Sonja Ruhren vividly recalls that morning 16 years ago. Just days before Christmas, she heard someone pull into her driveway and then knock on her door. A pair of uniformed troops stood on her front porch in Stafford, Virginia. One was a chaplain. Confused, she invited them in out of the cold. They appeared painfully uncomfortable. It took them a while to finally explain why they were there. They had come to talk to her about her only child, Davey, her best friend, her “Golden Boy,” the sensitive, generous, forgiving son with green eyes she raised as a single mother. He was gone. Killed in Iraq.
Smoldering with red hot rage, she ordered the troops out of her house. Her anger with the U.S. military gave way to grief in the days that followed, sorrow so suffocating that just summoning the will to climb out of bed in the morning became a struggle. The day she lost Davey, Dec. 21, can be especially painful each year.
“Sometimes, December 21 comes and I am numb. It doesn’t register with me,” she told me. “And then sometimes it comes and it just takes the wind out of me — it completely just knocks me on the ground. And there are times when December 21 comes and I am OK, but then the next day it slaps me really, really hard. Really hard.”
On that day in 2004, a suicide bomber infiltrated a sprawling U.S. military base in northern Iraq, walked into the bustling mess tent there at the busiest part of lunchtime and detonated his explosives. The deafening blast killed 23 people. Among the dead were the bomber, Ruhren’s son, 13 other U.S. troops, four civilian contractors and four Iraqi soldiers. Dozens of others were injured.
The bombing at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul was the single deadliest attack on a U.S. military installation during the war in Iraq, according to icasualties.org, which tracks troop fatalities. It made headlines around the world. On the day of the bombing, President George W. Bush trained his focus on grieving loved ones like Sonja Ruhren, telling reporters: “We pray for them. We send our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones who suffer today.”
I narrowly survived the attack.
A journalist embedded with Virginia National Guardsmen at the time, I was ordering lunch from a pasta bar inside the tent when the suicide bomber struck. I stood about 50 paces from the center of the explosion. As I wrote an essay last year for The War Horse about my experience, I began digging for information about the suicide bomber’s identity, who supported him and how he got onto the base. Since then, I have obtained more than 500 pages of U.S. Army records through the Freedom of Information Act. Despite being heavily redacted and missing attachments, the records provide the clearest picture yet of what happened.
The records — which include eyewitness accounts, photos of evidence collected from the site of the explosion and crime lab reports — name the attacker and describe the type of bomb he used. They quote a captured member of a terrorist group who said the suicide bomber got help from people working at Marez. And they reveal security lapses at the base that the bomber could have exploited.
Today, survivors are still healing from the visible and invisible wounds they sustained in the sneak attack, afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and nightmares. Some have joined Ruhren in suing the Iranian government, accusing it of supporting the Islamic terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attack, Ansar al-Sunna, also known as Ansar al-Islam.
That group has remained a threat in Iraq. So has Iran. In October of last year, Ansar al-Islam reemerged and claimed it was behind an improvised explosive device attack on Iraqi paramilitary forces in the country’s Diyala province. Three months later, more than 100 U.S. troops sustained traumatic brain injuries from an Iranian missile attack on Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. The attack was retaliation for the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad, Qassim Suleimani. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned this year the U.S. might close its embassy in Baghdad because of persistent rocket attacks from Iranian-backed militias.
Years ago, Ruhren received a thick stack of documents from the military about what happened at Marez. To avoid more anger and negativity, she has refused to read the records, though she has learned from veterans of her son’s unit about gaps in security that existed at the base.
“I have been hearing so many things throughout the years of what happened that day and how things could have been prevented,” she said. “If I read in there the same things that I actually heard happened, I don’t know what I would do because, from what I understand, it could have been prevented. All of it could have been prevented. Every bit of it.”
‘I just noticed a flame that pushed out from his body’
The war was still raging in Iraq the year the suicide bomber struck, though President Bush had declared “major combat operations” had ended the year before beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” Things were getting worse by the day. In March of 2004, four American security contractors were ambushed and killed in Fallujah. Their bodies were mutilated and some were hanged from a bridge spanning the Euphrates River. About 12 miles away, five American troops were killed by a massive roadside bomb that same day. By the fall of 2004, more than 1,000 U.S. troops had died in Iraq. Amid the Second Battle of Fallujah, insurgents — perhaps some who fled the fighting — stormed police stations in Mosul and stole guns, ammunition and body armor.
One of Iraq’s largest cities, Mosul straddles the Tigris River and features the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh as well as the site that was believed to be the tomb of Jonah, the biblical prophet. In 2004, terrorists associated with Al Qaeda in Iraq and former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime were active in the region. Insurgent attacks rose dramatically in Mosul that year as part of an intimidation campaign that prompted many Iraqis to leave their military units without permission and quit their civilian jobs at U.S. bases. Between November and December of 2004, 212 bodies were found in Mosul. Among them were 36 sets of remains from Iraqi security forces, all of them victims of execution-style murders. Improvised explosive devices, car bombs, snipers, mortar attacks and small arms fire claimed the lives of 26 U.S. troops in and around Mosul by early December of that year.
Military leaders had moved a Stryker battalion out of the Mosul region to fight elsewhere and to serve as a reserve force in the Baghdad area. But as conditions worsened, they reversed course in November 2004 and returned the unit to Mosul. Reinforcements arrived by December. By then, more than 4,000 U.S. troops, allies, civilian contractors and Iraqi soldiers and others occupied Forward Operating Base Marez, a huge military installation on the southern edge of Mosul. Originally the site of the Iraqi Republican Guard’s Fifth Corps headquarters, it encompassed a graveyard of Iraqi tanks as well as more than 300 buildings and other structures, including the ruins of an ancient Christian monastery, St. Elijah, or Dair Mar Elia. The base’s perimeter stretched for miles. U.S. troops trained Iraqi soldiers at Marez.
The base featured a massive white canvas tent the troops called a “DFAC,” or dining facility. Built with a steel frame atop a gray concrete floor, it operated like a school cafeteria with long lines of diners filing past warming trays full of burgers, chicken fingers and fries. U.S. and Iraqi troops ate together in a spacious seating area near salad and pasta bars. Several television sets inside were perpetually tuned to sporting events. For Christmas, the tent was decorated with red and green bunting and pictures of Santa Claus and his reindeer. Insurgents repeatedly targeted the mess tent with mortars as workers built a new concrete-and-steel dining hall just down the road.
On assignment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, photographer Dean Hoffmeyer and I traveled to Marez that year to report on the Virginia National Guard’s 276th Engineer Battalion. On Dec. 21, we decided to get lunch in the mess tent on our way to report on an Iraqi contractor who was painting portraits of American soldiers stationed at Marez. The mess tent was full of troops that day, including Nicholas Mason and David Ruhren. They both wrestled in high school and joined the Virginia National Guard partly in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Mason and Ruhren, who had grown close serving at Marez, were gathering food for a long mission ahead. A fellow Virginia Guardsman and a former Marine corporal, Mark Pratt was also there, sitting near the food serving line. He spotted Mason and Ruhren and was preparing to get up and say hello to them.
Around noon, I left Dean in the main serving line and walked through the crowded seating area where the suicide bomber would detonate his explosives moments later. I had just ordered a plate of pasta and was about to head back to the seating area when the explosion radiated through my body. I spun around and saw a towering fireball burst through the top of the tent. Sunlight streamed through the gaping hole the blast tore through the ceiling. The explosion knocked troops out of their seats, leaving the floor strewn with bodies, half-eaten food and kitchen utensils. Medics, civilian contractors and Iraqi troops bravely rushed to the aid of their wounded comrades. They transformed overturned tables into stretchers and triaged the injured just outside the entrance. I was struck by their composure and quick-thinking actions.
At the military hospital near the Mosul airfield, patients were treated for burns, shrapnel wounds and damage to their eyes. Initially, the military speculated the blast came from a rocket or mortar round. At a palace in Mosul that evening, I interviewed the commander of U.S. forces in the region, then-Brig. Gen. Carter Ham. He led Task Force Olympia, a unit built around a Stryker brigade combat team. His unit took over securing the area from the 101st Airborne Division in February of that year. I remember tears welled in Ham’s eyes as he said the explosion could have come from a planted bomb.
“This is the worst day of my life,” he said. “It’s times like these when [our troops] really come shining through.” His voice was thick with emotion. “This hurts,” he added, “this really hurts.”
Investigators would ultimately conclude the explosion came from a suicide bomber who packed his explosives with ball bearings, some of which were recovered from the bodies of fallen U.S. troops. Fragments of fabric recovered from the scene bore a substance commonly used as an ingredient in plastic explosives. Investigators found parts of a 9-volt battery insurgents often use to power roadside bombs. They found a piece of copper resembling a part of a blasting cap. They also recovered pieces of reinforced canvas consistent with material they had seen in suicide bomb vests.
The U.S. military appointed then-Brig. Gen. Richard Formica, the commander of III Corps Artillery, to investigate what happened. In the 52-page report he wrote about the suicide bombing, Formica reported someone had stolen plastic explosives — possibly the same kind used in the attack — from Marez less than two months earlier. Seven days after the attack, investigators found five breaches in the 1980s-era fence surrounding the southern part of the base where the explosives could have been smuggled in. Four of the breaches were deliberately cut and one appeared to be caused by a vehicle crashing inside the base. People could have crawled under other parts of the fence. Formica also found that no one was keeping track of who was entering the dining facility on the day of the attack, though the base had previously assigned people to do that job, in keeping with military accounting procedures. The suicide bomber likely wore an Iraqi army uniform, Formica wrote, and could have gotten onto the base with a visitor badge.
“While I cannot say with certainty how the perpetrator gained access to FOB Marez, the areas covered in this report were contributing factors, either separately or in combination, which set the conditions that allowed the perpetrator both access to FOB Marez and [the] DFAC,” he wrote.
He added: “FOB Marez is a large base and difficult to secure. It had essential force protection systems in place, however, there were seams in execution that could be exploited.”
Also among the records I obtained are U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command reports. They say an interpreter who worked at the base told military investigators he saw an Iraqi guard give a local Iraqi man a set of body armor at a gate the day before the bombing. The guard, the interpreter said, escorted the same man through that gate the day of the bombing and ensured he bypassed American guards and “bomb dogs.” Iraqi soldiers told investigators they saw a man in an Iraqi regular army uniform entering the chow hall with three Iraqi National Guardsmen. The man stood out to them because he lacked a helmet and body armor.
A U.S. soldier who survived the attack told Formica a comrade who was killed by the blast noticed someone of interest in the mess tent and mentioned there must have been new Iraqi uniform standards, indicating that person’s appearance stood out to him. A pair of civilian KBR workers — their names are redacted from the records — told investigators at Fort Hood, Texas, they noticed there were fewer Iraqi troops than usual in the mess tent that day. One said he saw the suicide bomber in the moments before the explosion. The attacker, he said, stood about five feet, six inches tall, weighed 150 pounds, was of Middle Eastern descent and wore a military uniform with a jacket.
“I saw his right hand move up parallel with his shoulder and then the blast occurred,” the contractor told investigators. “I just noticed a flame that pushed out from his body.”
The captive’s confession
Two weeks after the attack, the Associated Press reported that an Arabic newspaper identified the suicide bomber as a 20-year-old Saudi medical student named Ahmed Said Ahmed Ghamdi. The Saudi-owned newspaper, according to the AP, cited unidentified friends of the man’s father, who refused to discuss the bombing.
The records I obtained from the U.S. military identify someone else as the bomber and say he got help from Iraqi guards working at the base. Those details come from a lengthy statement given in 2005 by Muhammad Amir Husayn Mari, a captured member of Ansar al-Sunna. Mari identified the suicide bomber as a Saudi named Abu Umar Al Shammari and said two people — their names are redacted from the records — “made an agreement with the Iraqi guards at the entrance of the camp and they told me that they borrowed a uniform from one of the guards.” Mari indicated Al Shammari wore the uniform over his suicide bomb vest, adding “the guards made it easy for him to cross” into the base.
Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the bombing and then released a video purporting to show the attack. Also called Ansar al-Islam, the group formed in 2001 through a merger of several Kurdish Islamist groups, had close ties with Al Qaeda and was bent on overthrowing the Iraqi government and expelling U.S. troops, according to the Mapping Militants Organizations project at Stanford University. The U.S. government designated the group a terrorist organization in 2003. Shortly after U.S. troops invaded Iraq, a majority of the group’s members were captured or killed. Some fled to Iran, where they regrouped and operated under new leadership. Though Iran has denied having ties to Ansar al-Islam, according to Mapping Militants Organizations, it harbored the group and provided a safe route for fighters to enter Iraq and join it.
Mari told his captors that he was the one pointing a bayonet at a map in the opening scene of the short film Ansar al-Sunna released about the suicide bombing. Next, Mari said, he appears among three masked men — dressed in black — who embrace in the video. One of them reads a statement, declaring: “The lion will proceed to his target, and he will take advantage of lunchtime when the dining hall is crowded with crusaders and their Iraqi allies. The operation will then be carried out.” A large white tent that resembles the mess hall at Marez is filmed from a long distance. An explosion bursts through the top of it, sending a dark mushroom cloud of smoke into the air. In the final scene, someone driving down a road near the tent films a large hole left by the blast.
After analyzing the terrain in the video and the time-delay for the sound of the explosion, the U.S. military identified the buildings in Mosul where the video was likely filmed. Six days after the bombing, U.S. troops raided that location, detained 16 people and found a camera. The records do not say whether Mari was among those captured that day. Born in Mosul, he worked as a computer officer in a tailoring factory before becoming a propagandist — he called himself a “media emir” — who created booklets and flyers for Ansar al-Sunna. He told his captors he was bent on “throwing [out] the American crusaders and occupiers” and punishing “the Iraqi spies who cooperate with the Americans.” Ansar al-Sunna raised money for its activities by ransoming hostages and collecting donations from Mosul residents, Mari added.
Mari said he regretted his actions and asked to be freed. Instead, he was accused of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy in connection with the suicide bombing. He was convicted in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq — set up by the U.S.-led coalition provisional authority — and sentenced to death.
Formica and Ham declined to be interviewed for this article and did not respond to questions emailed to them. The Pentagon also did not respond to emailed questions about the security gaps at Marez, the suicide bomber’s identity, where he got his explosives, how he infiltrated the base and what lessons the U.S. military learned from the attack.
Nick and Davey
The suicide bombing killed a sergeant major serving in a Special Forces unit, four Army National Guardsmen, an Army Reservist, a Navy Seabee and seven soldiers, including a captain. Ranging in age from 20 to 47, they served in units based in Louisiana, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. Some had wives and young children.
Both 20, Nicholas Mason and David Ruhren were among those killed. Mason, who went by Nick, graduated from King George High School and served in the local volunteer fire department. He had just finished his freshman year at Virginia Tech and was interested in training to become a “sapper,” an elite Army combat engineer. Fun-loving, he often wore a grin that signaled he had gotten away with something mischievous, said his father, Vic Mason. He could easily talk himself out of trouble, his father added, and it was hard for people to stay mad at him. For his high school prom, Nick made a tuxedo out of silver duct tape. It weighed about 30 pounds. At his memorial service, mourners wore ribbons made of the same kind of tape. Nick’s middle name, Conan, came from the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, “Conan the Barbarian.” He lived up to that name, his father said, “just being a warrior in whatever he did, whether it was in the military or wrestling. When he set his mind to it, it was going to be hard to keep him from doing it.” Fellow troops credited him with helping save their lives in Iraq by welding heavy armor onto their vehicles.
An only child, Ruhren was deeply protective of his mother, Sonja. She remembers him as a young boy bringing her Band-Aids whenever she had minor injuries. He would fetch her a blanket and make her rest on the couch when she was sick. Nicknamed Davey, he had a heart for the underdog. As a boy, he brought home vulnerable animals he worried would not survive on their own: Baby fish, baby turtles, baby frogs. He once brought home a baby catfish and put it in his aquarium, where it promptly ate his tropical fish and eventually grew a foot long. His mother released it in Lake Arrowhead after Davey died. Her son played football and joined the ROTC at Gar-field High School in Prince William County, Virginia. He took classes to become an emergency medical technician, though he dreamed of working as a police officer or a child psychologist. When he came home for Thanksgiving in 2004, his mother said, Davey seemed subdued. He told her he worried about his fellow troops in Iraq because he was not there to protect them. He was known as the best .50-caliber machine gunner in his battalion.
Sonja Ruhren and Vic Mason told me they hope the U.S. military has learned lessons from the suicide bombing and made changes that will save lives.
“There were certainly some security lapses and it is something I hope they have corrected and that they keep correcting,” Mason said. “With the terrorist groups out there, you cannot get lax. You can’t get lax because at any time it could be another 9/11. It could be another bombing in Mosul. It could be anything.”
Some soldiers who survived the suicide bombing are still struggling today. Mark Pratt, 55, of Gloucester, Virginia, was blown out of his chair and knocked unconscious by the explosion just as he was about to say hello to Davey and Nick. Medically retired from the military as a sergeant first class, the former Virginia Guardsman suffers from a back injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury caused by the blast. His wife quit her civilian job in the Virginia National Guard to care for him.
“I still have nightmares about it,” he told me about surviving the suicide bombing. “I don’t go out in crowded places. I don’t like being around people. Loud noises startle me. I still have flashbacks.”
Pratt has joined other veterans who were injured in the suicide bombing in suing the Iranian government, alleging it supported Ansar al-Sunna. Pratt and Sonja Ruhren, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, want an apology from those who were behind the suicide bombing at Marez. The Iranian government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Ruhren’s and Mason’s families — they have drawn grown close and supported each other amid their grief — have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help needy veterans and to fund scholarships for students at Gar-field and King George high schools. Davey and Nick, their parents said, live on through this charitable work. Both were posthumously promoted to sergeant and presented with Purple Hearts. A National Guard readiness center in Fredericksburg was renamed after them. Their families gathered at the armory with veterans from their unit on Dec. 21 of last year and released dozens of red balloons. Red was Davey’s favorite color. Some heart-shaped, the balloons floated up past an American flag posted in front of the armory, scattered and then faded into the distance.
Among those killed in the Dec. 21, 2004, suicide bombing at Forward Operating Base Marez were:
Army Pfc. Lionel Ayro, 22, of Jeanerette, Louisiana.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Joel E. Baldwin, 37, of Arlington, Virginia.
Army Spc. Jonathan Castro, 21, of Corona, California.
Army Spc. Thomas J. Dostie, 20, of Somerville, Maine.
Army Spc. Cory M. Hewitt, 26, of Stewart, Tennessee.
Army Capt. William W. Jacobsen Jr., 31, of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert S. Johnson, 23, of Castro Valley, California.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul D. Karpowich, 30, of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.
Army Spc. Nicholas C. Mason, 20, of King George, Virginia.
Army Staff Sgt. Julian S. Melo, 47, of Brooklyn, New York.
Army Sgt. Maj. Robert D. Odell, 38, of Manassas, Virginia.
Army Sgt. Lynn R. Poulin Sr., 47, of Freedom, Maine.
Army Spc. David A. Ruhren, 20, of Stafford, Virginia.
Army Staff Sgt. Darren D. VanKomen, 33, of Bluefield, West Virginia.
Leslie W. Davis, 53, of Magnolia, Texas.
Brett A. Hunter, 29, of Chickasaw, Alabama.
Allen Smith, 45, of Rosharon, Texas.
Anthony M. Stramiello Jr., 61, of Astoria, Oregon.
Iraqi Army Chief Warrant Officer Majdee Yousef Aziz
Iraqi National Guardsman Sherzad Kamo Bro
Iraqi Army 1st Lt. Mushtag Satar Jabar
Iraqi Army Sgt. Ahmad Hashem Mahdi
Jeremy Redmon writes about the military and veterans for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and teaches journalism at Kennesaw State University. He embedded with U.S. troops during three trips to Iraq between 2004-2006. Follow him on Twitter at @JeremyLRedmon
Feature photo: Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch/Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra