It's been four months since Cpl. Stan Mayer returned from Iraq, and he can't stop thinking about Graham. He wears a navy blue Red Sox hat — just like the one Graham used to wear. He drinks Guinness — Graham's favorite beer. Until he forgot it at an ex-girlfriend's apartment, he wore a black bracelet imprinted with the words "Die Strong" for Lance Cpl. Lance Graham, the gunner in his truck and one of his closest friends.
He even confronts Graham in his dreams.
Dude, you're dead. You know that, right?
But Graham just looks at him, not getting it.
Other dreams wake Mayer with sounds — the crash of his truck being hit by a suicide bomber explosion, the "boom, boom, boom" of mortars.
A member of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, based in Brook Park, Mayer has gotten used to people asking what it was like in Iraq. Blue-collar guys with grease under their fingernails ask him straight up, "How many people did you smoke?" Front-page-reading professionals merely wonder the same thing as they shake his hand and thank him for his service.
The Marines of 3/25 did not win the war in Iraq. But they patrolled a total of 150,000 miles, completed 12 operations, sent 119 detainees to Abu Ghraib prison, found 161 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and land mines. They also liberated an entire city, helped train the Iraqi army, confiscated enough weapons to equip a small army and made it safer for Iraqis to vote in the December elections — more than 70 percent of eligible voters did, the most of any election since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
That's the press-release version of what 3/25 did from March through September of last year. But what they recall doing most, every day, was beating back insurgents, including diehard Sunnis, former Baathists and foreign fighters allied with terrorists. While independent, these groups shared an objective: Sabotage Iraq's chances for democracy.
And kill as many Americans as possible.
Fighting them was a hard job, harder than any of them knew at first.
At the platoon level, Marines looked to sergeants, including Staff Sergeant Michael Brady, to make the decisions that would keep them alive. The corporals and lance corporals, such as Mayer and Graham, had the most limited view and the most dangerous jobs. A typical day for them vacillated between extreme boredom and sheer terror.
We heard about some of the terror last summer, when 16 Marines from Ohio were killed in a single week. By the tour's end, 48 had died, Graham among them. That's nearly seven a month. Just less than two per week. Those deaths — not the number of cities cleared or weapons confiscated or insurgents detained — were what made us wonder, finally, What are we doing over there?
A year has passed, but thoughts of the 3/25 Marines and their tour linger. Their losses were the first to really hit home, not just here but throughout the entire country, the first to fire up prayers and protests on a massive scale, the first to draw hordes of strangers to funerals.
We know what the tour was like for us. This is what it was like for them.
MARCH AND APRIL 2005
Mayer and Graham smoked cigarettes and drank coffee on the balcony of Haditha Dam, a massive, concrete structure that helped power Baghdad and served as one of the two 3/25 headquarters in Iraq. Mayer's coffee mug, which he bought at the PX in Al Asad, read "IRAQ VETERAN." It was trumped only by Graham's "SOLDIER OF LOVE" mug. He'd stuck a piece of green tape over the word "LOVE" and written "HATE AND DISCONTENT."
The two Marines would look out at the incongruous, Hawaii-travel-brochure green Euphrates River and smoke Craven A brand cigarettes. Because of the dearth of women in the desert, most smoke-break conversations started with "Hey brother, you cravin' A?"
The balcony was where they tried to come up with a title for the book Mayer was writing — "Lines in the Sand" kept coming up — and where they talked about who could play them in the movie.
Graham thought the 6-foot-3-inch Mayer resembled Josh Hartnett. He had the deep-set eyes, the strong jaw, even the dimpled chin. As a bonus, Hartnett already starred in "Black Hawk Down" as a leader whose thinking-man style mirrored Mayer's.
Mayer said that Graham looked like British actor Jason Statham, who had the lead role in the 2002 film "The Transporter," because both were tall, solid guys whose hairlines were receding. But personality-wise, he was harder to peg. Graham was funny, smart, tough.He liked it when people asked about the piece of black rubber motorcycle inner tube he wore around his wrist.
"It's my Die Strong bracelet," he'd say. "Anyone can live strong, but it takes a certain type of person to die strong."
Graham's bracelet got so beat up in Iraq he used electrical tape to keep it together, but he never took it off.
Of all the living actors in all the war movies Mayer had seen, no one fit Graham too well. Even when they just focused on dead actors or specific eras of actors' careers, such as Christopher Walken circa 1982, he still couldn't think of anyone.
Cpl. Jeff Schuller, on the other hand, was an easy one. With his gleaming smile and wavy blond hair, Schuller could be played by Matt Damon, as long as Damon bulked up for the role. Schuller's high-school wrestling coach told him that he was the kind of guy who should be defending the country: nice to people generally but not afraid to unleash all hell on them if they deserved it. "Hitting someone in the face doesn't bother me that much," he says.
Schuller's father had been a Marine, and his father's father too. He grew up in Monroeville, Ohio, a small town near Sandusky where you graduate from high school and find yourself a trade. But Schuller liked the idea of protecting American freedoms. And the Cleveland State heavyweight wrestler with "USMC" tattooed on his right arm didn't want the kind of automatic respect you get from wearing dress blues. He wanted the kind you earn.
He wasn't sure he'd get the chance to earn it in Iraq. But on March 18, Lance Cpl. Aaron Rice, driving the third vehicle in a convoy, missed the dusty tracks laid by Mayer's Humvee and hit a land mine. In an instant, Rice's left leg was gone below the knee.
Schuller knew the Gulf War veterans had told him wrong — this wouldn't be a tour where he'd watch a lot of movies and get good at spades.
Not in Al Anbar, Iraq's Wild West, a large western province that extends from the suburbs of Baghdad to the borders of Syria and Jordan. After Fallujah, the worst fighting American troops had seen since Vietnam, Al Anbar was where the insurgents were heading next.
At any time a suicide bomber could veer out of an alley or a palm grove. Marines had to be wary of strange wires protruding from the ground, junked fire extinguishers, even discarded Coke cans. What looked like an empty propane tank could kill everyone in a Humvee. Since there weren't enough Marines to watch where insurgents liked to plant IEDs, every road trip had to be an exercise in caution.
And Schuller and Mayer were on the road more than most. Their platoon, Mobile Assault Platoon 7, protected Col. Lionel B. Urquhart. Wherever the colonel went, all of MAP 7 went too, often making the four-hour commute between Camp Hit and Haditha Dam, the Marine headquarters, split because of the vastness of the territory. MAP 7 never set out with less than four vehicles, three Humvees and a "seven-ton," a sturdy, all-terrain truck that sat up higher than a Humvee and could withstand a land mine.
Its commander was Staff Sgt. Michael Brady, a 34-year-old, active-duty officer whose voice still had a little Dillsburg, Pa., in it. Brady started out in the Marine Barracks, Annapolis, Maryland, with other 6-foot-tall, nondeployable Marines who just had to "stand there and look pretty." But the recruitment-poster serious Brady didn't just resemble the Marine ideal, he was the ideal Marine. He went on to serve in Panama, Israel and Okinawa, and when it came to making hard calls, he earned a reputation for always knowing the right "Marine" thing to do.
Although Marines from an infantry unit would have been perfect for his platoon, none were available, so Brady chose Marines with previous infantry or law-enforcement experience, including Schuller, who had a military police background, and Mayer, who had some Army Special Forces training. He chose other Marines who could fix trucks and radios.
That first month, MAP 7 hit three IEDs. The other platoons started calling them Compass Call, after the time of night when the military tried to detonate IEDs.
They were a good platoon, this motley mix of cops, cooks and college kids.
They were just unlucky.
At the dam on May 7, Mayer's platoon was preparing to head to an overwatch, a spot on high ground where they could look for insurgents planting IEDs. The battalion armory chief, Staff Sgt. Dan Priestley, of Parma, volunteered to go with them. In his civilian life, Priestley was an emergency medical technician, so he could provide backup support to the corpsman if anything happened.
Before they left, Priestley called his wife, Lisa. It was the day before Mother's Day, and the flowers he had sent were just being delivered. Lisa gave him the update on their boys, then 5 and 18 months, and lectured him about how he shouldn't have volunteered for the mission.
"Don't worry," he told her. "I'll be fine. I'll call you tomorrow."
Around 6:30 p.m., the Marines heard a loud boom, then another and another. It was a sound they dreaded, like someone had lit off the largest fireworks imaginable right over their heads. The floor shook. They were getting mortared. Again.
Almost immediately, Marines in small watercraft went out on the Euphrates River to find the mortarmen. They questioned a few men near the pump houses on the river bank and found a range card used to plot the mortars' route. Then, around 8 p.m., the watercraft Marines and a platoon on the river's east side came under fire by insurgents with AK-47s.
A few minutes later, MAP 7 received new orders: Head to the pump houses and get the insurgents causing all the trouble.
Mayer smiled when he heard they were heading toward the action. He'd dreamed about going to war since he was a kid with a make-believe platoon running around the woods of Russell Township. He joined the Marines three days before his 18th birthday, and in the years that followed, training for combat was constant.
Now, at 23, he finally was going to experience it.
At the gate, he saw Schuller, who was smiling too. They were going to get their combat action ribbons. They felt sure of it.
Two tanks would lead their six-vehicle convoy. Mayer and Graham climbed into the first Humvee after the tanks, while Schuller and Priestley got into the last.
Mayer maneuvered his long legs under the steering wheel and around it, flipping on the ignition switch and watching the yellow light come on. While the diesel engine warmed up, he took out a prayer card he kept crammed in the odometer and speed-read Psalm 91, as he always did before driving out of the gate.
"You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you."
The voice of a sergeant filling in for Brady came on the radio. "Victor One, are you up?" Then "Victor Two," and so on. Finally, "OK, we're rolling."
Mayer stuffed the card back into the odometer and drove out of the gate with the rest of the convoy, toward the city of Haditha's business district, about six miles away. There, they turned onto River Road and looked for the alley that would take them to the pump houses.
They knew this road. Brady always got goose bumps whenever they drove through a choke point with high terrain dotted with houses and businesses to the west and the mud-colored, one-story Haditha Hospital to the east. This was the perfect place for an ambush, he had told them. Narrow road. Surprise alleys. No place to turn left or right. And the thick grove of palm trees behind the hospital made for a great insurgent hiding spot.
As if Brady's warning echoing in their heads wasn't unsettling enough, they missed the alley.
A global-positioning system delay was to blame. By the time the GPS caught up, just after 8:30 p.m., the Marines had overshot by about 300 meters.
This wasn't good. The business district was dark and deserted. Even worse, a car blocked the road in front of them, so they had to turn around right next to a cemetery.
By then, Mayer's excitement had completed its plummet into worry. He was a wreck of nerves as he cut a hard left onto the sidewalk and turned his truck around. Some Marines, including Priestley, had gotten out on foot to provide security as Mayer weaved his way back into lead position.
Mayer's peripheral vision was almost completely obscured, but Graham, the gunner who was outside the truck from his chest up, could see in all directions.
Occasionally a fluorescent light flickered onto the road, eerily illuminating the darkness for just an instant.
"A thousand may fall at your side," Mayer whispered, "ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you."
He thought he saw shadows darting out of the darkness.
"A thousand may fall at your side •"
A white Ford van sped out of an alley.
"• ten thousand at your right ..."
"STOP!" Graham yelled.
Mayer slammed on the brakes.
The van crashed into the wall right in front of them, recoiled and blew up.
Mayer felt pressure so painful his teeth hurt. Then his truck was tumbling, and he was tumbling too, bouncing off the steering wheel and the dash, yet he felt numb. Then pain. This-is-what-it's-like-to-die pain. Suddenly, stillness.
The ringing in his ears drowned out all other sound.
He couldn't feel his legs until he reached down and grabbed one of them. He managed to pick it up and put it out the door. Then he moved the other leg out and stood.
The peppery, gunpowdery scent of explosives, and, even worse, the stench of burning flesh hit him like another assault. Through the smoke and orange flame, he could see the turret of his Humvee was gone, so Graham was gone too.
He was pissed.
We just got blown up and no one's up here to help us. He was too dazed to realize that after the blast, at least one IED had gone off and insurgents inside the hospital and on its rooftop were firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at him and the other Marines on the ground.
Priestley had been thrown 10 feet by the blast, and he was waking up to an orange sky raining car parts. He tried to stand and couldn't. He reached for his right thigh and felt bone. He tried to stand again. Someone shot him in his right triceps.
Schuller heard Priestley screaming as he climbed into the machine-gun turret. But he couldn't see him through all the smoke. Holy shit, this is war, he thought as he grabbed the 240 Gulf machine gun and started shooting into the hospital.
About 30 feet away, Mayer stumbled through the smoke, trying not to trip over hunks of cinder block and car parts.
"Graham! Graham!" he yelled.
Lance Cpl. Emmanuel Fellouzis grabbed his shoulders.
"Are you alive?"
Mayer grabbed his shoulders back.
"Yeah, are you alive?"
They spotted Graham covered in bricks. His insides were laying on the outside of his body, and there was a hole in his left shoulder.
Mayer still couldn't feel his own hands but tried to find a pulse on his friend.
Then he heard a very faint "ticktickticktick." Then a "poppoppopop."
He went back to work on Graham.
He looked up to a pretty star cluster of flames above him and in front of him. Finally, a revelation: Oh hell, someone's shooting at me!
Mayer picked up the rifle at his feet and shot back at the muzzle flash. The next few minutes blurred by as he shot and ran and ran and shot. With Fellouzis' help, he dragged a piece of armor to protect Graham. Every time he spotted a Marine on the ground, he tried to help them or move them or provide cover so someone else could do those things. But no matter what he did, he couldn't get back to Graham.
Schuller saw Mayer, looking disoriented and black-faced from the explosives, standing along with other Marines in the line of fire from the hospital. "Get down!" Schuller yelled. "Get the fuck down!"
They dropped as Schuller continued ripping into the hospital.
His bullets tore off one insurgent's arm. He brought down another man on the hospital's roof. He fired at every person and muzzle flash he saw, with Lance Cpl. Mark Kalinowski, injured with a big gash in his hand, feeding him ammunition below the turret. When Schuller ran out of ammo, he jumped out of the truck, spotted M-16s on the ground, picked up one and fired more at the insurgents.
Priestley screamed and swore as Lance Cpl. Todd Corbin tied a tourniquet around his left thigh. Then Corbin, Lance Cpl. Justin Henderson and Cpl. Robert Childress put him on a stretcher and carried him to the seven-ton. They lifted the stretcher up to the doors, about 8 feet off the ground, but it was too wide to fit. Priestley had to drag himself inside with Lance Cpl. Steven Wilfong's help. There, Wilfong had to put a second tourniquet on him because the first had been pulled off.
Another Marine lying underneath Priestley in the cab needed a tourniquet too.
There wasn't one. So the other Marine clamped Priestley's hand over his leg wound, while Corbin and the others kept bringing more Marines.
Schuller stopped firing only to help load the dead and wounded into the seven-ton. As a wrestler, Schuller was used to throwing people around, but moving dead Marines was the hardest thing he'd ever done — straddling their bodies, putting his arms under their armpits, looking into what was left of their faces as he dragged them to the seven-ton.
He had to do it. That was the only reason he could.
A tank was trying to get to where Mayer's Humvee was burning. The tank's driver spotted Mayer and told him to move a truck blocking its way. Mayer did. When he opened the door to get out, he saw Sgt. Aaron Cepeda at his feet. Mayer dropped to the ground and undid Cepeda's chin strap, which seemed to be choking him. Cepeda was dead, but it didn't register, not even as Mayer helped Corbin and Schuller drag him to the seven-ton.
That seven-ton was the only way out of the fight, and it was in sorry shape: three flat tires, an overheating radiator, shot-out headlights. Inside was even worse. Everyone who was supposed to be in charge was dead or seriously injured on the bloody floor. Priestley and another injured Marine were lying closest to the cab. The dead were in the open back. The other Marines had to step on them to find a place to sit and reload their guns.
They were in hell, and they'd have to shoot their way out of it.
As his Humvee popped and cracked and boomed, Mayer took cover behind a boulder and laid waste to a house on a hill opposite the hospital, convinced by the muzzle flashes in the windows that insurgents were holed up there. All the while, Mayer agonized over how he was going to get to Graham on the other side of the blaze. He asked Schuller to help, but Schuller couldn't reach him either.
They were running out of time. A tank was preparing to barrel over the burning remains of the Humvee to make a way out for the seven-ton, and Mayer worried the tank
might roll over Graham. So he yelled up at the tank commander as loud as he could, over the sounds of the tank and the rounds cooking off and the bullets whizzing past to go slowly, to look out for Graham, to be careful not to run him over.
The tank commander gave him the thumbs-up and pushed forward. As the tank rolled, Mayer, still uncertain the commander got what he was saying, jumped into the seven-ton behind it. Corbin was driving with shattered headlights, having only night-vision goggles to help him see, fully aware that the wounded guys needed help immediately, that if he didn't get them back to the dam right away, they could die. Mayer got more ammo from one of the wounded and joined in the huge volume of suppressive fire.
He glanced down at Graham as they passed him and screamed at Corbin to stop. But the seven-ton kept rolling. Graham looked dead, his face smoke-blackened and smoldering. But that didn't excuse what they were doing.
We're pussies, thought Schuller. We're leaving one of our guys.
Wilfong stood over Priestley, firing. Hot shell casings kept hitting him in the face. Priestley could feel the blood draining from his body as he gripped his tourniquet and the other Marine's leg. Sleep taunted him, but he wouldn't give in. He tried to make peace with God, but couldn't stop thinking about his wife and sons.
He managed to move his head so the brass casings hit his helmet instead of his skin. Over that sound, "clink, clink, clink," the voice in his head urged, stay awake!
Brady, traveling with a convoy sent to help MAP 7, arrived on the scene around 9 p.m., as the seven-ton was leaving. "Who's hurt?" he yelled. "What's going on?"
It barreled right past him.
He called them on the radio. No answer. Either they didn't have the radio on or things were worse than he thought. He was racked with guilt. He felt he should have been here with them. But he had let a lower-ranked sergeant lead MAP 7 this time, as his superiors had advised. Before his Marines left, he gave them one final order: "Don't you dare get into a fight without me."
Of course, they had.
Now he was here, but it was too late. He spotted Graham on the ground about 75 meters away and ran to him, putting himself in the path of the insurgents' fire and near the unpredictable inferno of Mayer's abandoned Humvee.
Brady realized Graham was dead right away. He was on his back with his hands still on his gun, as if he were about to start shooting.
Through the scope on his rifle, 3/25 scout sniper Cpl. Jeffrey Boskovitch saw insurgents fire a rocket-propelled grenade into the fray at Haditha Hospital, but he was too far away to do anything about it.
The next day was Mother's Day. Boskovitch dialed his father on the satellite phone. It was 3 p.m. in Cuyahoga Falls.
"My stomach's in knots," he said.
It was unusual for him to call and talk about what he was doing in Iraq. Most conversations centered on what was happening back home, on what he was missing.
But he was sick about this.
Probably tomorrow, he told his father, some mothers are going to hear their sons were killed.
"I felt so helpless," he said.
At the hospital in Al Asad, Mayer was treated for shrapnel wounds and burns to his face and arms. When a nurse took off his boots, spent shells spilled onto the floor. After what felt like hours of people looking at him and moving him from place to place, a high-ranking Navy doctor finally escorted him to a room with a cot and handed him some painkillers and sleeping pills.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked.
"Can you tell me which of my friends are dead?"
She left the room. When she came back with some names, she seemed unsure of them. He asked if Lance Cpl. Lance Graham was there. She didn't know. He asked her to wake him if Graham showed up, even if he showed up dead. He wanted to know which pieces of him made it back.
Then he went to sleep for the next 12 hours.
When Mayer awoke, a young Navy corpsman asked what he could do.
"I want to know if Graham's here," Mayer said. "Lance Cpl. Lance T. Graham. I want to know right now."
The corpsman left the room and came back, then left and came back again.
He said Graham had arrived at 4 a.m., KIA.
He was dead, but at least he was accounted for. It gave Mayer some peace to know his friend's body wasn't being dragged through the streets or hanging from a bridge in flames.
When 3/25 Marines stopped by his room, Mayer learned about the other casualties of May 7. He heard their corpsman, Petty Officer Third Class Jeffrey "Doc" Wiener, 32, husband and father of two young girls, had died. So did Cepeda, 22, a Texan who had a knack for Arabic and acted as the platoon's unofficial translator. Sgt. Michael Marzano, 28, an amateur-title-winning boxer from Pennsylvania, had been killed too. Priestley's legs had been torn up so badly both his femurs were visible, but he made it to the hospital in time to save both his life and his legs. He was in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany getting more surgeries.
Soon after Mayer was discharged, Brady told him he had pushed into Haditha Hospital, where he killed one armed insurgent and captured another. After what the insurgents had done to their platoon, at least Brady got some payback.
After May 7, Schuller and Mayer were assigned to the same Humvee. They were at a checkpoint, sitting on top of their truck, hitting the Red Man tobacco to pass the time when Schuller asked Mayer, "So, you think you're going to live?"
"I don't know, man," Mayer said. "I don't think we're going to live."
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to live."
"That's good for you."
"You don't think you're going to live?"
"That sucks for you."
They had variations of that conversation for the next four-and-a-half months.
After they had bummed out everyone around them, Schuller wrote letters to his girlfriend or read Milton's "Paradise Lost," highlighting what he liked in yellow, pausing over the passages about angels and protectors. Mayer went back to writing in his second journal. His first, a steno notepad, got destroyed with his Humvee on May 7.
Mayer awoke each day with a knowledge that he might not go to bed that night. This made him enjoy little things so much more — conversation, cigarettes, Coke with Arabic printed on the can. At times, he and Schuller vented about the selfishness and ignorance of their generation, about how society was in the process of "reverse natural selection," where the best men were in Iraq getting killed while the weak were propagating the species.
In his journal, Mayer addressed all the young, male civilians at home: You get to die recognizable. We die with 11 days of filth in our hair, under our nails, soaked into our skin. ... Keep imprisoning yourself while we reap liberation. True terror and hell that only by contrast we now can understand real happiness and love, protection. Try to get that by playing "Halo."
The truth was Mayer felt apathetic at times. He'd take his time scraping something off his boot while Schuller yelled at him to get down. As insurgents were shooting at him, he was wondering if he'd have an open casket, thinking about how he wished his hair wasn't going to be so short in it.
Schuller, on the other hand, had spells of feeling invincible. He'd stand in the middle of the road with his gun aimed at an oncoming car until it stopped or until Mayer convinced him to stop acting as if he couldn't be blown to pieces like the rest of them.
Either reaction to combat — apathy or invincibility — could get you killed in Iraq. That's why they needed each other.
Just how damaged am I? Mayer wrote. If I make it, well, that's the only way I'll be able to tell. ... I could be the strongest version of myself because of this but all I could have been without this is no longer possible.
Few jobs in the Marine Corps hold as much allure as that of the scout snipers, highly trained marksmen regarded as "the eyes, ears and triggers of the battalion." From high ground, they watched roads for those planting IEDs, killing them when they could. They gathered intelligence about the mortars and rockets hitting Haditha Dam. Wherever they went, they went quietly, usually in the dark, carrying 80 to 100 pounds of gear, including days of food, water and ammunition, in temperatures as high as 130 degrees.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Thresher, of Parma, was one of them. He grew up around guns, hunting deer with his father. He joined the Marines because he wanted to be among the best in the military and the snipers because he wanted to be among the best of the Marines. Only six of the 25 Marines who started sniper training with him made it through.
In Iraq, he was in charge of a three-man team and spent most of his time with those guys. They were always ready. They never slept well. They developed bonds with one another that were as strong as their resolve.
One of his fellow snipers was Jeff Boskovitch, who watched the May 7 ambush through the scope on his rifle. Serious in the field but with a talent for "Saturday Night Live" impressions, "Bosko" never owned a toy gun as a kid. He was a natural marksman who'd always liked reconnaissance. At 25, Boskovitch was younger than many of the snipers. A corporate security supervisor and deputy sheriff, he had been a Marine reservist for five years before going to Iraq. He quarterbacked his Normandy High School football team, liked playing pool at the Fox and Hound and was a true guy in every sense of the word. At the expense of his own score in boot camp, he'd hang back to motivate the guys who were having trouble. The special camaraderie of the snipers fit him well.
Before he left, he talked to his father, Jim, about the war.
"When Sept. 11 happened, it was a test for the United States and the will of the country," he said. "If we don't respond, who will?"
Jim listened, then he told Jeff to live every day over there as if it were his first.
Thresher's spotter snapped his fingers, and then Thresher saw it too: A blue Opel sedan about 300 yards away, just west of the aqueduct where they were hiding. Two men dressed in black clothes and headdresses with AK-47s slung across their backs emerged from the car and started digging a hole for an IED. Another man, this one with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, got out of the car and leaned over it facing north. Thresher's heart beat faster as he looked through his rifle scope.
The insurgents started to get back into the car. Thresher hesitated. Two other men were coming toward it from the north, one with an AK-47 and one with a rocket-propelled grenade. They piled into the car too. Thresher reoriented the shot toward an open area where the car was heading. Then the car stopped again, and two more insurgents ran up to it from the south, one with an AK-47 and one with an RPG.
Thresher's team was outmanned and outgunned. It was eight against three. Five AK-47s and three RPGs vs. three M-16s. He let them go.
It was the right thing to do. The insurgents would have had them from three directions. Once they left, Thresher's team provided intelligence about the incident, and the IED was disposed of safely. But it still bothered him. Thresher knew those eight insurgents were still out there planting more IEDs.
On June 25, Thresher's team spotted another Opel, a white one with three men inside. One man jumped out and started furiously digging an IED on the side of the road in almost the exact same spot as before. But these men in jeans and T-shirts didn't look like insurgents. They were probably civilians, planting the explosives for money.
After the second man got out of the car, the snipers set up a coordinated shot and killed them both. Then Thresher shot at the driver until he drove off the road and died. Knowing they were probably civilians didn't make it harder for Thresher. A civilian's IED can kill a Marine just as easily as an insurgent's.
For months, the city of Hit had been a hotbed of insurgency, the source of nearly constant mortar fire on the camp outside town. But on June 27, the Marines launched Operation Sword and took the city easily, establishing bases in an abandoned school and a youth center. The insurgents were still in the city, most likely. But they blended back into the civilian population, who began to talk to the Marines and give them tips about where the IEDs were.
On the morning of July 30, about two dozen Marines who had been in Hit since the invasion joined MAP 7's convoy to Camp Hit, where they could relax. Their two seven-tons were traveling with MAP 7 along the dirt-and-scrub landscape just west of the river, dodging deep IED craters that could take up the entire width of the road.
A red Chevrolet van seemed to come out of nowhere, accelerating along the side of the road then stopping about one meter away from it. The convoy stopped and waved the van away from the road. It turned around and seemed to disappear.
But then Brady, who was in the second vehicle, saw the van again. After the first vehicle in the convoy passed it, the van sped from the side of the road into the 150-meter opening between the lead vehicle and Brady's Humvee. Schuller and Mayer, who were in the last truck, exchanged their this-moron-wants-to-die look.
"You've got a car bomb behind you," Brady yelled into the radio at the first vehicle. "Engage! Engage!"
Brady's gunner opened up on the rear and side of the van with a 50-caliber machine gun. The gunner in the first Humvee turned around and tried to disable the van with an M-16, putting 30 rounds into it.
Blood splattered on the windshield, but the van continued accelerating. The driver looked like a teenager whose hands might have been taped to the steering wheel. He kept looking for a place to get next to the first Humvee where he could do the most damage. The Humvee driver went off the road, figuring he could outrun a civilian vehicle better there. The van exploded.
To Mayer, it looked like a volcano erupting, a crimson cloud belched from the earth's core. It was the biggest fireball Brady had ever seen, and his heart sank as a huge cloud of smoke engulfed them and 50 meters on both sides of the road.
They're all dead, he thought.
He gave the order to stop. He didn't want to run over any Marines' bodies, and he was concerned it could be a coordinated attack, like at Haditha Hospital. The other vehicles encircled the first Humvee, which was on fire. Everyone but the gunners and drivers got out to man the gaps between vehicles.
Insurgents started firing from the palm groves, but they stopped a few minutes later. Brady didn't know why. Perhaps the insurgents realized they were outnumbered when the Marines returned fire.
The bomb had ripped the back doors off the lead Humvee and thrown both passengers from the rear. The truck was burning and Mayer tried to put out the flames with a fire extinguisher. Then he started picking up the gear scattered on the ground. Next to rifles and night vision goggles were pages of letters from girlfriends and wives, CDs and bits of the suicide bomber's body. Most of a torso here. A rib cage there. Both of his small hands.
The lead gunner's eardrums had been ruptured. Other Marines took some shrapnel, including one huge piece that lodged in the back of a flak jacket near one man's spine. In all, five were injured, but none too badly.
After close calls like that, Mayer always felt hollow. It was as if someone yanked the mountain of fear he was standing on right out from under him. It made him feel empty in a good way.
The building where the Marines slept in Hit reminded Mayer of a roadside motel with the stairs on the outside. He spent a lot of time on the balcony, sitting on a cot he dragged out there, smoking cigarettes, missing Graham and watching the sunset or the smoke rising in the distance, from where the haji burned their trash. The city looked like Tatooine, the desert planet in "Star Wars," only with densely packed buildings. Some parts had been bombed out. In the distance, the Euphrates River was obscured from view by thick palm groves. It looked like Vietnam over there.
Sometimes there'd be 20 guys on the balcony, writing letters, smoking, cutting each other's hair. Other times Mayer would be alone or with Schuller. He read books — mostly war stuff to augment his first-hand knowledge and help him write about it well. He read Michael Herr's "Dispatches" and Joseph Heller's "Catch 22." He brought a whole library with him. People sent him more books. And then he and Schuller ordered even more.
Books are what they liked to talk about on the balcony. They were a substitute for alcohol.
Even though Mayer and Schuller had plenty of tequila and Maker's Mark bourbon sent in mouthwash bottles by friends and relatives, they didn't get drunk. They already felt hung over all the time. Sleep deprivation and stress roused them with a just-been-punched-in-the-face feeling. Any moment something could happen they'd want to be sober for.
So they limited their alcohol consumption to quick shots in Dixie cups. It was something else to stay alive for each day.
At about 1 p.m. on Aug. 1, Boskovitch and five other snipers lay prone on a high hill near Haditha Dam. In this undulating terrain filled with sheep herders, small villages and farms, they were looking for insurgents reportedly in the area, firing on the dam. So far the snipers hadn't seen anything, and they wanted out of there. Nothing was happening, plus it was hot — at least 130 degrees, and hotter on the ground, where they tried to keep a low silhouette. There weren't any trees to give them cover, just brush and the kind of ground they called "hard pan" because even rainwater didn't soak into it.
Because it was dangerous to travel when it was still light out, they were going to leave that night. They were on the radio, coordinating that evening's departure with a third sniper team about two kilometers away, when five insurgents ambushed them with AK-47s.
The Marines fired back. All except Boskovitch were killed on the scene. He managed to run about 75 yards, while still firing at the insurgents, before they shot him too.
Mayer had earned his purple heart and his combat action ribbon. He'd accepted the possibility that the deadly Iraqi desert might be the last landscape he'd ever see. But none of that prepared him for the surreal, disturbing events of Aug. 1.
It started around 6:45 p.m., after MAP 7 had detained an Iraqi man who had been taking pictures of tanks outside of Camp Hit, on the Euphrates River's west side, when news of the sniper ambush came over the radio. Mayer heard "multiple KIAs," the spelling out of the names, "alpha ... papa ..." and tried to put the letters together in his head. Hours away from where the snipers were killed, he felt helpless. A familiar layer of fuzz — part exhaustion, part frustrated vengefulness — clouded his brain.
But there was no time to be numb. A few minutes after the transmission ended, an explosion produced a huge, fiery cloud over the east side of the river. Minutes later, another radio transmission followed with more bad news: Another platoon, MAP 9, had been hit by a suicide car bomb. There were multiple casualties, and MAP 7 had to respond.
The Marines quickly dropped off their detainee at Camp Hit and drove toward the site of the explosion. At 7:20 p.m., the same time a helicopter was evacuating three wounded Marines and three injured Iraqis from the scene, two men pushed a maroon sedan into an intersection, blocking MAP 7. Brady sensed an ambush and ordered the Marines to engage the car and push through.
But, with no explanation, before the Marines could fire a single shot, two men pushed the car out of their way.
And they were moving again — past a man holding up a dead boy, about 10 years old, an apparent casualty of the suicide bomber. The gesture could have been Help! Or an incriminating You're here, so this happened. Like so many other things in Iraq, it was impossible to know the subtext.
A few minutes later, MAP 7 arrived at the grisly scene. The car bomb had gone off near crops of watermelon and eggplant. One Marine and some civilians had been torn apart by the blast, and pieces of their bodies were strewn across the field. Immediately, Brady set up a protective circle of Marines and vehicles. Mayer and Schuller jumped out of their truck and started knocking on doors, hunting for insurgents in nearby houses.
At one house behind a mosque, they found a few men, some frantic women and six children, crying, bleeding and traumatized. From the scattered shards of glass all around, Mayer knew the kids must have been playing nearby when the car bomb exploded. It always got to him to see how the war punished kids. He fought back a wave of emotion as he and Schuller went back to the site, got their corpsman and brought him to the house to stitch them up.
Back at the explosion site, a gory mess of body parts and engine blocks, damaged cars and other debris, Mayer and Schuller helped prepare MAP 9 for its trip back to Camp Hit. Mayer helped collect the killed Marine's torso and head, some appendages, and he put them all in the bodybag that would go back to the camp with MAP 9.
But the MAP 7 Marines couldn't leave until a mortuary team arrived to collect the rest of the dead Marine's body, the parts they couldn't distinguish from those of civilians or even pieces of watermelon on the ground.
The night seemed endless to Mayer, his thoughts filled with all he'd seen. Some cows, hit by the shrapnel and bleeding from huge gashes in their sides, mooed in agony. Mayer, Brady and Schuller listened to gunfire and watched the sky for tracer rounds, anticipating another attack, since the insurgents had to know they were there.
They jumped every time another Marine shot at dogs to keep them away from their dead friend.
August got bloodier for 3/25.
Two days after the attack on the six snipers, an amphibious assault vehicle filled with 14 Marines looking for insurgents hit an IED and blew up, killing them all in the war's deadliest single attack on U.S. troops. In one week, 16 Marines from Ohio had been killed.
It's August and everyone is dying, Mayer wrote. Sick of the faces, imagining what they look like in print, on the blurry front pages of newspapers at home that we'll never see. Who is alive to witness their own 15 minutes? Not anyone who leaves us here. ... At 23 years old, oddly, this is where I finally begin to see whiskers growing on my face. My first facial hair's come in gray. Twenty-three going on 60.
Soon after the attack on the snipers, the insurgents released a video. It's very grainy, but it shows footage of Boskovitch's body, as well as dog tags and what look like the snipers' weapons. Ansar al-Sunnah, part of Al Qaeda, took responsibility for the attack. Its public statement, issued in addition to the video, exaggerated the Marine losses and claimed one Marine had been captured.
Major Shenandoah Sanchez conducted the Marines' investigation into the snipers' deaths. He surveyed the scene, looked at all the evidence and determined that the snipers had not been compromised by someone working with the Marines, as had been suggested by people writing on blogs and one local television station. No group outside of the Marine Corps, including the Iraqi Army, had any information about the mission.
Rather, bad decisions made by some Marines put the snipers in a position with blind spots and increased their vulnerability in the field. Insurgents took advantage of that vulnerability and ambushed them. Some Marines were disciplined for the decisions they made that day, but Sanchez stressed that their conduct did not sink to the level of "criminal negligence."
While the complete report is still classified, Major General Douglas V. O'Dell did speak with the snipers' families this March. According to Sanchez, he told them, "There were only errors of omission, not errors of commission."
During the Marines' last month in Iraq, things seemed to improve. After Operation Sword, Hit wasn't so tense anymore. Schuller and Mayer felt safe enough to take their helmets off in the street and play with the kids.
They often parked on an alley that led to the base to make sure insurgents couldn't get to it. One-story residential structures — you could hardly call them houses or even apartments — sat on uneven plots of dirt. Children, including one naked baby just old enough to walk, appeared and disappeared through doors in what looked like an otherwise uninterrupted stretch of wall. Schuller and Mayer began seeing the same two little girls in flowered dresses. The Marines brought them Starburst, Coke or Oreos from the PX and left them in the street or outside their doors. The girls, who were probably about 8 years old, would wait until their trucks pulled away before running out to collect the gifts.
One day a Datsun came speeding down the alley, and Mayer thought it was going to blow up. But instead of climbing into his Humvee and closing the door, which would have been the only safe thing to do, he ran in front of the playing children and aimed his M-16 at the car.
It stopped, turned around and drove away.
After that, the children began to trust him and the other Marines. They started running toward their trucks instead of away from them. When the boys would steal the soccer ball from the two girls, Mayer and Schuller would get it back. The girls didn't speak any English, not even "candy" or "money," words other kids knew. Schuller and Mayer didn't know their names. They called them their "girlfriends" because one always went to Schuller and one to Mayer.
The girl who always came to Mayer liked pens best. She was always thrilled when he brought them to her and before long, they had a little bond. She didn't see him as the occupying force, and he didn't see her as a daughter of the insurgency. When they were together, they weren't American or Iraqi, Catholic or Muslim, armed or helpless. They were just a nice Marine and a little kid. She made him remember the person he was before May 7, before IEDs and suicide bombs, before he abandoned Graham's body. She showed him that he could still be a child's friend.
The last time Mayer patrolled her street, he drew a smiley face on a piece of notebook paper along with an American flag and an Iraqi flag, then wrapped it around some Bic pens. Her favorite kind.
She wasn't there that day, so he left it on her doorstep. He hoped she'd keep the paper and one day, when she's old enough, get the message.
When 3/25 returned to Cleveland in October, people lined the streets of Brook Park with signs welcoming them back home. The Marines were paraded across a stage at the I-X Center, where months before, politicians unsuccessfully grabbed at the reins of the grieving process for those mourning Ohio's dead.
The homecoming was affirmation on a grand scale, but this was the result of the news coverage of Marines' deaths, not their accomplishments. Unless the news from Iraq was bloody, it didn't get much attention. Clevelanders bound up their wounded hearts with yellow ribbons, but many didn't know what the returning Marines did over there, other than stay alive.
Lt. Col. Michael H. Brown, a military planner who helped plot 3/25's course in Iraq and now serves as its inspector-instructor, says the unit ultimately succeeded in Al Anbar. And that success was felt all the way down the ranks.
"Leave it better than you found it," says Schuller, now a sergeant. "I will punch anyone who says we didn't."
Since most are reservists, they have folded back into the civilian population, though Iraq still looms large in their lives. They are well-regarded veterans of a war that the public increasingly does not support.
Staff Sgt. Priestley continues to undergo operations for his injuries — he expects to have 25 total. He has progressed more than doctors thought possible. He can walk. He still goes to work at the armory in Brook Park each day.
Staff Sgt. Brady is now Gunnery Sgt. Brady, 3/25 battalion training chief. He will be transferred soon to Camp Lejeune where he will be training chief for the Marine Expeditionary Force.
Staff Sgt. Thresher has gone back to his civilian job as a heavy equipment operator.
Sgt. Schuller is wrestling for CSU again, while earning a double-major in criminology and Middle Eastern studies.
Cpl. Mayer is working on his book. This fall, he will attend Kent State University, where he will pursue a degree in English with a focus on creative nonfiction.
All five Marines say they would go back to Iraq.
Information about these events came from five Marines interviewed at length. When possible, it was checked against the memories of other Marines and official documents. All quoted conversations were relayed by at least one party.
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