July is a bad time to be in the desert in Iraq. In that part of the world, temperatures may soar over 120 degrees, and death and destruction could occur at any moment in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and turmoil.
The war that began in 2003 with American and allied troops invading Iraq to topple the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein was officially ending in December 2011. President Obama was withdrawing all U.S. military forces, except for a few hundred for Embassy security and training.
During that time of conflict, 4,500 American military personnel paid the supreme price, and another 32,000 were wounded — not counting long-term psychological trauma, caused by all wars.
On July 7, 2011, three Idaho guardsmen from Coeur d’Alene on “Rino Patrol” in Baghdad tragically became part of that list. Staff Sergeant Jason Rzepa would return home badly wounded, but Specialist Nickolas W. Newby and Specialist Nathan R. Beyers lost their lives in the service of their country.
The mission that hot day in Baghdad was to be routine for Bravo Company of the 145th Brigade Support Battalion — an Idaho Army National Guard Unit based in Post Falls. Called to active duty in September 2010, they were sent to Iraq as part of Operation New Dawn, and billeted at Victory Base Complex (VBC), located near Baghdad International Airport.
Bravo Company’s Rino Patrol mission was to provide armed escort duty protecting vehicle convoys between VBC and the International Zone (IZ) about three miles away. The IZ used to be called the “Green Zone,” best remembered for being the site of Saddam’s main palace.
There were three heavily armed Humvee vehicles in that convoy, with six passengers in the middle truck, protected front and back by the other two.
Each truck had a three-man crew — truck commander, driver and gunner — and could carry up to eight passengers. Routinely, there’d be two Rino roundtrips in the morning and two in late afternoon. This was the second run of the day.
The Rino crew was rousted out of bed at 4:30 a.m., and then it was shave, dress and be picked up and taken by van to the motor pool. The men checked over the vehicles, radios and weapons, and then were briefed on their mission by Staff Sergeant Ryan Rogers of Coeur d’Alene, convoy commander.
Sergeant Greg (“Doc”) Wilson of Boise, a trained medic was designated commander of the lead vehicle, with Specialist Mike C. Longwill from Coeur d’Alene as driver, and Specialist Tristan Nielsen, also Coeur d’Alene in the gun turret. The convoy’s middle truck was commanded by Sergeant Rogers and driven by Specialist Nickelus Hite from Coeur d’Alene, with Specialist Cody Payne of Spokane behind the gun.
In the rear escort vehicle, Staff Sergeant Jason Rzepa (pronounced “zeppa) was scheduled to be truck commander, but that day there was a change in plans. Twenty-year-old Nick Newby was given the truck commander job for training purposes, and Rzepa would take his place as gunner — the crews often swapping assignments. Newby then sat down in the front passenger seat next to driver Nathan Beyers.
Around 7:30 a.m., Longwill hit the ignition switch for the lead Hummer, and the other drivers followed suit. Their trip ticket said the mission was “LOGPAC escort to the IZ and return to Al Faw Palace.” (Located inside the VBC, this was another of Saddam’s many palaces scattered across Iraq, and used as pickup and drop-off point for Rino passengers.)
The short route to IZ would take them through crowded and dirty Baghdad streets teeming with people, with danger lurking around every corner and wall.
An Army Headquarters Baghdad report said that there was concern about the route being safe because “there was reporting the night before the attack regarding suspicious behavior on the route.” The report noted “the route was always a problem…in that it is filled with debris and it had a ‘this does not feel right quality.’”
The Rino crew was well aware of potential danger, having been thoroughly briefed on Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Vehicle Borne IEDs (VBIEDs), anti-tank hand grenades (RKG-3s) made by the Russians, and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). Some exploded on contact; others by remote control.
Staff Sergeant Rogers told the men to be on full alert, “stressing the fact that things were heating up,” he noted in a later report. “We talked through our battle drill if we were to be hit by an IED, and what our actions would be after being hit.”
The convoy made it through the morning traffic and arrived safely at the International Zone. The six passengers disembarked and the crew went to the mess hall for breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, waffles, coffee and the usual fare. By about 10 a.m., it was time for the return trip. They boarded six passengers — seating three in each of the first two vehicles — and then headed out.
Close to their destination, they were driving down a road between two walls — the VBC perimeter wall was on the left and a civilian area wall on the right. “Everything gave the perception of being a normal day,” a post-mission report said. The lead Humvee then made a right turn at “Dead Man’s Curve,” with the base gate about 500 yards ahead.
Suddenly at 10:32 a.m., a loud explosion rocked the area. An IED planted on the left side of the road had been detonated by remote control just as Newby’s truck drove by. The blast destroyed the vehicle and blew a hole in the compound wall, with the truck slamming into the opposite wall, creating an even larger hole.
Mike Longwill in the lead truck immediately radioed for help, while Nick Hite returned back around Dead Man’s Curve to see what happened.
Ryan Rogers jumped out and raced over to the smoldering vehicle hoping for the best, but was devastated to find that Nick Newby and Nathan Beyers did not survive and that Jason Rzepa was severely wounded. “Doc” Wilson, the lead truck commander and trained medic rushed to help their injured comrade. He and Rogers applied tourniquets and stabilized the wounds, but sadly, Sergeant Rzepa would lose both legs below the knees.
Longwill couldn’t reach the regular medical rescue crew at the base by radio but did contact his own unit who quickly sent a team to the scene, arriving within 15 minutes. Though the attacked vehicle was in ruins, the engine was still running. One of the rescuers reached in and turned off the ignition key, “being very careful not to disturb SPC Newby.”
The other convoy members took up positions to secure the area in case of more attacks.
Around 12:30, the casualties were removed and taken back to base. Jason Rzepa was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for intensive treatment. Today, he’s walking again with aid of prosthetics and lives in Coeur d’Alene. Nick and Nathan were returned to Idaho for eternal rest with full honors.
Just months later, the 145th Battalion was released from federal duty and returned to Idaho and routine training on appointed weekends.
Oct. 17, 2011 — The U.S. and Iraq have been unable to come to agreement regarding legal immunity for American troops who would remain in Iraq after the year’s end, effectively ending discussion of maintaining a U.S. forces presence.
Oct. 21, 2011 — President Obama announces that virtually all U.S. troops will come home from Iraq by the end of the year.
Dec. 2, 2011 — The last U.S. troops to occupy Camp Victory complex leave as the Iraqi government assumes control.
Dec. 15, 2011 — American troops lower the flag of command that flies over Baghdad officially ending the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
POSTSCRIPT: It was difficult for Mike Longwill and Theresa Hart — Nick Newby’s mother — to relive those tragic moments in an interview for this story. But stories like this must be told so that future generations will know that freedom is not free. America was built on the sacrifices of brave Americans like Nick Newby, Nathan Beyers, Jason Rzepa and millions of others in uniform who have served so nobly.
They should not be forgotten.
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gold Star Mom honors her son…
Theresa Hart, who lost her son Nick Newby in Iraq pays tribute to his sacrifice by helping others who served in the U.S. military. In 2013, she founded Newby-Ginnings, a non-profit organization based in Dalton Gardens that distributes donated household goods and clothing for free to active and retired military and Gold Star families.
Newby-Ginnings has already helped some 800 active and former military members and families. Many young service families have been able to furnish their homes through Newby-Ginnings.
Donations and financial support has generously come from thousands of contributors. Volunteers help man the organization’s facility, Monday through Wednesday at 147 E. Aqua Circle Unit 2, Dalton Gardens, ID 83815.
For information, contact Newby-Ginnings at (208) 660-4601 or Newbyginnings4471@gmail.com.
“Nathan was proud of his job and serving our country,” Vanessa Beyers said in a statement. “He died doing something he loved and was such a brave person. We just had our first child, and Nathan had a chance to visit us when he was home on leave in January. I told him I knew he was going to be a wonderful father. We are going to miss him.”
They were there…
The 116th Cavalry Heavy Brigade Combat Team was on a yearlong mobilization and deployment to Iraq as part of Operation New Dawn. The unit fielded 2,700 soldiers from Idaho, Montana and Oregon. The 145th Brigade Support Battalion was part of it.
GOOGLE IMAGES Route between Victory Base Complex and International Zone, formerly the “Green Zone” in Baghdad
GOOGLE IMAGES U.S. Army convoy in Iraq during Operation New Dawn
GOOGLE IMAGES SPC Nick W. Newby of Coeur d’Alene, KIA July 7, 2011
GOOGLE IMAGES Specialist Nick W. Newby
SHAWN GUST/Press file Idaho Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jason Rzepa listens to an awards ceremony emcee after being awarded with a Purple Heart on Thursday, October, 28, 2011 at Red Lion Templins Hotel in Post Falls. Rzepa lost his legs after an improvised explosive device attack in Baghdad, Iraq on July 7, 2011.
PHOTO COURTESY DAILY CAMERA Sergeant Nathan Beyers, wife Vanessa and baby Ella
U.S. NAVY PHOTO Armored U.S. Army Humvee in Iraq