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Army POWs visit FHS


Army Pfc. Patrick Miller of the 507th Maintenance Company shakes hands with an admiring Farragut High School student as 507th Sgt. Francis Carista talks to FHS NJROCT cadets.- Alan Sloan/farragutpress
The war with Iraq served as a personal wake-up call for Army Sgt. Francis Carista of New York.

Army Pfc. Patrick Miller of Valley Center, Kansas, an Iraqi prisoner of war for 22 days, can actually look back and laugh at false media reports of his early demise.


Both U.S. soldiers, members of the 507th Maintenance Company who were part of the now-infamous “Jessica Lynch” ambush in Nasiriyah, went from doing “Larry King Live” and “60 Minutes” interviews to stopping by Farragut High School Friday afternoon and speaking to a few hundred students in the Ferguson Auditorium.

“As for me, before I went I used to take a lot of things for granted,” said Sgt. Carista, 39, who was wounded in the ankle during the ambush but never taken as a POW. “One of those things was my wife (Angelic) and my (two) children. The day after the ambush, and my head was clear, there was just two thoughts in my mind. That was the knowledge of my wife and children knowing that I was in Iraq ... I won’t take my family for granted again.”

Angelic Carista lived through several hours of hell only knowing that the 507th was attacked without knowing her husband’s condition.

“The hardest thing was when our little six-year-old came and asked ‘if daddy’s died?’” she said. “It was horrible. It was like a dream ... you never think it’s going to happen to your family.”

Saying she and other 507th family members were taken to a small auditorium at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to await word of their loved ones conditions, “they had us there about five hours without any word,” Angelic Carista said. “But luckily he’s home.”

Carista, rescued by a U.S. Marine unit a few hours after the attack, was honored with a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Miller, 23, who was presented the Purple Heart, the Silver Star and a POW medal, shot and killed members of an Iraqi mortar team as they prepared to launch an attack on his unit.

“It was either me or them,” said Miller, who had been in the army eight months prior to being sent to Iraq. “It wasn’t going to be me.”

Miller confirmed that he was never shot in the arm, contrary to some media reports including one that moderator Ed Hooper was ready to show the private. “There was an article that said I was killed,” Miller said to crowd laughter. That laughter increased when Hooper asked how it felt to see false reports of his demise. “I kind of laughed about it,” said Miller, who was joined by his wife, Jessa.

As for how this frightening experience has changed Miller, “it’s kind of difficult to say right now, but I don’t really think it’s changed me that much, or I try not to let it,” he said. “I try not to dwell too much on what happened. “

THE START

With 11 unit members killed, Pfc. Miller was among six taken prisoner on March 23 following the ambush. “All you can do is think about wanting to come home and do the things you used to do and see your family,” he said.

Pvt. Lynch, who was not originally captured with Miller and the other POWs, was thought to have been killed before being captured by the Iraqis. “For four days she was on the KIA (killed in action) list,” Sgt. Carista said.

“We ended up taking a wrong turn, apparently ... we turned around as we started going through and heard gunfire,” Miller said about the beginning of the ambush, “and as you’re trained when you hear gunfire and it’s a possible ambush, you try and get away from the area ... it was an all-out battle right there.”

Sgt. Carista, who was in a vehicle ahead of where the ambush occurred, said he first noticed explosions caused by rocket-propelled grenades.

While U.S. guns were frequently jamming due to the blowing sand, “there were 20, 25 Iraqis making a big circle around us,” MIller said, adding there were “approximately 200, 250” Iraqis in all. “It was either trying to fight and end up dying right there, or take my chances and surrender.” Miller added that the battle lasted “anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes.

“You don’t really think about it, you just react to whatever’s happening around you.”

Originally fearing that Miller and the other five members of his surviving unit were dead, Sgt. Carista said he and his men “actually threw a small party” upon hearing the news that they were alive.

As for the ongoing war while they were POWs, “we could hear the bombs and everything dropping around us,” Miller said. “But it was kind of funny, because they kept telling us that they were winning the war, that they were ‘beating the Americans’ and all that kind of stuff. Lies to try and break our spirits.”

As for being rescued, “the Marines came and kicked the door in, and that was all she wrote,” Miller said.

Although a mechanic, Miller said being in the middle of combat “is always in the back of your mind because you’re a soldier, there’s a always that possibility,” he said.

As Miller’s experiences with the people of Iraq, “I can’t speak for whole country because I wasn’t in contact with that many people,” he said. “It’s difficult to say, but over there they can act like your friends, but you really can’t trust anybody over there other than your buddy (soldier) to your right and to your left.”



THE FUTURE AND MEDIA

“I won’t be going back to Iraq, that I know of, and I still have a ways to go until I’ve thought about a (military) career,” said Miller, whose commitment runs through 2006.

Within three years of their return to the United States, all former U.S. POWs have to have special permission to leave the country. “I think it’s because with all the media coverage and attention you get, that you’d be a rolling target,” Miller said.

Sgt. Carista said he’s ready to go back to Iraq if and when duty calls. “If they come in your back yard, you’ve got to kick their butt,” he said to crowd laughter.

As for media, Carista listed off other television news shows they’ve appeared on, including NBC’s “Dateline” and CNN with Paula Zahn — “and a bunch of newspapers.”

As for the barrage of national media attention Miller’s received, “it’s overwhelming for a little ‘ole red-neck from Kansas,” he said to laughter.

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