Kathryn Van Auken
U.S. Army Reserve / Bronze Star with Valor
Their convoy ambushed by insurgents, they took charge and prevented loss of life
Capt. Lauralee Flannery heard the boom and through her rearview mirror saw the mushroom cloud of black smoke and a thick hail of concrete, glass and rock come crashing down on the Kuwaiti vehicles. Dead in the water, she thought.
Amid the screams, smoke and chaos that day in 2004 on an Iraqi highway outside of Karbala, Flannery and Maj. Kate Van Auken had no time to contemplate their good fortune ¬– their vehicle had not been hit.
The pair, Army Reserve officers, jumped out of their SUV and ran after the Kuwaiti civilian scientists whose vehicles had been hit by a daisy chain of roadside bombs. Bleeding, disoriented and covered with sand and dirt, the Kuwaitis were climbing out of what was left of their SUVs and wandering off the causeway into the desert.
“A couple of them were on the side of the road throwing up just from the shock,” Van Auken recalled. “Some went off to pray. We wanted to keep them in front of the vehicles. It was dangerous to go off the road; it could be mined out there.”
Coaxing them back to convoy vehicles was not easy – Van Auken and Flannery spoke little Arabic, and the Kuwaitis understood only a bit of English. Adding to the confusion was the language barrier between them and the Polish soldiers and Thai engineers who were trying to help. The air reeked of sulfur – a kind of rotten-egg smell that the wind carried from the craters where the explosives had detonated.
Crowds of locals were gathering at both ends of the causeway. Both women worried that there could be another attack. In those days, Karbala was a haven for insurgents, and besides the coalition forces, no one was more hated than the Kuwaitis.
As they waited for medics and support troops to arrive, the women began patching up the wounded. The Thai and Polish soldiers spread out at each end of the road and rerouted traffic. Flannery, whose last name at the time was McGunagle, directed the rest of the convoy to form a defensive circle around the disabled vehicles where the injured were being treated.
It was nothing short of a miracle that no one traveling in the 12-vehicle convoy was killed that Valentine’s Day. All the vehicles, SUVs, vans and flat-bed trucks were unarmored. The bombs, 10 improvised explosive devices, had been buried in the sandy shoulder of the road at a downward angle, so when they detonated, the asphalt absorbed most of the shock.
“They were buried about five meters apart,” Van Auken said. “They came right up through the engine compartment of the Kuwaitis’ SUVs.”
It wasn’t the first time Flannery and Van Auken’s convoy had encountered roadside bombs or IEDs. But this one was the most powerful they had seen.
The pair, stationed at Camp Lima, 10 miles east of Karbala, had been working with a team of Kuwaiti forensic scientists excavating mass graves in the area. Their mission was to uncover as many of the 605 Kuwaiti missing prisoners of war as possible from the first Gulf War. A day before, they had received a good tip from an informant who directed them to a mass grave site outside of Karbala.
The convoy left Camp Lima early that morning and cruised slowly through Karbala to a causeway that stretched over a rocky valley to a highway on the other side. It was a beautiful morning with bright sun and clear views of the surrounding mountains.
As Flannery and Van Auken approached the causeway in the convoy’s lead vehicle, they noticed that there was no other traffic. Some trucks were stopped at a sand pit on the other side, but that seemed normal. The pair noticed that the Kuwaiti vehicles were bunching up too close together and hanging back. Van Auken got on the radio and told them to catch up but keep some distance between each vehicle. They did, and the convoy started across the causeway.
“We were about halfway across, and we just looked at each other and at the same time, realized there was still no other traffic,” Van Auken said. “Then it hit. The noise was deafening. We were stunned; at first we didn’t know what happened. It’s almost a slow-motion sound. Everything seemed muffled. I don’t know if your ears automatically shut off to protect you or what. It’s like being in a tunnel.”
Later, bomb technicians found the detonator – a cell phone attached to an electrical pole near the causeway.
“We didn’t see it at the time,” Flannery said. “We think we were being watched the whole time, and when they saw us get on the causeway, they dialed the phone and it went off.”
Their near-death experience did not stop the pair from serving 16 more months traveling around Iraq and working with the Kuwaitis to bring back their dead.
Kris Antonelli is a freelance journalist living in Maryland. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun from 1989 to 2000, her assignments included covering the U.S. Naval Academy.
Kathryn Van Auken
U.S. Army Reserve / Bronze Star with Valor
Born May 9, 1967, on Long Island, N.Y.
Joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of New Hampshire in 1987 and was commissioned on May 20, 1989.
Deployed to Kuwait in February 2003 and to Iraq in March 2003. Assigned to 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, 377th Theatre Support Command.
WHAT THEY DID
Took charge of military and medical backups in the aftermath of a roadside bomb explosion that had targeted their convoy of Kuwaiti forensic scientists searching for mass graves.
WHERE SHE IS NOW
Still active in the Army Reserve and now a lieutenant colonel, she has spent 11 years as Director of International Business Development, Department of Economic and Community Development, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg.
WHY SHE JOINED THE ARMY
“My brother got me interested. He was in the active-duty Army infantry and in the reserves as a drill sergeant. He told me about the opportunities in the military, and our family has always been pretty red, white and blue, so it was an easy decision.”
Iraq / Karbala