On a quiet Sunday, young Americans faced a deadly crisis


"The Long Road Home" -- the book and the cable mini-series -- tells a compelling story of young men caught in a deadly ambush. I had a chance to talk to two of the soldiers who also were military advisors for the mini-series. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

These men seem like
everyday slices of Americana.

-- Eric Bourquin is
a towering Texan. He's married, with four kids, ages 4 to 11.

-- Aaron Fowler
summarizes his life cheerily: “I'm a ballet dad,” he said. That's
sort of like being a soccer mom, except it involves whisking his
three kids to lots of ballet classes.

They seem to be in a
different universe than they were on Palm Sunday of 2004. That was
the start of a fierce ambush, vividly retold in Martha Raddatz's “The
Long Road Home,” now a cable mini-series.

“It has been part
of the healing process, getting the story out,” Fowler said.

Bourquin – a
military advisor on the film with Fowler – agreed. “I'm still
realizing what happened,” he said. “You don't understand it until
after the fact.”

At 6-foot-3 and
solid, Bourquin strikes a strong image. “Now I know him for the
sweet circus bear that he is,” said Jon Beavers, who portrays him.
“But at (first), he looked very intimidating.”

Bourquin left home
on his 16th birthday and was on his own. A few years
later, he joined the Army with, Raddatz wrote, “a strange fantasy
that some bad Iraqi would take a few wild shots at him.”

Even that seemed
unlikely when his unit arrived from Fort Hood in April of 2004. That
was a year after Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled, 11 months after
George W. Bush stood in front of a “mission accomplished banner,”
four months after Hussein was captured.

The men in his unit
were new to this. “The vast majority had never seen combat,”
Fowler said.

Bourquin was 23 and
a staff sergeant. Assigned to a quiet Baghdad suburb, the men had
been in country for four days and were leading a convoy to take
sewage trucks to a disposal spot.

Then came the
ambush, leaving them with no way to get out. “I could see the look
in my soldiers' eyes,” Bourquin said.

And, perhaps, in his
own eyes, when he was point man in a harrowing moment: Trapped in an
alley, the men needed to get into a top-floor apartment that had roof
access. Bourquin had to shoot open the door and charge in, ready to
kill anyone who fired at him.

Such moments awe the
actors portraying them. “They will literally walk into a room where
there's a man with a gun on the other side of the door,” Darius
Homayoun said.

In this case, he
held his fire. Inside, Raddatz wrote: “Two Iraqi men stood frozen
in panic; three small children sobbed and shook in the arms of an old
woman. From an adjacent room, several other women could be heard
whispering.”

As it turned out,
Bourquin said, “they were very helpful.” That could have been
deadly for them or for him. “It was something I think about –
what could have gone wrong.”

Another crisis came
as the attackers tried an unprecedented strategy: They marched down
the alley, with riflemen in the back and children in the front. He
fired his grenade launcher twice; as did the soldiers, he tried to
aim above the children's head. Soon, more than 100 bodies were being
cleared.

The fighting
continued for days, until rescuers (including Fowler) could finally
break through. Eight Americans had been killed and more than 60
(including Bourquin) had been wounded.

Bourquin would
re-enlist; in all, he spent 16 years in the Army, including two
stints in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and retired as a sergeant
first class. Since then, he has tried nursing studies ... has walked
the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, to publicize the needs of veterans
... and has raised his family.

“These men have
worked incredibly hard,” Raddatz said.

Each man has
adjusted to a ballet, Little League world that's far from any
alley-shootout past. “He's become a good husband, a good dad,”
Raddatz said. “He's fought just as hard to be a good person.”

-- “The Long Road
Home,” eight-hour mini-series, National Geographic Channel

-- Opener is 9-11
p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 7), repeating at 11; it repeats at the same times
Saturday (Nov. 11), wrapping up a Veterans Day marathon of military
shows

-- Subsequent hours
are 10 p.m. Tuesdays, rerunning at 11

-- The Martha
Raddatz book was 2007, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2008, Berkley