KILLEEN — On April 4, 2004, the soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment came under ferocious enemy fire in Sadr City, Iraq. That fateful day would become known as “Black Sunday” by the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division unit, ending with the death of eight soldiers and 60 injured — the largest casualty count in a single day for the “First Team” division since the Vietnam War.

On Saturday, 23 Fort Hood area veterans who lived through Black Sunday were presented with quilts from Killeen-based Quilts of Valor, Quilters With a Heart during a presentation at the 2018 Quilt Show and Shop Hop at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center. The Quilts of Valor Foundation is a nonprofit organization that awards military veterans and active-duty service members with uniquely designed quilts and has members across the country and throughout the globe.

One of the veterans to receive a quilt was retired Sgt. 1st Class John Thomas, a Harker Heights resident who was a staff sergeant with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment at the time of the battle. The tank company was attached to 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment for that particular deployment.

“We got the call to go out, but the mission kept changing,” Thomas said, adding that his unit had to leave Camp War Eagle, the forward operating base located near Sadr City, in unarmored High Mobility, Multi-Wheel Vehicles because the unit’s tanks had not yet arrived. “We were ambushed at Bravo Market (in Sadr City) that night while going to help out.”

The attack began that day when a platoon from 2-5’s Charlie Company were ambushed. The platoon called for support and troops from 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment joined troops from 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment and units from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment — the unit 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment was replacing — responded with a quick reaction force.

Those units often fought the enemy at distances as close as 30 meters to get to the trapped soldiers. After a few hours, the relief force made it on-site, but the soldiers ended up fighting for several more hours while exiting the city to their base.

Gathering local veterans of the attack on Black Sunday for quilts began a year ago, when Thomas first met Laura Winckel of Quilters With a Heart.

Winckel had an exhibit at the Bell County Museum in 2017 from September through Veterans Day in November. During that display, members of the unit who served in Sadr city came and admired the display and attended the awarding of some Quilts of Valor that Veterans Day.

Following the awardings, Thomas spoke to Winckel about Black Sunday. Winckel read the book and watched the miniseries “The Long Road Home,” and was touched deeply.

“As a spouse of a retired sergeant major and being part of the military for 27 years, this book really touched my heart,” Winckel said. “The women in the book could have been me at any time during my husband’s years on active duty.”

Winckel then began working with Thomas on honoring those that he served with who still lived in Texas.

“It was a lot of work, and was especially hard after the loss of my son,” Thomas said. His son, Nicholas, was 19 and in the process of enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps when he collapsed and died shortly after an organized run in Harker Heights in June.

“It was very emotional,” Thomas said about receiving the quilt. “My buddy just came up and gave me the biggest hug, and my knees just gave out. I thought I was going to fall.”

The veterans who gathered all seemed to agree on how it felt to be honored with a quilt, and the awarding ceremony turned into a mini-reunion.

“Getting to see the guys, some — like Janus Solas, who I served with almost every day of my service — I haven’t seen since I got out of the Army nearly 14 years ago,” said Justin Holt, who was a private during the attack on Black Sunday. “It meant a lot to me. The people who do the quilts not only gave us a quilt, but also gave us a venue to see our brothers we may not otherwise have had. All those guys there, by my definition, are heroes.”

Holt, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle mechanic, was on Camp War Eagle when the attacks in Sadr City began. At first he thought the gunfire he was hearing was just a sporadic anomaly, but then the gunfire kept going and going.

“The next thing we knew, a (Light/Medium Tactical Vehicle) came blowing through the base leaking blood,” the Leander, Texas resident said. “We ran over to it and when the ramp came down, it was filled with our guys. Every one of them had been shot.”

Holt and two of his fellow soldiers, all combat lifesaver qualified, immediately ran to get their medical bags. They administered the IV bags to the wounded soldiers as the medics worked on them.

Later in the day, Holt would be a part of the crews sent out to retrieve downed vehicles while simultaneously searching for the Charlie Company platoon.

Overall, the experience that day — and throughout the deployment in 2004 — caused the battalion to become a very close-knit group of family, Thomas said.

“Seeing them all together is very emotional,” he said. “We were a very tight battalion, and we still contact each other to this day.”

Many of the volunteers who made the quilts are members of the local group and were able to attend the award ceremony, helping to wrap the veterans in their Quilt of Valor.

“This past year of planning and preparing for this awarding has been very rewarding for me and our group,” Winckel said. “Having the opportunity to thank these heroes was an honor.”

dbryant@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7554

dbryant@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7554

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