Sadr City Attack On U.S. Troops Retold In 'The Long Road Home'

Nov 2, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 1:17 am

It was April 4th, 2004, and troops from the 1st Cavalry, out of Fort Hood, Texas had just arrived in Iraq. They had been handed a routine mission, escorting Iraqi sewage trucks through a Baghdad suburb, and they were done for the day, headed back to base. Then the streets emptied, machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down. Eight Americans died in the ambush that day, and 65 were wounded. For the U.S. military, it marked what was, at the time, the worst single day in terms of casualties since Vietnam.

ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz wrote about it in her 2007 book, The Long Road Home, and now it's been turned into an eight part TV drama from National Geographic. "I think of those soldiers as going from the minivans to the Humvees," she says. "These guys had never seen combat. They thought they would be over there on a peace-keeping or reconstruction mission. ... in this particular area, there hadn't been a shot fired in six months."


Interview Highlights

On why the troops had been especially unprepared for the attack

They did not take most of their heavy armor. They left that back home, again because they thought it was a peacekeeping mission. They also handed off from another unit, the troops who had been there for a year had to leave so they had nobody who had been on the ground telling them exactly what to expect. The GPS system was not working yet ... if anything could have gone wrong, it went wrong for them.

On Army cooperation filming at Fort Hood

This is where it really did happen. This is where those troops trained. And I walked down those streets of recreated Sadr City with more than 80 buildings — acres and acres and acres. It looks so much like Sadr City, I found myself looking for IEDS on the streets. It was so powerful.

I took a Gold Star mother, who lost her son obviously in this battle, in the last night of shooting, and it was in the middle of the night, and the moon was shining through and she said she wanted to walk down the street that night. We waited 'till the special effects were over because lots of loud bombing sounds going off. Ian Quinlan, who plays her son, walked with her and some family members down the street. We were both hugging her, holding her hand, [and] she was crying. That's how real. I said to her "Do you want to come back and not do this?" She said "No, no, no. I want to see what my son saw that night. I want to feel it," and I know that was healing for her. I think it's been healing for a lot of the guys. It's been healing for me, too, to see how much this means to them.

On what she learned in the 10 years since writing 'The Long Road Home'

I think what I've learned, and I say this from the deepest part of my heart and I want people to hear this, is that people who lost people then, people who had loved ones wounded, they are still wounded. And whether those are visible wounds or invisible wounds, that still hurts.

We ask a lot of them: "It's called The Long Road Home, where are you on the long road home?" And the answers over these past years are "I'm still on the highway," "I'm knocking at the door," "I'll never be the same way I was before," but they are courageous. They are honoring these soldiers. I think it's one of the things that [for] the guys who were there it's really hard. You know, this is a scripted nonfiction you see in the most vivid graphic way and that's what we wanted. We want people to feel that they are regular guys. These are not Navy SEALs, these are not Special Ops guys. These are regular guys who were in Fort Hood, Texas and suddenly found themselves in the battle for their lives. It could be anybody.

This story was edited for radio by Monika Evstatieva and Jolie Myers, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And this next story is about a bunch of soldiers who thought they were going to have a quiet day. It was April 4, 2004. And troops from the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Hood, Texas, had just arrived in Iraq. They had been handed a routine mission escorting Iraqi sewage trucks through a Baghdad suburb. And they were done for the day, headed back to base. Then the streets emptied. Machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down. Eight Americans died in the ambush that day. Sixty-five were wounded. For the U.S. military, it marked what was at the time the worst single day in terms of casualties since Vietnam.

ABC News journalist Martha Raddatz wrote about that 2004 attack in a book, "The Long Road Home." And now her book's been turned into an eight-part TV drama from National Geographic. Martha Raddatz joins me now. Welcome.

MARTHA RADDATZ: It's so great to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: One thing that struck me watching this series is how unprepared this particular platoon of soldiers were for what happened to them. I mean, they were soldiers but most of them soldiers who had never seen combat, who had just arrived days earlier in Iraq.

RADDATZ: Yeah. I think of those soldiers as going from the minivans to the Humvees. You're exactly right. These guys had never seen combat. They thought they would be over there on a peacekeeping or reconstruction mission. The invasion happened more than a year before that. The area had been pretty calm. There were pockets of quite bad violence around Iraq, but in this particular area, there hadn't been a shot fired in six months.

KELLY: And when you say going from the minivan to the Humvee, there's one little piece of tape that I want to play that gives some idea of just how bad a situation they had stumbled upon. This is actors playing commanders back at base who were trying to scramble a rescue effort once these soldiers came under fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LONG ROAD HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where's their current position?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Unknown, Sir.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The trackers aren't active yet. The computer's still connected to the outgoing unit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) How the hell are we going to find them?

KELLY: You hear the back and forth. They're talking about trackers. These soldiers went in without GPS and without fully armored Humvees in some cases.

RADDATZ: They did not take most of their heavy armor. They left that back home again because they thought it was a peacekeeping mission. They also handed off from another unit. The troops who had been there for a year had to leave, so they had nobody who had been on the ground telling them exactly what to expect. The GPS system was not working yet because that was the outgoing troops. If anything could have gone wrong, it went wrong for them.

KELLY: So the troops we mentioned - they came under fire. What actually happened as they're trapped there in Sadr City?

RADDATZ: They were being attacked from every side. The street goes silent.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LONG ROAD HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Where the hell is everyone?

RADDATZ: They hear bullets raining down.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

RADDATZ: Then it's RPGs.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION, GUNFIRE)

RADDATZ: So there are these Humvees - these four Humvees you see escaping. They eventually had to dismount because two of the Humvees were destroyed. So they had to walk. They found an alley. They went inside the home of an Iraqi family, went upstairs, found roof access. So they sat in that home of the Iraqi family, bringing in the soldier who had been wounded at the time...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LONG ROAD HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Come on. Help me get this camera off - everything off now.

RADDATZ: ...Went up to the roof, secured that area and waited for rescue and waited and waited and waited. And then the rescue squads, the quick reaction force, who ever could go in - one rescue company after another is blocked. Some have to turn around. Some have so many wounded they have to keep sending in soldiers. And those soldiers jumped in those vehicles and were going to get our guys.

KELLY: And how long were they up there on that roof?

RADDATZ: It's one of the reasons it's an eight-hour mini-series. The whole event was about eight hours in real time. So it jumps back and forth also in real time to the families who are waiting. They start seeing little things on the news that something's happened in Sadr City.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LONG ROAD HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) What's the matter?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) CNN just said there was an ambush in Baghdad - four soldiers dead.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) What?

RADDATZ: Word starts spreading in Fort Hood. There are no notifications at that point. So by the end of that period, we start getting word that it's two soldiers, four soldiers, six soldiers, eight soldiers.

KELLY: One thing I was curious about is the fact that the Army cooperated with you as you tried to tell this story first in the book and now in this TV series - cooperated with you up to and including - this whole thing was filmed at Fort Hood in Texas.

RADDATZ: It was, and that was just the best thing for us that could happen. This is where it really did happen. This is where those troops trained. And I walked down those streets of recreated Sadr City with more than 80 buildings - acres and acres and acres. It looks so much like Sadr City. I found myself looking for IEDs on the streets. It was so powerful.

I took a Gold Star mother who lost her son obviously in this battle in the last night of shooting. And it was in the middle of the night. And the moon was shining through, and she said she wanted to walk down the street that night. We waited till the special effects were over because - lots of loud bombing sounds going off. Ian Quinlan, who plays her son, walked with her and some family members down the street. We were both hugging her, holding her hand. She was crying.

That's how real - I said, do you want to come back and not do this? She said, no, no, no, I want to see what my son saw that night. I want to feel it. And I know that was healing for her. I think it's been healing for a lot of the guys. It's been healing for me, too, to see how much this means to them.

KELLY: We interviewed you 10 years ago when your book "The Long Road Home" came out. So there's been 10 more years of investigations and fact finding. It sounds like you've continued to go back and see where all of this unfolded. I mean, is there - what have you learned since that shed more light on what actually happened in that episode that we didn't know back in 2007?

RADDATZ: I think what I've learned - and I say this from the deepest part of my heart, and I want people to hear this - is that people who lost people then, people who had loved ones wounded - they are still wounded. And whether those are visible wounds or invisible wounds, that still hurts. We ask a lot of them. It's called "The Long Road Home." Where are you on the long road home? And the answers over these past years are, I'm still on the highway. I'm knocking at the door. I'll never be the same way I was before. But they are courageous. They are honoring these soldiers.

I think it's one of the things that the guys who were there - it's really hard, you know? This is a scripted nonfiction you see in the most vivid, graphic way. And that's what we wanted. We want people to feel that they are regular guys. These are not Navy SEALs. These are not special ops guys. These are regular guys who were in Fort Hood, Texas, and suddenly found themselves in the battle for their lives. It could be anybody.

KELLY: That's journalist Martha Raddatz. She told this story in the book "The Long Road Home," which has now inspired the new TV drama of the same name. Martha, thanks so much.

RADDATZ: Thanks so much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.