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After the smoke cleared

Posted: March 10, 2008 12:31 a.m.
Updated: May 11, 2008 5:03 a.m.

A still frame from an insurgent video of the 2005 suicide bombing of a Ramadi hotel housing U.S. military soldiers, including Valencia High School graduate Jonathan Morita.

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It was early afternoon on a fall day in 2005 in Ramadi, capital of Iraq's Al Anbar province.

Traffic was light on the dusty street running out of town, and it's likely few people noticed as a yellow dump truck lumbered around the corner and down the road toward a hotel where U.S. soldiers were stationed. About half of the roughly 40-member platoon members were asleep.

"It was just a normal day," said Army Spc. Jon Morita. "Hotter than hell."

Seconds later, insurgents opened fire on the building, disorienting the men inside.

And then the gunfire stopped.

It was merely a prelude, as the driver of the truck plowed the vehicle into a barrier in front of the hotel, detonating his payload of high explosives, sending an orange fireball and black smoke into the sky.

Morita was on the fourth floor of the building and was thrown back about 10 feet by the force of the explosion.

His initial thoughts, he said, were along the lines of: "What just happened to us?"

Several platoon members thought someone may have fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the hotel.

Within about 30 minutes, reinforcements from the nearby base arrived, and Morita and his comrades saw things a bit more clearly.

The truck was loaded with the equivalent of a 500-pound bomb, he said, but when all was said and done, the only person killed was the driver, whose charred remains were found among the twisted, blackened wreckage.

Most of the soldiers in the building suffered minor injuries and some temporary hearing loss. One of them did catch the blunt force of the blast and suffered major head trauma, said Morita.

"Those concrete barriers saved our skin," the Valencia resident said. Had the truck not hit those barriers, he said the explosion probably would have destroyed the front half of the hotel and killed four or five soldiers.

"(The building) took a pretty good beating," he said. "If you can survive that, you can survive anything."

When the bombing took place, Morita, then 20, had been in Ramadi for two months and in Iraq for roughly seven months.

* * *

It wasn't until about two weeks after the attack that Morita and his fellow soldiers had a clear picture of exactly what happened.

Another platoon was on patrol in Ramadi and came across a cache of weapons and terrorist recruiting DVDs, he said.

As Morita and other members of his platoon watched the DVD later, he said, "light bulbs went off."

The several-minute video opens with the alleged driver of the truck giving his final statement, then cuts to footage of the dump truck motoring down a street.

What follows is footage of the bombing from several camera angles. In the final shot, as smoke rises from the hotel, a man can be heard chanting "Allahu akbar" - Arabic for "God is great."

In addition to having a fuller picture of how large the explosion was, Morita said, seeing the video was a reminder of the power of propaganda.

Though he was trained for combat and had been in firefights before, he said the bombing was a strong reminder that "things can happen and you don't even see it coming."

In the grand scheme of things, he said that no matter the context, "you go with life ... (and) try not to think about all the bad things in your life."

* * *

A 17-year resident of the Santa Clarita Valley, Morita said a military passion was always in his blood.

After the attacks that felled the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he said if he could have enlisted then, he would have.

After graduating from Valencia High School in 2003, he did. His father took his decision in stride, and his mother "accepted it with a grain of salt."

In Iraq he was assigned to Able Company, with the 269th Armor, Second Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

Echoing a common sentiment among veterans, Morita said his experience was all about the men fighting alongside him.

"I would walk straight through hell for those guys," he said.

Morita returned home in 2006 and has five years left in the Army's Individual Readiness Reserve.

When he enlisted, Morita said, he was focused on a military career.

Now he's set his sights on a different, to-be-determined future.

He's pursuing a degree at College of the Canyons and works at Origami Bistro and Bar in Valencia.

While many friends and family have seen the video of the bombing - which has since made its way onto - his mother is off limits.

"She won't watch it," he said. "And I won't let her watch it."


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