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Army Sgt. James Witkowski

Died October 26, 2005 Serving During Operation Iraqi Freedom

32, of Surprise, Ariz.; assigned to the 729th Transportation Company, Army Reserve, Fresno, Calif.; died Oct. 26 of injuries sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee during convoy operations near Ashraf, Iraq.

Sergeant’s sacrifice may have saved entire convoy

By Michelle Tan

Times staff writer

Sgt. James Witkowski loved his fellow soldiers.

On Oct. 26, 2005, he gave his life for them.

That was the day Witkowski and about 100 soldiers in a 23-vehicle convoy were ferrying supplies from Camp Anaconda near Balad, Iraq, to Forward Operating Base Suse, northeast of Kirkuk.

“Ski” was in Iraq with the 729th Transportation Company out of Fresno, Calif. The 729th worked closely with the 1173rd Transportation Company of the Virginia National Guard.

All of the unit’s missions were run in the Sunni Triangle, said Master Sgt. John Souza, who served with Witkowski.

On that fateful day, soldiers from both companies set out on their mission about 7 a.m. Witkowski was manning the .50-caliber machine gun in Gun Truck 3, the 11th vehicle in the convoy, according to Souza.

As they traveled on the four-lane road, they passed FOB Spartan near Ashraf and soon came upon a small village that was “pretty run down,” Souza recalled. Burned-out vehicles lined the road.

Suddenly, the convoy was hit by improvised explosive devices, and before the dust could settle, enemy fighters hiding behind a berm on the left side of the road attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire, mortars and armor-piercing rounds.

“I saw them shooting at us from on top of the berm,” said Sgt. Rebecca Bumgarner of the 1173rd. “Usually when we start shooting back, they stop. But they didn’t stop. We could see their heads. They didn’t care about dying.”

The soldiers’ first priority was to fight their way out of the kill zone, which was almost a mile long, Souza and Bumgarner both remembered.

“You could clearly hear the gunfire,” Souza said. “AK47s are so distinct.”

According to the soldiers in the convoy and an awards citation, Witkowski fired back with the .50-cal from atop his Humvee. During the attack, the soldiers in the Humvee heard him fumbling with something. They would find out later that a grenade had been tossed into the turret.

According to Souza, one of the passengers said he heard “a sound like someone exhaling after being punched in the stomach” coming from Witkowski. The passenger also said Witkowski kept shooting after the grenade landed in the turret.

“He laid his body on that grenade,” Souza said. “He took the full brunt of that explosion in his abdomen. Without a doubt, he saw that it was a grenade. Bottom line is, he put his body over that grenade.”

The explosion killed Witkowski instantly, said Staff Sgt. Michael Mulcahy, who was the convoy commander and a passenger in Witkowski’s vehicle. Shrapnel rained down on the other soldiers, but no one was seriously wounded. There was smoke and fire in the Humvee. The driver had shrapnel in his neck and down his right side. Mulcahy, whose left arm was injured, encouraged him to keep driving.

He then reached over to help Witkowski.

“What I could feel there was nothing,” Mulcahy said. “I tried to reach over the radios to try to feel the extent of his injuries, try to get a pulse. Just what I could feel, he had no pulse and there was no way that anything could be done.”

‘He did a great thing’

Witkowski’s actions saved the entire convoy, said Staff Sgt. Christine Froncak, who was part of the convoy that day.

“If that grenade had gone off in that Humvee, the convoy would’ve stopped in the kill zone,” she said. “He pretty much saved the entire convoy. That’s Ski’s character. He would’ve given the shirt off his back for anybody.”

The 32-year-old was posthumously awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for courage under fire. He is the second Army Reserve soldier to earn the honor in the Iraqi theater.

“We were extremely proud,” Witkowski’s mother, Barbara, told Army Times. “If somebody had to do it, he probably would’ve been the one to do it. He probably never gave it a second thought. That was kind of how he was.”

As of Feb. 28, 195 soldiers had been awarded the Silver Star for their actions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Army Human Resources Command.

One soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, killed April 4, 2003, in Iraq, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for courage under fire — the only member of any service to have been so recognized for actions in Iraq. Two soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest award, according to HRC.

Leaders of the 729th pieced together as best they could what happened to Witkowski before putting him in for the Silver Star, said Maj. Sean Cannon, former company commander.

It didn’t cross their minds to put him in for a Medal of Honor, he told Army Times, because “to a company-level unit, the Medal of Honor is too far up there.”

“We don’t know exactly what happened, but he did a great thing,” Cannon said.

Inspired to join the fight

Witkowski was the youngest of Barbara and Jim Witkowski’s three children. He was also their only son.

“He was very funny,” Barbara Witkowski said. “He had a very raucous sense of humor, which his mother didn’t always appreciate.”

Growing up in Surprise, Ariz., near Phoenix, James Witkowski was comfortable in his own skin. He had many friends, some he made when he was just 7 years old, his mother said.

The soldier never married. “His reasoning was it wasn’t fair to give himself to one lovely lady when all the lovely ladies needed him,” she said with a laugh.

But her son also had his serious side.

He was very influenced by what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and by Cpl. Pat Tillman, who gave up a multimillion-dollar professional football contract to enlist in the Army. Tillman, who played for the Arizona Cardinals, was killed April 22, 2004, in Afghanistan.

“He really wanted to get over there” to Iraq, Barbara Witkowski said. “He wanted to go so badly.” He enlisted in the Reserve in 2003.

On Oct. 26, he was on his first trip to FOB Suse, according to Bumgarner.

She and Witkowski were on the same crew, often traveling together on missions. On the day Witkowski died, Bumgarner was in Gun Truck 2, traveling in front of her buddy’s vehicle.

After escaping the kill zone, Bumgarner got hold of Mulcahy. “He said, ‘I need you to get back here with a body bag,’” Bumgarner recalled.

“I said, ‘Who?’

“He said, ‘Witkowski.’”

She said she ran to Gun Truck 3 and laid the body bag on the ground. When she asked where her friend was, someone motioned with his eyes toward the Humvee.

Bumgarner opened the door “and it was horrible,” she said. She quickly shut the door and, clicking into focus, she put on a pair of gloves and, with help from another soldier, removed Witkowski’s body from the Humvee.

Witkowski was “like the picture-perfect American hero,” Bumgarner said.

The reality of his death didn’t sink in for her until she was back at Camp Anaconda.

“It’s so hard to explain,” she said about how she felt. “I was just so mad that someone like Witkowski was taken out, but he wouldn’t have wanted to go any other way. I was selfish mad.”

Bumgarner said she isn’t surprised Witkowski took the brunt of the explosion.

“He would’ve done whatever he could to save somebody else,” she said. “Every other convoy we had been on, I was so confident with Witkowski out there because he would’ve done anything to protect us.”

“He was such a hero,” Bumgarner said. “He was it. He’s someone who joined the military after 9/11 to fight for his country and he did, and he saved lives and he gave his own life for others.”

A friend to all

Witkowski and his sharp sense of humor touched everyone’s heart, Souza said.

“He was like a dang magnet,” he said. “People were drawn to him.”

After he died, Witkowski’s room in Iraq was turned into a memorial. When soldiers from the 729th and 1173rd heard that his body was about to be flown home, they raced to the motor pool and formed a procession to the airfield to pay their respects, Souza said.

“There’s not enough words to epitomize the gallantry of this soldier,” Souza said. “If he hadn’t made that decision to sacrifice his life that whole crew would’ve been dead.”

Mulcahy remembers Witkowski’s sense of humor and his love of the television show “Family Guy.” The two talked often about beer (Witkowski favored Labatt’s), movies and making a trip together to Canada to go fishing.

“He was always laughing, joking,” Mulcahy said. “He’d see anybody in a bad mood, he’d try to get them in a good mood.”

Witkowski’s death was a hard lesson, said Froncak, who is preparing for another deployment to Iraq this summer.

“It’s something that no training whatsoever can ever prepare you for,” she said. “When the emotions hit and it’s one of your own, there’s nothing in the world that could prepare you for that.

“There is no award that can possibly acknowledge his bravery and valor,” Froncak said. “That whole convoy could’ve been taken out easily if that Humvee would’ve stopped.”

It’s been six months since her son died, and “we have our good days and we have our bad days,” Barbara Witkowski said.

“I really hope that [people] realize he was really an honest-to-goodness person,” she said. “He’s everybody’s hero. I hope [people] get some of his integrity and bravery.”

Barbara Witkowski said she misses some of the wacky things her son used to do. He wasn’t a big fan of hugs and kisses, but she said he used to give his mother a noogie on her forehead.

Her son was about a month away from coming home when he was killed, Barbara said.

“We really thought we had it made,” she said. “We thought it was going to be OK.

“It’s very unpredictable over there, and it was much more dangerous than either of us thought it was.”

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