad guys were coming, so he released the terrorist's throat and snatched out the pistol from his holster, just as SSG Konkol, Lewis, Devereaux and Muse swarmed the shop. But the shots and the propane fiasco also had brought the terrorist back to life, so Prosser quickly reholstered his pistol and subdued him by smashing his face into the concrete.

The combat drama was ended, so I started snapping photos again.


CSM Prosser, his leg drenched in the terrorist's blood, as 2nd Platoon Alpha Company arrives


CSM Prosser drags the terrorist into the alley ...


...into the light.


The propane canister at rest (left), the terrorist in view of the Commander

CSM Prosser flex cuffs Khalid Jasim Nohe

Prosser stands above the crocodile who bit his watch.

SFC Bowman shields the eyes of his Commander.

When Recon platoon showed up about a minute later, SFC Bowman asked LTC Kurilla to lie down. But Kurilla was ordering people to put out security, and directing action this way and that. When the very experienced medic, Specialist Munoz, put morphine into Kurilla, the commander still kept giving orders, even telling Munoz how to do his job. So SFC Bowman told Munoz to give Kurilla another morphine, and finally Kurilla settled down, and stopped giving orders long enough for them to haul him and the terrorist away to the Combat Support Hospital. The same facility where Daniel Lama was recovering from the earlier gunshot wound to the neck.

Combat Support Hospital
The Surge operation continued as we returned to base. The Commander and the terrorist were both being prepped for surgery, when LTC Kurilla said, "Tell Major Bieger to call my wife so she doesn't get a call from the Army first." But someone gave the Commander a cell phone, and I heard Kurilla talking to his wife, Mary Paige, saying something like, "Honey, there has been a little shooting here. I got hit and there was some minor soft tissue damage." The X-ray on the board nearby showed his femur snapped in half. "I'll be fine. It’s just some minor stuff." That poor woman.

The doctors rolled LTC Kurilla and the terrorist into OR and our surgeons operated on both at the same time. The terrorist turned out to be one Khalid Jasim Nohe, who had first been captured by US forces (2-8 FA) on 21 December, the same day a large bomb exploded in the dining facility on this base and killed 22 people.

That December day, Khalid Jasim Nohe and two compatriots tried to evade US soldiers from 2-8 FA, but the soldiers managed to stop the fleeing car. Then one of the suspects tried to wrestle a weapon from a soldier before all three were detained. They were armed with a sniper rifle, an AK, pistols, a silencer, explosives and other weapons, and had in their possession photographs of US bases, including a map of this base.

That was in December.

About two weeks ago, word came that Nohe's case had been dismissed by a judge on 7 August. The Coalition was livid. According to American officers, solid cases are continually dismissed without apparent cause. Whatever the reason, the result was that less than two weeks after his release from Abu Ghraib, Nohe was back in Mosul shooting at American soldiers.

LTC Kurilla repeatedly told me of - and I repeatedly wrote about - terrorists who get released only to cause more trouble. Kurilla talked about it almost daily. Apparently, the vigor of his protests had made him an opponent of some in the Army's Detention Facilities chain of command, but had otherwise not changed the policy. And now Kurilla lay shot and in surgery in the same operating room with one of the catch-and-release-terrorists he and other soldiers had been warning everyone about.

When Kurilla woke in recovery a few hours after surgery, he called CSM Prosser and asked for a Bible and the book: Gates of Fire. Kurilla gives a copy of Gates of Fire to every new officer and orders them to read it. He had given me a copy and told me to read it. In my book, there is a marked passage, which I thought rather flowery. But I have it beside me on the table by the map of Iraq.
"I would be the one. The one to go back and speak. A pain beyond all previous now seized me. Sweet life itself, even the desperately sought chance to tell the tale, suddenly seemed unendurable alongside the pain of having to take leave of these whom I had come so to love."
A short time after Kurilla gave me the book, following the death of one of his soldiers, he said to me, "I want you to write about my men. You are the only one who might understand," the passage registered in my mind.

I asked CSM Prosser if I could go with him to see the Commander. Carrying both books, we drove to the Cash. Major Mark Bieger arrived alongside Kurilla's hospital bed, paying respect. After spending some time with the Commander, CSM Prosser and I drove back to the unit.

The Deuce Four

The truest test of leadership happens when the Commander is no longer there. Kurilla's men were taking down and boxing up his photos of his wife and children, and his Minnesota Vikings flag, when they decided to keep the flag so everyone could autograph it. It wasn't long before there was no room left to sign, but I found a place to scratch. I wanted my name on that flag.

The place suddenly felt hollowed-out.

The next day, Iraqi Army and Police commanders were in a fury that LTC Kurilla had been shot. Some blamed his men, while others blamed the terrorists, although blame alone could not compete with disbelief. Kurilla had gone on missions every single day for almost a year. Talking with people downtown. Interfacing with shop owners. Conferencing with doctors. Drinking tea with Iraqi citizens in their homes. Meeting proud mothers with new babies. It's important to interact and take the pulse of a city in a war where there is no "behind the lines," no safe areas. It's even dangerous on the bases here.

In order for leaders of Kurilla's rank to know the pulse of the Iraqi people, they must make direct contact. There's a risk in that. But it's men like Kurilla who can make this work. Even and especially in places like Mosul, where it takes a special penchant for fighting. A passion for the cause of freedom. A true and abiding understanding of both its value and its costs. An unwavering conviction that, in the end, we will win.

Make no mistake about Kurilla - he's a warrior, always at the front of the charge. But it's that battle-hardened bravery that makes him the kind of leader that Americans admire and Iraqis respect. Like the soldiers of Deuce Four, Iraqis have seen too much war to believe in fairy tales. They know true warriors bleed.