The fleet of Apache Longbow helicopters cruised low and fast toward Karbala to open a path for the infantry. Pilot Dave Williams and gunner Ron Young figured the Iraqi army might be ready. They were right.
On approach, the dark city suddenly lit up, a signal for ground forces to open up on the incoming fleet of 18 American airships. For a moment, the two pilots were mesmerized by the intense, spectacular light show. Then bullets ripped through the helicopter. Instantly, the coordinated attack degenerated into an every-man-for-himself operation. Young, a 26-year-old Lithia Springs resident and the eyes of the aircraft, yelled instructions to Williams: Dammit, turn right! Turn right!
Young pulled the trigger on the 30mm cannon. Nothing. He tried the rockets. Nothing. He tried the Hellfire missile. It didn’t. A bullet tore through Williams’ boot as he had the craft loop, dive and sway to evade fire. Finally, he announced an engine was out, as was a hydraulic pump.
The computer spat out system failures by the screenful, too quick for the brain to comprehend. All Young’s mind could register, with almost comic understatement, was, “This is bad!”
“We’re going down!” Williams announced. “We can’t land here,” Young, responded incredulously. “We’ve got to keep going.”
But physics and gravity were now in control. It was early on March 24, 2003. The war was five days old and they had just taken part in what, ultimately, Williams said, became known as “hands-down the most intense or violent air battle of the Iraq campaign.”
More so, the two were starting a journey that ended with them becoming among the mere handful of American prisoners in the war. Going in, the two wondered how they’d react to gunfire. But their time behind enemy lines and then the terror-filled weeks as POWs was an ordeal that tested them to the core. Ten years later, they’re still dealing with the events that occurred that spring in Iraq.
Williams’ brought the craft into a tail-first controlled crash with the struts collapsing to cushion their impact. The crewmen quickly detached from their seats and crawled from wreckage. They were behind enemy lines, wanted and bewildered.
When a helicopter goes down in battle, attackers know exactly where the crew will be. Once down, pilots are trained on a simple axiom: Get the hell out of there.
“I can’t move! My foot!” Williams yelled. Young said he grabbed his crew leader and screamed into his face, “Dammit, Dave, move!”
Tracer rounds prodded them to dive into a ditch perhaps 100 years away. They pulled off their helmets and other gear that slowed them down. They flipped on their radio to hear their comrades’ panicked voices yelling as they, too, tried to evade fire. A huge bomb exploded nearby. Disoriented, they jumped into the chilly water of an irrigation ditch to help lose their trackers.
They inched along the waterway like alligators, just eyes and noses in the air. But after an hour, hypothermia began to take over, and the pilots had to get out or die.
Shortly after pulling themselves out, pursuers were upon them. The weary, pistol-toting pilots weighed their options. Run? Shoot? Give up? A strange thought flashed through Young’s mind: “I don’t want him to be mad at me if I get him killed.”
They raised their hands, but were met by a point-blank shot from an AK-47. It missed, but the butt of a rifle swung at Young’s head didn’t. Young came to seconds later, to see an Iraqi holding Williams by the hair with a knife to his throat, threatening to cut off his head. “Don’t do it!” the terrified Williams, a father of two young children, screamed.
Captive and on the move
The pilots were trussed, tossed into a pickup truck bed and driven into Karbala, where a mob yanked them out. The 6-foot-4 Young drew more of the crowd’s ire and was repeatedly punched and beaten with sticks. Inside, a man identified as a general questioned them through a UCLA-educated interpreter. “Why are you coming here to kill our people?” the general demanded.
The two were later dragged to a vehicle and after a 90-minute blind-folded ride, were taken to an official-looking building, they think, in Baghdad. Young peeked at the floor through his hood and saw dried blood. A torture chamber, he figured. He was next.
Suddenly, he was dragged into a room and shoved into a chair and found himself next to Williams, facing a TV camera. Soon, grainy images of the two POWs were broadcast worldwide. They were accused of war crimes and bringing pornography into Iraq. Young winced, worried his mother, a Mormon, would see that on a broadcast. In fact, the DVDs in Williams’ dufflebag were movies like “The Mexican,” American Pie II” and “101 Dalmatians.”
In prison, they endured two weeks of dysentery, American bombs exploding nearby and mock executions. The adrenaline and terror-filled uncertainty finally turned into angry and exhausted resolve. “If they’re going to kill us, we’ll go out with dignity,” Young thought. Williams tried to remain optimistic but couldn’t shake the feeling he would simply become a memory, just photographs that his wife would years later show his children.
But the sounds of small arms fire and tank treads soon let the POWs know American troops were closing in. Bombs landing close by often brought cheers from the captives, especially as they noticed their guards now displaying confused terror. As American forces neared, the captors moved them from one prison to another. During this time, the pilots realized there were five other POWs with them, soldiers who were part of a truck convoy that was captured when they got lost and attacked. Private Jessica Lynch was in that convoy, although she was held prisoner elsewhere.
One day, during an especially close and intense battle, the captors yanked all seven prisoners from their cells and loaded them into an ambulance. Through his blindfold, Young saw a car in front of them explode. The ambulance reached speeds approaching 100 mph and nearly turned over. A prisoner noted it would be ironic if they were, after all this, killed in a car wreck.
Finally, the group arrived at a home in Samarra. Captors told the POWs they were taken out of Baghdad to keep them safe. This new group of guards, possibly induced by Saddam Hussein’s falling fortunes, was more sympathetic than others. They admitted sneaking peeks at CNN to get an outside view of the world.
Young and Williams were able to convince their captors to alert incoming Marines of their location, and Young gave them his shirt with his name tag as proof. Soon, Marines swooped in — but to the wrong house.
Williams stood on the roof, “We’re over here!” he yelled.
Finally, the Marines kicked in the door, forcing all to the floor. “If you’re an American, stand up,” a Marine demanded. Seven did. It was April 13, 2003, their 21st day of captivity.
A heroes’ welcome
Their return home was triumphant. There were parades, heart-tugging family reunions, an appearance on David Letterman, a meeting with President George W. Bush. Young was even named one of People magazine’s hottest bachelors.
But feelings of elation were soon replaced by emptiness. “For three solid years I was numb. I was very high or very low,” Young said.
Williams’ life is divided by pre-Iraq, post-Iraq. There was anger; there were nightmares. His marriage didn’t survive.
“I felt I let my unit down,” he said. “I felt I had failed the command. I felt I let Ron down. It took a long time to get over it, to realize stuff happens.”
Williams went back to teaching pilots at Fort Rucker in Alabama. He went to Korea and to South America to work in anti-drug interdiction. Williams, now based in Fort Gordon near Augusta, was going to retire this summer but rescinded his paperwork. “I have too much fight left in me,” said the 40 year-old with 23 years service. “Besides, all I know is the Army.”
He has a son, Jason, 12 and a daughter, Madison, 10. “They know something happened to me in Iraq,” he said.
Williams has picked up mixed martial arts fighting. He’s old for the sport and his record is 2-2, but he loves the disciplined aggression. “In a lot of ways it is therapy,” he said.
Young, too, tried MMA for a while. “POWs and combat soldiers feel they have to recapture that adrenaline,” he said. “You feel you have to push it faster and harder.” He now does it through mountain biking.
Young left the military in 2004 and finished his college degree at the University of Georgia — political science. “Sometimes you have to take care of yourself,” he said.
He returned to the Georgia Army National Guard in 2006. His wife, Donna, and 20-month-old daughter, Callyn, live on Lake Lanier, which he finds soothing. He commutes to the National Guard base near Smyrna where he flies drug interdiction in Georgia and also border-patrol duty.
Williams, Young and the five other POWs try to meet every year in Pensacola, where they are part of a long-running study assessing prisoners of war. “We’re the Bastard Children of Baghdad,” said Williams. “They will always be part of my family.”
“POWs sometimes feel they let everyone down for getting captured, you continually relive it,” said Young. “But I have to realize I did everything asked of me. You come away knowing you’re a good person.”