'Is it going to be me today?'

Sgt. Brian Kerrigan and Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Du were hit Aug. 23 a few miles out of Balad, Iraq, as they, and the rest of their Stryker brigade were making it back to Baghdad.

They'd spent the previous two months in Baqouba, clearing the city of al-Qaida in Iraq fighters who'd proclaimed it the capital of their new Islamic republic.

They were just weeks from completing their 15-month tour and had managed to avoid serious injury during hundreds of patrols from Mosul to Baghdad.

Kerrigan, 29, was near the end of his second combat tour. He went to Iraq the first time in 2003 as a new recruit with the 82nd Airborne Division. He had a good job at Fed Ex in Seattle but left it to enlist after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After his first deployment he transferred to Fort Lewis and wound up as the gunner on the brigade command sergeant major's Stryker. "I just felt like somebody had run over me in a train, you know?" he said later of that bomb near Balad. "The headaches were the main part, but I just felt fatigued, exhausted, even though I didn't have a reason to be exhausted. People would talk to me, and they'd notice and say I'd just stare and be in a daze."

The brigade surgeon, Lt. Col. Michael Oshiki, prescribed rest and limited activity. Kerrigan was down for five days. His buddies covered for him.

As bad as Kerrigan felt, he knew Du got the worst of it.

"He kept to himself a little bit, but I could tell he was a little out of it. I worked with the man for three years. I'd say, 'Sergeant Major, how you doing?' He'd say, 'I'm fine, man.' But I could tell it knocked the wind out of him pretty good. It shook him up a bit."

'Really on edge'

After several days Du and Kerrigan returned to the streets of Baghdad. They had to help their replacements from the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment get acquainted with the battle space they would soon take over.

"Everyone was really on edge because of the IED that happened a week prior," Kerrigan said. "We were like, 'Here we are driving around one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and we have two weeks left.' So everyone was a little on edge. Everyone was a lot more alert."

Du, 50, acknowledged he was feeling the effects of the Aug. 23 bombing. But there was something else.

After nearly 30 years as a soldier, including extended assignments with the Rangers and a previous deployment in his same job with the 3rd Brigade in 2003-04, he'd had his fill of seeing soldiers wounded and killed.

He and the brigade commander, Col. Stephen Townsend, visited the wounded from each critical attack, and went to be with the units that had soldiers killed. The brigade lost 48 in Iraq.

Maybe he was feeling bad because he'd seen too much. In the nine months since the move south, Du said he'd often ask himself before he went out on missions, "Is it going to be me today? You think, I might not come back today."

But going back out after the concussion was harder still.

"After the first hit, we went through an area down there by Sadr City, and it was the first time that I was not comfortable with where we were going," Du said.

"For the first time, I was scared. I was never scared before. I was really worried. I'd tell people, 'Man, I'm really scared about this thing.' "

And sure enough, they got hit again.

'He's on fire'

It was Sept. 3, and they were within sight of the entrance of their base. A bomb outfitted with an explosively formed penetrator ripped through the side of Du's Stryker, splattering the interior with shards of flying metal.

"Everything 6 inches in front of me was destroyed," Du said. "It was unbelievable that I did not get any shrapnel. My first reaction was to look down. I saw that I still got my legs, so I'm good."

But Kerrigan was hit.

A jagged spur from the bomb speared his right forearm, cutting an artery. Several other pieces of shrapnel tore into his thighs, and one found its way under his body armor and into his belly.

The top of the Stryker was on fire. The fire extinguisher that normally was stored near Du's feet had been destroyed, so the command sergeant major clambered out the hatch and ran about 150 yards back to the next Stryker to get another.

"I did not even know that I was on fire myself," he said. "The colonel came on the radio and said, 'Hey, one of you need to come out and put out the sergeant major because he's on fire.'  "

Once the fires — on Du and on the truck — were out, "all I remember is that after that I was spent. I was done," Du said. "I was just sitting there, and I had no energy left."

Kerrigan, meanwhile, was in trouble. Another soldier in the truck, Sgt. Eric Bulmer, put pressure on his arm and laid him down on the floor.

"He threw a tourniquet on my arm. It saved my life. If he hadn't put that tourniquet on I think I would have bled to death in 15 minutes," Kerrigan said.

He was on the operating table less than an hour later. And when he became conscious after surgery, most of his guys were there, and he was given his Purple Heart.

Du was there with his cell phone. Kerrigan's wife, Andrea, was on the other end.

"I just kept thinking, 'This cannot be happening,' " she recalled later. "He was just getting over that last hit, then he is hit again. I remember I was just sitting there completely helpless, not knowing what was happening."

By the next Saturday, Kerrigan was at Madigan Army Medical Center.

Back in Iraq, Du was out of commission. His lack of appetite and sleeping problems got worse. "The division sergeant major came down to my room that night. He told me I was grounded. I'm not allowed to go out anymore — even to go out in a helicopter," he said. "I was to stay put.

"And that's where I stayed until we boarded the aircraft to come home."