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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- It was an average day in Kandahar -- hot and about to get a lot hotter.
Sgt. Jeff Long, Sgt. Robert Benton and Spc. Ambrose Faatoafe had dropped off some pals going on leave and picked up some mail to take back to their base, two hours outside the southeastern Afghanistan city. Four Army Humvees, two in front, two in back, escorted the mail-laden Afghan-owned "jingle truck" down one of the country's rare paved highways. Afghans have a habit of covering their cargo vehicles with dozens of wind chimes.
The faster one goes, the less time there is for an ambush, but a lack of speed is a problem with jingle trucks, which can be in dubious repair and are often overloaded.
So it was that Long, Benton and Faatoafe, all Utahns, were each manning machine gun turrets on Humvees and plodding along at 45 mph just after 2 p.m. on Nov. 1, 2006.
Long, in the fourth vehicle in the convoy, concerned himself with some two-story buildings along the east side of the road. Snipers like to hide in those sorts of buildings and Long held up his brand-new 5.56mm SAW (squad automatic weapon.) Behind him, Benton spotted smoke drifting across the road in front of the convoy, though it didn't bother him much. What bothers soldiers are things like cars abandoned on bridges, like the one they warily passed the day before.
"You just kind of take note of it," he said of the smoke. "Not that you do anything different."
In the convoy's second vehicle -- in front of Benton, Long and the jingle truck -- Faatoafe noticed a small bus bouncing through a field on the west side of the road and brought his machine gun around.
"Usually when you point your weapon at them, they stop," he said with a slight shake of his head and a creeping smile.
The bus did stop, and Faatoafe swung his SAW back around to cover another area.
It was the last thing he remembers before the explosion.
The three men are part of the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion out of Pleasant Grove that acts as a liaison between the military and civilians. The battalion's role, says Sgt. Maj. Wayne Pyle, is to ensure that the rebuilding process is as smooth as possible. They help in the construction of schools, training of civil police and disbursement of money. The battalion typically breaks up into groups of three or four that are then spread out across a country like Afghanistan to help in reconstruction after war has torn through an area.
But, as Pyle puts it, "In the context of the modern battlefield, there is no front line," and the battalion has been in plenty of firefights and dealt with improvised explosive devices galore. Particularly Long.
"Any time he goes out anywhere, they love shooting at him," Benton says.
Focused on the buildings, Long, bedecked in sunglasses, goggles, gloves and a Kevlar helmet, didn't know Faatoafe had faced down the bus.
But Benton did, and his guts told him something was wrong. Astride the Humvee bringing up the rear, he told his driver to create some space between the vehicles. When dealing with suicide bombers or IEDs, the more space there is between vehicles, the more soldiers have a chance of survival if something goes wrong.
Benton checked over his shoulder to see the bus once again lurch forward and clamber to the road, right next to Long's Humvee.
It was then that Benton saw the flames licking out from under the bus just before the IED that insurgents are so good at fabricating engulfed the entire vehicle and ripped it in half. The explosion was strong enough to stunt Benton's 15,000 pound Humvee -- rolling at 45 mph -- in its tracks. He managed to spin in his turret and drop down as a sea of flames washed over the convoy.
Turned away from the bus, Faatoafe took shrapnel and was immediately knocked out. Long took a fire bath.
"I never even saw that son-of-a-gun," he said.
Instead he felt intense heat creeping up under his helmet.
"I was like, 'Ah, crap, I'm on fire.' "
Long dropped into the Humvee, where the vehicle's built-in fire suppression system put him out. As he checked himself for damage, he saw that much of his clothing had burned off and his hands were dripping skin.
His weapon "jacked up," his hands and face burned, and his arm squirting blood, he shook a stunned medic riding in the vehicle, saying that he needed help.
Benton figured everyone was dead.
"I was just watching things fall out of the sky and hitting my turret," he said, adding that it seemed very quiet in the moments after the blast.
Looking up, he saw Long's Humvee in tatters and no sign of Faatoafe. He was scanning for possible follow-up attacks when he saw the two men start moving around. With officers either knocked out or too shocked to act, Benton directed an Afghan army patrol that had been nearby to do some crowd control and then called in a medical helicopter.
Faatoafe came to, staring up at his gun. He put up with a pounding headache until it felt like his head was swelling up and then he pried off his helmet. It was then he saw that a piece of shrapnel had torn through it but got caught up in the webbing inside after bouncing off his skull. Despite the head wound, he was able to take stock of the situation and help with security.
Inside his vehicle, Long was soaking his hands in saline, relief seeping in. As they all waited for the chopper, Long realized that his injuries meant he was going home. Down the road he saw the charred body of the suicide bomber and tried to walk over "to give him a kick or something."
"The guy hurt me, and I was ticked."
Some of the other soldiers held him back.
"They told me 'You sit down, have a shot of morphine and relax,' " Long said.
Despite the explosion, despite the injuries, one thing the soldiers remember vividly is the medical helicopter dropping in. Benton had cleared an area in the field and set off smoke to mark the spot, but the pilots swung down near power lines and dropped it down fast on the road.
"It was awesome watching those guys come in," Benton said.
Remarkably, Long had the worst of the injures in the convoy. Another soldier was strapped to a stretcher after he passed out a second time. Concern over concussions was high. Faatoafe was woken several times throughout the night to ensure he was OK.
As his friends were being treated in Kandahar, Benton was watching Fox News. The scrolling ticker reported the incident as a U.S. raid on insurgents, not the very ordinary mail run it actually was.
"I guess we could have raided the care packages," Benton quipped.
Specifics of attacks are kept as quiet as possible for the first several days so that family can be contacted thought military channels, said battalion Sgt. Maj. Henrey Jetty.
"He got to call his wife and say, 'The bad news is I almost got blown up. The good news is I'll be home for Christmas,' " Jetty said. "Very few people come that close and get away with it."
After several more days in Kandahar feeling very "crispy," Long was flown to Germany, escorted by Faatoafe. From there, Faatoafe went back to Afghanistan and Long went to the burn recovery unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he met his wife and three children.
He did get home for Christmas, but faced months of treatment afterward that left obvious scar patches on his face. Those were mostly due to a piece of cloth he had wrapped around his head that Nov. 1 to keep the dust out. The engulfing fire burned it off and cooked the skin with it.
On Sept. 7, a long way from Kandahar and suicide bombers, Long received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions as a member of the 405th Civil Affairs Battalion in the Army Reserve.
Dozens of friends and family gathered at the Orem city offices to watch Battalion Commander William Florig pin the medals on while praising Long's actions throughout his career.
The Purple Heart, which is given to those who die or are wounded in battle, was for the mail run. The Bronze Star, awarded for
bravery and service, was for his entire stay in Afghanistan.
Faatoafe, 25, received a Purple Heart as well, in February. The UVSC student would like to go into nursing but has had a hard time getting into classes that are packed full from demand. Benton, 27, received a Bronze Star for his time in Afghanistan and is now at the University of Utah majoring in international studies.
He's ready to go overseas again if called up.
"Somebody has to go," he says eagerly.
That somebody won't be Long who, at 42, is retiring from the Army Reserves after two dozen years.
He will, however, be back to his normal job as an Orem police detective.
"I had my new boss come up to me and say 'Vacation's over, pal.' "
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)