Quick action by Army reservist from Baltimore saves 17 lives

Md. man bags bomber in Iraq


On a mild spring evening in northern Iraq, Staff Sgt. Martin K. Richburg sat in a flatbed truck parked outside the Internet cafe on base and called his wife back in Baltimore.

As Richburg, 44, spoke on his cell phone, he saw an Iraqi civilian place a blue bag atop the cafe's air conditioner and take off running. Richburg drew his 9 mm pistol, chased down the man and prodded the truth from him: The bag contained a bomb.

Richburg cleared the cafe where soldiers checked their e-mail, and a few minutes later a blast destroyed the building.

Richburg's action is credited with saving the lives of 12 soldiers and five Iraqi civilians. The army has decorated the reservist from Baltimore with an Army Commendation Medal with a "V" for valor, a rich green ribbon he proudly wears on his uniform. He has been nominated for a Bronze Star.

Chief Warrant Officer Jim Maness of Hampstead, Richburg's commander, said there would surely have been deaths if he had not acted so quickly.

"Everyone's coming up to me, `Hey, that's one of your soldiers,'" Maness said. "Everyone's really proud of him."

Richburg is a West Baltimore native who graduated from Southern High School in 1979. He is the father of three, and a jazz fan, who in civilian life works as the supply clerk for the District Court for Baltimore City.

During a recent phone interview, he gave details about the bombing and his tour of duty as a heavy-vehicle mechanic with the 142nd Maintenance Company.

Since arriving in Iraq in August, Richburg has trained Iraqi army recruits and ridden in convoys, a job made treacherous by roadside bombs planted by insurgents.

"When you leave off these bases, you don't know what's going to happen," Richburg said. "Just being able to ride and feel comfortable, that's not the situation here. I miss that feeling. To just be able to go out and be free and not to have any worries, that's not the situation here."

Hours before the Internet cafe was bombed, several civilians were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his weapon at the gate of the base, he said.

Richburg said the earlier bombing put him on "high alert" as he sat in his flatbed truck about 9 p.m. March 27, waiting to check his e-mail.

As he chatted on a cell phone with his wife, Olethia, a world away, he saw a man enter and leave the cafe three or four times.

"I said, `That's strange, why's he doing that?' This is what I'm saying to my wife," Richburg recalled. "Then he just started doing some real strange things, looking around in different areas, peeping and ducking."

The man emerged with a bulky blue bag. He stood on a stool and put it on the air conditioning unit.

"He jumped off and started running, so that was the alarm that said, `Hey, you need to get this guy and take him down,'" Richburg recalled.

He caught the man, knocked him down and stood over him, gun drawn. With an Iraqi from the cafe serving as an interpreter and Richburg brandishing his weapon, the suspect made a startling admission - he had planted a bomb set to explode in five minutes. As the time bomb ticked, Richburg ran to the cafe.

"I started waving my gun, [and yelling] `Get out of this damn building now!'" Richburg said. "Everybody just came balling out. Everybody just broke out."

Behind the 10-foot-high concrete blast walls that dot the base, Richburg and the others waited. Eighteen minutes later, a blast destroyed the cafe's interior and broke windows of nearby vehicles.

"It was a small package but it was very powerful," he said. "This is an Iraqi base, I have to stress that. You don't know who's who."

The insurgent who planted the bomb worked on base as a generator mechanic. Over a 10-day period, the man had smuggled materials on the base to assemble the weapon, Richburg said.

Olethia Richburg, 46, said that when her husband arrived in Iraq in August, he was assigned to an American base near Mosul, where he was able to call her about only every 15 days. Now, the two speak three times daily, at midnight, 4:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m., her time.

"I'm just like bursting with pride. I couldn't be prouder," she said at her Parkview/Woodbrook rowhouse in West Baltimore. The couple will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary in June. Their son Charles, 12, lives with them and they have two other children, a son, Martin Jr., 21, and a 23-year-old daughter, also named Olethia.

In January last year, when the deployment letter arrived, it was met with trepidation. Staff Sgt. Richburg had never been to a war zone.

"We were a bunch of emotions," Olethia Richburg said. "It was the highs and the lows. The closer it got, the worse it got."

She constantly reassured her husband, "You're gonna be fine. You're gonna come back and you're gonna be drinking some wine and eating some cheese," telling stories of his time in Iraq.

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