By Staff Sgt. Patrick Caldwell Death hovered behind a car window packed with figurines and Teddy Bears on a tract of Iraqi road with no name.
Sgt. Victor Pamplona, a Maui, Hawaii, native and a soldier from Golf Company, 145th Brigade Support Battalion, stationed at Joint Base Balad with 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, 77th Sustainment Brigade, 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, spotted death first but did not recognize it.
As he sat behind the wheel of an armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle on a convoy security mission, Pamplona noticed only a dark blue or black, four-door sedan parked on the side of the road near a checkpoint.
?Then two dump trucks passed and blocked my vision,? Pamplona said.
Inside the MRAP, the other two members of Pamplona?s crew ? the gunner, Spc. Chad Mitschelen, 26, a Pocatello, Idaho, native and the truck commander, Sgt. Juan Montelongo, also of Pocatello ? suddenly recognized the sedan.
All three MRAP crew members were instantly alert.
?We rolled toward the check point,? Pamplona said.
Pamplona told Mitschelen and Montelongo to look at the car. Something wasn?t right. Up in the gunner?s turret, Mitschelen was turning to look at the car. He saw the back window of the vehicle.
?There were four or five, 4-inch-tall figurines and stuffed animals,? he said.
Mitschelen grabbed the edge of his turret to get a better view. Below Mitschelen, Pamplona negotiated the big MRAP toward the nearby checkpoint. He pointed at the vehicle on the side of the road.
Montelongo turned and looked straight at the vehicle.
Then the world exploded.
As the MRAP maneuvered past the parked vehicle, someone triggered a massive bomb buried inside the metal of the sedan. In a matter of milliseconds, the MRAP was engulfed in orange flames and riddled with shards of metal and glass from the exploding car.
?There was a big fireball. It shook the MRAP,? Pamplona said.
Above the MRAP cab, Mitschelen said he felt the blast throw him back against the metal of the turret.
?I dropped down. At first, I thought I was OK,? he said.
Then he realized he was hurt.
?My face and hand were burning,? he said.
The blast tossed the big metal hood of the MRAP up across the front windows. The hood blocked Pamplona?s view. Montelongo told Pamplona to keep going.
The MRAP had power, and he could steer, so Pamplona guided the big rig down the road by feel, rather than sight, until they were far away from the blast area.
When the MRAP stopped, Pamplona and Montelongo began to help Mitschelen. Both men said it was obvious Mitschelen was injured, but they were not sure at first how bad his wounds were.
?I thought it was serious sunburn,? Montelongo said.
Mitschelen’s wounds proved to be non-life threatening.
In the aftermath of the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device ambush, all three crew members said two things were apparent: Their training was invaluable, and the MRAP is a sturdy, dependable and life-saving vehicle. Death did not win on this day, the crew said, because of pre-deployment education and U.S. mechanical know-how.
?The MRAPs do the job,? Montelongo said.
Pamplona recalled the incident through a theological lens.
?The Lord had something else planned for me,? he said regarding his survival.
While Mitschelen lauded his training and the sturdiness of the MRAP, he also said there was another reason he and his crew escaped the car bomb relatively unharmed.
?I felt my aunt Crissy and my baby brother Jeremy were watching over me,? he said.
Montelongo was more straightforward about why his crew made it through the attack.
?Our training paid off. It might be a pain when you are doing it, but it pays off,? he said.