An insurgent ambush yields a hero, and a wounded soldier recovers back home. Sixth of a seven-part series on the longest deployment of the Iraq war.
It all looked as if a video game had come to life.
Through his night vision goggles, Staff Sgt. Chad Malmberg saw the insurgents scurrying from berms to canals. Some popped up, ran a few yards, then fell to the Americans' gunfire. But others kept advancing toward his convoy.
Malmberg's rocket counterattack hadn't stopped the enemy. And Truck 4, at the back of the convoy, had just radioed two urgent pleas for help.
It was running out of ammunition. And the enemy was within shouting distance.
Once again, Malmberg ordered his truck to race to the back -- this time with two other Humvees, one of which supplied .50-caliber machine gun bullets.
The insurgents, once five or six football-field lengths away, were now within 50 feet, hunkered in a ditch. When their muzzles flashed, Malmberg saw their faces and their turbans.
When his truck stopped, he flung open his door and hopped out, quickly lobbing a grenade into the ditch.
"Frag out!" he shouted so others could take cover, then repeated the alert on the radio. Then his truck stopped again and Malmberg's driver threw a second grenade.
Finally, that threat was eliminated.
Still, the fight wasn't over. Insurgents near the front of the convoy, where Malmberg now returned, were launching rocket-propelled grenades as all five Humvees sprayed the area with gunfire.
In the midst of this, Malmberg's gunner alerted him that smoke was billowing from both sides of the cab of a civilian truck. Malmberg looked through his rearview mirror. Surely, he thought, the driver was dead. He radioed an order to a Humvee crew: Remove the body.
But when the sergeant opened the door, the driver popped out and hugged him. Miraculously, the man had survived, so frightened that he then crawled under his truck for safety.
The sergeant pulled him out. They had to go. Now! They had to get out of the kill zone.
And they did.
When the Humvees returned to base, Malmberg and the others set up a board to reconstruct what had happened in the 55-minute firefight. It was almost impossible. There had been so much chaos. The gunners had shot so many targets. No one knew for sure how many of perhaps 30 to 40 insurgents were killed.
They did know this: No one in the convoy -- soldiers or civilian drivers -- was dead. No one was even injured.
And Malmberg, whose greatest worry was that he might somehow fail his men, would be decorated as a hero.
U.S. troops were not the only targets of the violence that flared across parts of Iraq in early 2007. Ordinary Iraqis, too, found themselves in the middle of a firestorm.
Sgt. 1st Class Cassandra Houston was in her second day as a nurse in the intensive care unit at the sprawling Balad Hospital when an Iraqi family was wheeled in for "comfort care" -- the father, mother and son were about to die. All she could do was help them go peacefully.
They'd all been shot in the head, apparent victims of sectarian hatred, and the parents succumbed quickly.
Their son, around 14, was unconscious but still breathing. Houston suctioned blood from the boy's mouth, changed the gauze bandage on his head and tenderly held his hand.
She wanted to make sure he did not die alone.
She thought of her son, Josh, who was about the same age.
Afternoon gave way to evening as Houston stayed by the boy's side. She watched the monitors as his labored breathing subsided, his blood pressure dropped and his heartbeat dwindled.
When the boy died, a chaplain returned, and Houston, along with other nurses, gathered around his bed for a prayer.
That night, back in her room, she cried. She called Josh and told him she missed him.
And she was back in intensive care the next morning.
As she stood by others -- including wounded, frightened troops -- in the months that followed, her eyes might tear up but she learned not to cry every time she saw something terrible.
At times, she wondered if she had a heart anymore.
At the end of February, a dump truck loaded with gravel and explosives veered into a crowd of worshippers leaving a Sunni mosque in Habbaniyah where the imam had spoken out against extremists.
Dr. Joe Burns heard the sirens wailing. Within minutes, dozens of injured Iraqis arrived at the gates of Al Taqaddum Air Base.
One was a little boy, around 8. He was unconscious. The top of his head was wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage, a bone jutted through his left leg. His breathing was shallow, his pulse rapid.
Burns called for breathing tubes and when he removed the bandage from the boy's matted hair, he saw a hole the size of a quarter in the back of his skull. The gray matter of the brain was visible.
He gingerly felt for shrapnel or any foreign material, but found none. That was good news.
Suddenly, the boy regained consciousness, sat up, started crying and reached for his head.
He told the interpreter his name was Youssef -- Joseph, like the doctor -- but little else before lapsing back into unconsciousness.
Burns and others lifted Youssef's stretcher from the floor, weaving through a crowded hallway toward an open bed. As Burns prepared to give Youssef medicine so he could insert a breathing tube down his throat, an emergency room doctor arrived.
"What have you got?" he asked.
"Open fracture. Open head wound," Burns replied.
The doctor shook his head.
"No," he said, "make him expectant." Put him aside to die, because others could be saved.
Burns protested gently.
No, he talked, he regained consciousness, Burns said. He's young, this isn't beyond hope.
Eying the boy again, the doctor reconsidered.
"OK," he said, "do you want me to fix the head wound?"