May 3, 1:31 PM EDT
Salvadoran Army Cited for Heroism in Iraq
By DENIS D. GRAY
Associated Press Writer
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- One of his friends was dead, 12 others lay wounded and the four soldiers still left standing were surrounded and out of ammunition. So Salvadoran Cpl. Samuel Toloza said a prayer, whipped out his switchblade knife and charged the Iraqi gunmen.
In one of the only known instances of hand-to-hand combat in the Iraq conflict, Toloza stabbed several attackers who were swarming around a comrade. The stunned assailants backed away momentarily, just as a relief column came to their rescue.
"We never considered surrender. I was trained to fight until the end," said the 25-year-old Toloza, one of 380 El Salvador soldiers whose heroism is being cited just as criticism is leveled against other members of the multinational force in Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently the Central American unit has "gained a fantastic reputation among the coalition" and expressed hope that they will stay beyond their scheduled departure.
Phil Kosnett, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority in this holy shi'ite city, says he owes his life to Salvadorans who repelled a well-executed insurgent attack on his three-car convoy in March. He's nominated six of them for the U.S. Army's Bronze Star medal.
"You hear this snotty phrase `coalition of the billing' for some of the smaller contingents," says Kosnett, referring to the apparent eagerness of some nations to charge their Iraq operations to Washington. "The El Sals? No way. These guys are punching way above their weight. They're probably the bravest and most professional troops I've ever worked with."
The Salvadorans are eager to stress their role as peacekeepers rather than warriors, perhaps with an eye to public opinion back home. Masked protesters last week seized the cathedral in the capital of San Salvador, demanding that President-elect Tony Saca pull the troops out of Iraq.
Saca, who takes office June 1, has said he will leave the unit in Iraq until August as planned, despite the early departure of the Spanish troops under which they were serving. The other three Central American contingents - from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras - have already returned home or are scheduled to do so soon.
"We didn't come here to fire a single shot. Our rifles were just part of our equipment and uniforms. But we were prepared to repel an attack," says Col. Hugo Omar Orellana Calidonio, a 27-year army veteran who commands the Cuscatlan Battalion.
The troops, El Salvador's first peacekeepers abroad, conducted a wide range of humanitarian missions in Najaf. They provided books, electricity, playground equipment and other supplies to destitute schools and helped farmers with irrigation works and fertilizer supplies.
"Our country came out of a similar situation as in Iraq 12 years ago, so people in El Salvador can understand what is happening here," said Calidonio, referring to a civil war between the U.S.-backed government and leftist guerrillas that left some 75,000 dead. The military was held responsible for widespread abuses.
"We came here to help and we were helping. Our relationship with the people was excellent. They were happy with what we were doing," Calidonio says.
Then came April 4, when armed followers of radical shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized virtual control of the city and staged attacks on two camps - Baker and Golf - adjacent bases on the fringes of Najaf occupied by the Salvadoran and Spanish units.
When Toloza and 16 other soldiers arrived that morning at a low-walled compound of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, about 1.2 miles from their camp, they found its 350 occupants had melted away and themselves trapped by al-Sadr's al-Mahdi militia.
Lt. Col. Francisco Flores, the battalion's operations officer, said the surrounded soldiers held their fire for nearly half an hour, fearful of inflicting civilian casualties, even as 10 of their number were wounded by rocket-propelled grenades and bullets from assault rifles and machine guns.
After several hours of combat, the besieged unit ran out of ammunition, having come with only 300 rounds for each of their M-16 rifles. Pvt. Natividad Mendez, Toloza's friend for three years, lay dead, riddled by two bullets probably fired by a sniper. Two more were wounded as the close-quarters fighting intensified.
"I thought, `This is the end.' But at the same time I asked the Lord to protect and save me," Toloza recalled.
The wounded were placed on a truck while Toloza and the three other soldiers moved on the ground, trying to make their way back to the base. They were soon confronted with al-Sadr's fighters, about 10 of whom tried to seize one of the soldiers.
"My immediate reaction was that I had to defend my friend, and the only thing I had in my hands was a knife," Toloza said.
As reinforcements arrived to save Toloza's unit, the two camps were under attack, with the El Salvadorans and a small U.S. contingent of soldiers and civilian security personnel trying to protect the perimeter and retake an adjoining seven-story hospital captured by the insurgents.
The Spanish didn't fight, and only after a long delay agreed to send out their armored vehicles to help evacuate the wounded. Flores says he cannot question the Spanish decisions that day, but with a slightly sardonic smile adds that they "could have helped us sooner."
U.S. troops have now replaced the Spanish. Salvadoran officers, many of whom were trained at military schools in the United States, say they're pleased to be working with the Americans.
here is the pic:
if someone would post with html, just enclose this in the less than/greater than symbols
P.S... great thing about this story is that the guy wasn't exactly using an expensive knife but he REALLY KICKED ASS WITH IT!
Great story. Like Hoot said in "Black Hawk Down", "it all comes down to the guy next to you."
If that's the knife, it's not switch-blade but a lock-blade that most fishers, hikers, etc. carry around.
lol, that could very well be an automatic or
switchblade. A whole hell of a lot of auto knives do
not look like the classic Italian stilleto and you can
not even tell they are auto's untill you try and open
Interesting - I didn't realize that.
Anyway, I find it interesting that he used that instead of a bayonet or fighting knife. Did those troops not have those?
Bayonets, no and that apparently is his fighting
knife. Google micro-tech, bencmade, protech
dalton for some cool autos.
So what the fuck were those Iraqis packing if they got done over by one bloke with a 3" blade????
They weren't done over.
They were dismayed (at being stabbed) and then the cavalry arrived.
I'm assuming "done over" is Brit-speak for chopped into catsmeat.