The opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April of 2003 will go down as one of the most impressive advances in military history. So impressive, in fact, that it is easy to forget how heated some of the battles were, and how hard some of Saddam Hussein's forces fought.
On April 9, 2003, the 5th Marines took control of one of Saddam's palaces in Baghdad. Fedayeen fighters in the area refused to give up the fight and continued to launch offensives. The battle continued through the night and into the next morning – at which point then-Capt. Espinoza and his team were called in to evacuate the casualties.
As Espinoza's team flew over the Tigris River toward the palace, they began receiving small-arms and RPG fire. Espinoza and his wingman maneuvered through the attacks and approached a seemingly impossible landing zone: There was only room for one helicopter to land beside a swimming pool surrounded by large palm trees. Espinoza put his helicopter down amidst sniper shots from the rooftop and small-arms fire from numerous other directions. His corpsman quickly identified four injured Marines and loaded them onto the helicopter. After stabilizing them, Espinoza started the flight back to the casualty point, ordering his gunners to fire back at the enemy as he weaved through a maze of gunfire.
Four more times that day, Espinoza and his team returned to retrieve wounded Marines. He dodged bullets, landed under enemy fire, and his gunners helped suppress the large enemy attack. That night his team also ran a re-supply mission, dropping off much-needed ammunition, water, and equipment to Marines on the ground. On his final trip, Espinoza and his team returned to the combat zone to evacuate Iraqi civilians caught in the line of fire.
At the end of the long and weary battle, Espinoza's team had safely evacuated 28 Marines and a family of seven Iraqis. For his leadership and actions, Espinoza was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on Feb. 25, 2005.
Photo and information courtesy of DoD