The U.S. Army convoy rolled where death lives.
About 30 miles north of Baghdad. Night in Iraq couldn't have been darker. Late April, a little more than a month ago.
Rock Hill's "Corn Dog," Sgt. Cedric Caldwell, manned the front machine gun on one of the convoy escort trucks. A sergeant from California named Torres was beside him. A private first class named Squires drove.
The truck looked like America. A black guy, a white guy and a Hispanic guy.
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But Iraq in the night is not like America where so many spend nights howling about blacks and Hispanics. In Iraq in Alpha Battery, 3rd Battalion, 321st Field Artillery Regiment, your brothers who don't look like you are all you've got.
No color matters but the indigo of night and the yellow of fire and the red of blood.
"All of a sudden, there was a loud explosion, and I fell down inside the cab on Torres," Caldwell remembered.
The truck rolled and tipped over on its top.
"I must have gotten knocked out for a minute," Caldwell said. "Then all I could see was fire and smoke everywhere. Except for the picture in my mind. It was just like a photograph. My wife and my daughter. It's true. Your life does flash in front of your eyes. I saw it."
Caldwell saw the hatch opening for the truck and climbed through as the calls of "I'm hit! I'm hit" pierced the night and cut through the flames.
Caldwell didn't run for the safety of the roadside ditch. He didn't call for a doctor for himself. He pulled Torres to safety through the hatch. Then he dragged Torres about 20 meters from the truck so the explosions wouldn't kill him.
The munitions in the truck were blowing up in the fire. Bullets, shells, shrapnel designed to kill the enemy now trying to kill them.
"I could still hear screaming," Caldwell said.
Putting others' needs first
Again, Caldwell didn't run for safety.
"All I could see was Squires' hand," Caldwell said. "So I reached in, grabbed on, and pulled him out."
Squires was burning alive.
"It was like a stunt double in the movies," Caldwell said. "His whole legs were on fire. I rolled him around to try and put the fire out, but it didn't work. So I took off my vest and my shirt and tried to smother the fire."
Finally, the fire was out, but Squires' clothes were so hot Squires was still burning. Shirtless, bare-chested in a place where snipers are the law, Caldwell knelt in the road and pulled off Squires' clothes. Finally, he got Squires to the ditch.
Before the medics arrived, Caldwell poured what water he could find over Squires' wounds.
"I kept telling him he was going to be OK, that he was going to live," Caldwell said. "He was yelling. I was yelling. But I wasn't going to let him die. Both of them are really good soldiers. They would have done the same for me."
Torres suffered a broken arm and other injuries and is now back at Fort Bragg, N.C., where all three soldiers are based. Squires is in intensive care at the Brook Army Medical Center burn unit in San Antonio, Texas, hospital officials confirmed.
Caldwell suffered a concussion and has a dent in his forehead where an ammunition box thumped him. He has shrapnel in his leg. He has cuts and burns on his face and hands. His back is covered with an 18-inch burn.
Strong sense of honor, duty
He is a sergeant with responsibility for 14 men. He said his superiors have put in for a Purple Heart for his wounds in action and a Combat Action Badge, and either a Bronze Star or Silver Star for valor.
Caldwell could have come home, too. But he chose to stay in Iraq.
"My men here need me," Caldwell said by telephone this week.
Caldwell's wife and parents were distraught that he was injured, but they rejoice he is alive. Maybe even more, they take pride that Cedric Caldwell did what every man hopes he would do when an overturned truck is on fire with men underneath that truck.
Caldwell did not run. He didn't ask for help for himself. He helped his men.
"He went back," said the Rev. Willie Caldwell, the father. "I prepared myself when he left that my son could come back in a pine box. I supported this war then and now. I believe in freedom. It's not cheap. And then when he was at the hospital, he saw all those other guys who are hurt worse. He told me, 'Daddy, I need to stay. These guys need to come home, not me.' "
Caldwell's wife, Tiffani, is a military child whose parents are both immigrants from the Caribbean. Her father came from Jamaica to the Air Force. He served in the first Persian Gulf War. Her mother came from Barbados to the Army.
Torres came from Mexico, Caldwell said.
Americans gnash their teeth over immigration, ask for fences to be built or borders to be shuttered, while the sons and daughters of immigrants or immigrants themselves fight the wars over freedom.
'Corn Dog': A local hero
"My best friend is a hero," said Travis Canty, who has been "like a brother" with Caldwell since both were little kids in Rock Hill. It is Canty who spilled the beans that the nickname "Corn Dog" comes from Caldwell eating corn dogs for lunch during school.
"He didn't run. He didn't hide. He saved those guys," Canty said.
Caldwell went first to Kosovo when the war on terror began. He was home a short while, then spent almost a year in Afghanistan. A few months with his wife and then Iraq. Caldwell was home for a few days in January, just missing the birth of daughter Tiffanie. He saw her, kissed her and his wife a few times, then went back to Iraq.
And then he cheats death. And still he stays in Iraq.
"I guess my military background prepared me for this," Tiffani Caldwell said. "I haven't cried yet. My husband is alive. He is a soldier. He'll come home when his deployment is finished."
Return to a simpler life
Caldwell's enlistment is up in February. He said he's not staying in the Army.
"No way, no more Iraq," said Williatte, his mother.
"We are done," said Tiffani, his wife.
Caldwell plans to come back to Rock Hill with his wife and daughter. He'll play music in his father's Abiezer Baptist Church. He wants to be a Realtor.
"I truly believe that without God, me and Torres and Squires would not have survived," Caldwell said.
Caldwell may be right.
Maybe God wanted the black and the Hispanic and the white guys to live.
But one thing seems to be for sure.
A Rock Hill guy, Northwestern High class of 1998, who joined the National Guard while still in high school then leapt into active duty and never left, didn't leave his brothers to die in the dirt and flame and blood of Iraq.
Monday, on Memorial Day, no monuments will be etched with the names Torres or Squires on granite.