By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 19, 2008 1:46 PM
Nearly a year ago, Staff Sgt. Daniel Spencer was on a road 40 miles northeast of Baghdad when a bomb shot his armored patrol vehicle 10 feet in the air.
Just six months later, the airman took another drive down that stretch.
Only this time, it was no "ghost town."
Children were playing in the street and rushed up to the American convoy -- waving, smiling, laughing.
You see, for Spencer, those very different desert drives are proof that the surge is working.
They exemplify the belief he formed during his 365-day tour.
There are two Iraqs, the 26-year-old would tell you.
Most just never hear about them.
A military vehicle makes its way down a deserted road.
Four American troops are inside.
Spencer remembers that particular mission.
"We had been called to an Improvised Explosive Device north of the city and responded to that," he said. "In front of me is a tank, and behind me is our security detail."
For now, it is just another mission -- like the hundreds of others the 4th Fighter Wing staff sergeant had endured to that point during his stint at war.
But then, something happened.
"The lead tank notices something in the road and heads to the other lane," Spencer said. "A lot of times, (the insurgents) will throw some garbage out there because it's so common, we run over it, and there is a nice booby trap waiting. He didn't want to take that chance."
The convoy stops and the gun atop that lead tank starts scanning the area.
Spencer notices a small group of people fleeing the scene.
"I thought they were leaving because we brought a couple of tanks with us," he said.
Everything seemed normal.
Well, normal for Iraq.
So they start back on that road.
It was March 23.
A few minutes later, Spencer and the others seated inside that 12-ton mine-protected vehicle are upside down.
Spencer is bleeding.
"When it went off, it was just so quick. The first I did was I looked, I checked to see if all my gear was on -- you know, my battle rattle," he said. "My face, it felt like, 'Oh crap.' My helmet had hit my eye protection and drove it down. It took my nose with it."
A broken nose.
The reality of the tone in Iraq had hit home.
"I didn't know what to expect. This was my first time," Spencer said. "I had just been hit by al-Qaida. I knew it was al-Qaida."
Spencer does not need to read his Purple Heart narrative to recall that explosion -- the moment his vehicle stood up to the 500 pounds of explosives buried along that route.
The truth is, he could watch the scene unfold right now if he wanted to.
A camera mounted inside the vehicle captured it all.
"When you get out of the vehicle and see this crater, you can see. If I would have been in a Humvee, if I had been in a tank ... I would be dead," he said. "There is no doubt about it."
But there were no cameras on the other missions.
No one was filming when Spencer saw an IED blast kill several of his comrades.
It was Feb. 14, 2007.
"We had responded to a buried IED where a Bradley got hit," he said. "The driver, of course, was killed."
By the time Spencer and the EOD crew he was attached to reached the scene, the mission had become a recovery effort -- and a chance to analyze the scene.
"It was all about doing what we came to do and getting the heck out of Dodge," Spencer said. "We didn't want to spend too much time out there because there were sniper threats."
But as they were leaving, the vehicle towing the Bradley that had been disabled in the blast was hit.
"We saw one of the guys crawl out of the top. He was on fire," Spencer said. "And the other two (were) stuck inside. We couldn't get them out."
The airman worked security and passed bottles of water down the line until the flames were extinguished.
"They put the fire out and brought him back to the rear of the convoy," Spencer said. "He looked pretty bad."
You could read about the incident, yourself, in Spencer's Bronze Star narrative.
And he would probably prefer it that way.
You see, Spencer does not see himself as a hero.
The pride he has in his decorations has nothing to do with those close calls.
Instead, they are more like a tribute to those with whom he shares them.
Like the Army staff sergeant who went out on an IED call one day and never returned.
He and Spencer had joked around the night before.
Or the "EOD guys" who exemplified determination and grit.
"I can't tell you the amount of respect I gained for those guys during this deployment," Spencer said.
They are the patriots, he said -- that staff sergeant, the true hero.
"You know, he got a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and I'm here and he's not, so yeah, it's a humbling experience," Spencer said. "I guess I'm one of them. But like I said, 'Do I think I earned that? No. ... All that happened was I broke my nose, got this cut and got a concussion. People get in fights and get broken noses. I just happened to get hit by al-Qaida."
It was only one tour.
Spencer, though, does not really see it that way.
In fact, he has seen two countries -- two realities -- in a country often described as "static."
When he arrived in Iraq less than a week into 2007, civilians were scared and "never around," once-active cities were "ghost towns."
Threats to Allied forces were everywhere.
"When I first got there, it was terrible on the ground. The surge had hit Baghdad and pushed a lot of the bad guys northeast into our neck of the woods, our area of operation," Spencer said. "Every day we were going on missions and responses."
But when he returned to theater after a two-week leave in September, something had changed.
"When I went back, I went on a total of seven missions from September to December, whereas in February alone, it was 14 IEDs a day. You know what I am saying?"
Streets that sat abandoned months earlier were regaining their vibrancy.
"The first few months, we would drive down the streets in the city and nobody was out," he said. "By October, there were kids out in those same streets playing. They would run up to the vehicles and wave."
So as the nation marks the five-year anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, Spencer hopes the public sees beyond the images playing out on the news.
The surge, he says, is working.
He has seen that better days truly are ahead for a nation clinging to the freedom it is just now beginning to realize.
"You don't hear about it on CNN, you don't hear about it on Fox News, but I wholeheartedly agree and believe that this surge worked," Spencer said. "For lack of a better term, we're kicking ass."
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