At 100 feet over the Iraqi desert, Julio "Tomas" Santos' helicopter started taking ground fire as he and his fellow soldiers tried to make their way to Camp Bushmaster to resupply a division of attack helicopters. The hostile fire came out of nowhere, causing two of the three Chinook helicopters to drop their loads and head back.
Although Santos received a medal for the way he and his comrades responded to the attack, he doesn't remember what the medal was called. What he does remember was the bullets flying by.
"On our way up there, it was a little foggy," Santos said. "We saw little puffs of black smoke. There must have been 20 to 30 of these guys shooting AKs [AK-47 semiautomatic rifles], RPGs [rocket propelled grenades]. An RPG hit my friend's aircraft. A bullet hit a sergeant right in the face, blood was all over. We were only a hundred-something feet off the ground."
This was only one of the battle experiences Santos, West Springfield alumni Class of 1996, remembered. Santos' unit, F Company of the 159th Army Aviation, transferred from its base in Germany to Iraq in February 2003 and has been facing death ever since.
While two of the helicopters dropped their load that day, the other one made it to Bushmaster, though their radios were out and they had no way of knowing. When the three helicopter crews reunited, it was a joyous occasion, Santos remembered.
"We were hugging each other. It was intense," he said.
On another occasion, the soldiers received intelligence about the whereabouts of Baath Party members in a neighborhood. Santos' helicopter was among a team sent in to capture the father and his two sons in an operation called "Operation Longstreet." The Iraqis heard the helicopters coming and wanted to watch, like it was a soccer match.
"They were setting up chairs in the front of the house," before the capture, he said.
Santos returned from Iraq in December on the way to his new position in a special operations unit in Georgia. He signed up for three more years in the Army while in Iraq. Although he has gotten few details about his new job, he feels a return to Iraq will be part of the plans.
While at home in Springfield, Santos shared his pictures, stories and a video he shot around Iraq. Family members have been following the situation in Iraq carefully. Santos' mother, Donna Flannigan, is nervous about the war and her son's new assignment.
"It's going to be more dangerous. I wasn't keen on that," she said. "They all lost so much weight. He came home 30 pounds less."
Santos’ younger sister, Mary Santos, 16, is a sophomore at West Springfield. For history class one day, she brought in a few of her brother’s letters for the class.
"They enjoyed it. She [Mrs. Hinds, teacher] was really interested," Mary said.
THE "OFFICIAL" war lasted until about May, when combat was over, according to President Bush, and the rebuilding was starting. But Santos said the action became more frequent.
"Once the war was over, they started coming out of the woodwork," he said.
Santos' videos showed his airbase about 20 miles south of Baghdad, where the base gets mortared just about every night. Still in their pajamas, the soldiers jump out of their cots, throw on helmets and flack jackets. The mortar sounds could be heard in the background of the video, and one man on the video was only in shorts and a helmet.
"You got a flak jacket or something?" the soldier asked.
During a mortar attack, they all get in "the haas," pronounced HAS, which is an Iraqi structure that was already at their airfield.
"It's a big cement hangar," Santos said. "We go jump in there. That's where they kept their MIGs." MIGs are Russian-made fighter airplanes that were used by Iraqi forces.
Santos did not videotape everything, though. There were shots of the inside of the Chinook with combat troops sitting on the floor, on their way to a battle; shots of helicopters picking up supplies; C-5 transport planes taking off; and one of the helicopters after it was hit by a mortar. When the heat's on, Santos does his job or runs for cover — he leaves the video camera behind.
"All I need is to get hit in the leg or something and I have a camera in my hand," he said.
Santos was aware that death was all around while he was in Iraq. An Illinois National Guard unit was killed when its helicopter was hit, while it was taking them to R&R, military for "rest and recuperation." They had been in the tent right next to Santos.
"Those guys were staying at a tent next to ours. A Stinger missile hit them," he said.
ONE THING SANTOS didn't capture on video was a soccer game the aviators had against a local Iraqi team. Santos was playing and couldn't video the action. The event stuck out in his mind.
"We played an Iraqi team," he said. "It was an awesome game. One of the Iraqis saw us playing soccer and said he had a team. Some of the guys were playing with no shoes, they took that game serious."
The game ended in a tie, which Santos was happy about. Another thing he didn't capture on video was an experience with television journalist Geraldo Riverra. Santos acted on a dare from another soldier and nudged Riverra with his boot.
"He was sleeping under an airplane," Santos said.
Last spring while the was war on, the soldiers listened to the news on a little portable radio to find out what was going on. When Saddam Hussein was captured recently, it was a big thing for the soldiers and Iraqis.
"I think there is progress being made," Santos said. "I felt like we actually did something good."
But the reaction among the Iraqis, Santos felt, was different once Hussein was captured.
"I think they expected us to leave," he said.
Another bright spot on Santos' Iraqi tour was that he was stationed at the same base as his fiancee, Christina Cossett. She's from Wyoming, and they met while in the Army. Their wedding day is set for Aug. 14, 2004. They have reserved the Church of the Nativity in Burke for the occasion.
"We're all really excited," Flannigan said.
Cossett's Army career will end soon, and she will join Santos in Georgia.