Unsung heroes have a thousand faces

Posted: Nov 26, 2003 12:00 AM

We've been hearing a lot about heroes these days. You know The Name. But there are lots of others - people who have performed heroically - whose names you don't know.

Here's one. Cpl. Will Bachmann, a 22-year-old Marine from Belvidere, N.J. Bachmann is one of the quiet heroes. Just a Marine, just a guy doing his job. I spoke to him by phone at Camp Lejeune a few days before he was shipping off to Afghanistan after already having served a tour of duty in Iraq.

Bachmann doesn't know where he's going exactly, doesn't even wonder much. He's learned, especially after that day in Nasiriyah, not to speculate, not to entertain expectations, never to waste time musing over what might be or might have been.

"I don't make assumptions about anything until it happens," he says.

Nasiriyah. There's another name we've all come to know. It was in Nasiriyah where Jessica Lynch's company got lost, where her gun jammed, where she was captured and won America's swift heart.

The date was March 23, the same day Bachmann's company along with two others came into Nasiriyah to secure two bridges, one to the south and one to the north of the city.

Little did they know that they would be under fire from morning well into the night. Bachmann's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, lost 18 men that day in the United States' deadliest battle of the war. Numerous others were injured - 15 by some reports - though Bachmann can't say for certain.

"There were too many and everything went too fast."

To a parent like me, Bachmann is a kid. Yet to talk to him is to hear the voice of an elder, one who has seen everything and learned to take nothing for granted. He is heartbreakingly earnest and stoic as he describes what happened that day. His deadpan delivery of "just the facts" makes "Dragnet's" Sgt. Joe Friday seem animated.

I find myself almost wanting him to speak of how terrified he was when the RPG (rocket propelled grenade) tore through the side of his "track," nickname for his amphibious assault vehicle, and left his squad leader's leg hanging by a tendon.

As Bachmann recounts the tale of his body half in and half out of the track, taking fire from all sides, I listen for panic and uncertainty. He's all business, all Marine, all about the job. He was unaware of men crying out in pain, he says. Between the track's engine and the shooting, he couldn't hear them.

Bachmann joined the Marine Corps right out of high school in July 2000 at age 19. "It was something I wanted to do since I was little," he says.

In January 2003, he was on his way to Iraq. Three months later, he was in the fight of his life, one he had trained for and which was, he says, strangely exciting. It was a nice day, sunny, late morning.

I asked Bachmann if it's not a little odd to be engaged in battle on a beautiful, sunny day. "I didn't think about it," he reports.

The Iraqis turned on the heat as soon as the Marines reached the southern bridge, unprotected by the tanks that had been diverted to rescue the 507th Maintenance Company to which Lynch belonged. The fire didn't stop until well after they reached the northern bridge, Charlie Company's destination.

Their track had been burning the whole journey through the city and the men were ordered to bail as soon as they reached the northern bridge. Because the rear ramp wouldn't drop down, they had only one small opening on the top of the track to exit.

Bachmann remembers jumping into the guts of the vehicle to help lift out the wounded. He was the last man out before the track burst into flames. "It was like a house burning, it was so big."

The March 23 battle of Nasiriyah no doubt will be a blockbuster movie someday, the names of those who fought and died transferred to celebrity faces. In the meantime, Bachmann is like so many other nameless, faceless Marines who do their jobs without expectation of reward or envy of those who win acclaim.

Asked about Lynch's extraordinary homecoming as a hero, Bachmann demurs.

"I don't think much about it," he says. "I know what I did."