Reporter’s Diary: The Battle of Fallujah

Knight Ridder Newspapers

The Battle of Fallujah

U.S. may have won, but at a great personal cost

By Tom Lasseter
Knight Ridder Newspapers

11.8.04, Monday

FALLUJAH, Iraq – Capt. Sean Sims watched artillery shells fall and explode in a blast of sand and rubble, close enough to hear but too far to see what they hit. It was Sims’ first daylight look at the rebel-held city of Fallujah on Monday afternoon, just hours before he would lead his men deep into its heart.

A Marine Harrier jet screamed overhead. A Mark-19 automatic grenade launcher nearby let loose – bomb-boom-boom – sending grenades to burst in the distance.

As commander of Alpha Company, of the 1st Infantry Division’s Task Force 2-2, Sims drew a mission the U.S. military had sought to avoid since the start of the Iraq war: house-to-house fighting in an urban landscape that gave rebels many places to hide, significantly offsetting the superior firepower of U.S. troops while risking civilian casualties and vast property destruction. It would be the most intense urban combat for U.S. troops since the 1968 battle for Hue, in Vietnam.

Sims’ men would win the battle, yet no one would feel like celebrating. Killing the enemy, they learned, was sobering. More so was the loss of friends.

Sims would not come back.

Before his men left the Forward Operating Base near Fallujah that morning, battalion commander, Lt. Col. Pete Newell, gathered them in a circle. “This is as pure a fight of good versus evil as we will probably face in our lifetime,” he said.

Alpha Company was heading to the city’s eastern corridor, the Askari neighborhood, from where they would turn south into industrial districts and finally hook back to the west, running for six bleary days with almost no sleep.

Although most of the city’s 300,000 residents had fled, intelligence briefings suggested the Askari neighborhood – home to many former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army – had been turned into one big bunker, with car bombs, booby traps and snipers’ nests.

None of the young American men had ever set foot in the town, shared a cup of tea with a resident or seen the ornate blue domes that topped the mosques.

After Sims took in the view, soldiers of Alpha Company scrambled to a road overlooking Fallujah. Then sniper fire began and the battle was joined. Some soldiers emptied their M-16 clips, some yelling, others laughing as return sniper fire pinged off the Bradleys and pavement around them.

“Lord, I have to say a special prayer now,” the 32-year-old Sims said in the soft-spoken accent of his hometown of Eddy, Texas.

He hustled up a berm to the road to link up with the Task Force 2-2 reconnaissance team.

Crouched down on his right knee, Sims watched the insurgents’ mortar rounds land, and a minute or two later he heard the retort of U.S. artillery. A few hundred yards away, the outskirts of Fallujah rose out of the desert in a warren of sand-colored houses.

Satellite images after recent airstrikes showed dozens of ensuing explosions that probably resulted from roadside bombs.

“Everybody realizes that it’s something that will affect the rest of our lives, in terms of seeing that type of combat,” Sims said a few days earlier. “When the first bullet impacts, you know the eyes of the world are going to be on you.”

Near Sims, a sniper lay on his belly with a rifle scope pressed against his eyes. A five-man insurgent team was scampering in and out of the buildings of Askari. One rebel appeared to be carrying mortars.

More bullets flew by, and the mortar rounds grew closer. Capt. Kirk Mayfield, of the recon team, yelled, “Everyone behind the truck.”

Standing next to his Humvee, Mayfield screamed for U.S. mortar strikes on the five-man team. After the ensuing rumble, a voice called over the radio: “Can I get a battle damage assessment?”

“An assessment?” the reply came. “There is no more building.”

Sims laughed to himself.

Sniper shots zipped by, pinging off the Humvee.

“Where is that sniper? Here it is,” Mayfield barked, turning to a gunner behind an automatic grenade launcher. “Blow him away.”

The red-hot streak of another bullet whizzed past. The gunner shot round after round, with explosions echoing across the town, then pulled a pair of binoculars to his face and announced, “He is not there anymore.”

Sims called over to his men, “Let’s go,” and they went scrambling back down the dirt berm.

At about 7 p.m., he lined up his vehicle behind his First and Third platoons as they braced for the fight.

Sitting in the back of Sims’ Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Corp. Travis Barreto, from Brooklyn, leaned over and tried to get a glimpse through one of the small rectangle windows at the back of the truck.

A truck pulled up carrying a rocket with about 350 feet of cord attached to it and 5-pound blocks of C4 plastic explosives spaced out every foot down the line. With a small whoosh, the rocket flew forward and a wall of flame shot up. Roadside bombs planted by rebels exploded, one after the other.

Barreto cheered.

“You know we’re going to destroy this town,” said Barreto, 22.

“I hope so,” replied the soldier sitting next to him.

Phosphorous shells came next, releasing bouncing white orbs of smoke. The gunner on top of the Bradley began firing 25 mm high explosive rounds, filling the cabin of the Bradley with an ammonia-like smell. Barreto looked outside the window again and could see only smoke and flashes of light.

The U.S. artillery shells were coming in “Danger Close” – the thin line between uncomfortably near and death.

Insurgent AK-47 fire rang off the sides of the Bradley. Explosions sounded to the rear, but it was impossible to tell which belonged to roadside bombs and which were rocket-propelled grenades.

As the hours passed, soldiers tried to grab a few minutes of sleep, slumping their heads on the next shoulder. Each time they began to drift off another explosion would jolt them awake.

Large concrete barriers and parked cars blocked in the road in some places. The big M1A1 Abrams tanks lined up and pounded the obstacles with 120 mm shells, shaking the air.

Sims followed his platoons, which moved a few blocks at a time, one in front of the other, before stopping. The rear hatch of the Bradley lowered amid yells of “Dismount! Dismount!” The soldiers, having ridden in a tight, sweaty box through the battle – their knees cramped and aching – ran out, then slammed to their knees and took cover beside a wall. Then came “Go! Go! Go!” and the men busted through the front door of a house and, waving their rifles, cleared rooms before storming upstairs.

Sims parked his vehicle with two others in a blocking position on the road outside before following to the rooftop, where his soldiers set up a lookout.

With bullets whizzing, Sims and his men crouched down with the third platoon and assessed the battle. Barreto, acting as a guard, crouched next to Sims with a dazed look on his face.

“It’s weird how we can be looking at the rooftops and there’s no one,” he said, “and all of a sudden they’re shooting at us.” An AC-130 airplane flew overhead, shooting its cannons in a low roar.

The third platoon reported that the house next door had a jumble of wires leading to a propane tank. Fearing a booby trap, Sims got on the radio and called for a tank to level the building. The call came back: the road was too narrow. Well, Sims said, blow a hole through a wall and drive through it.

“It’s difficult terrain,” Sims yelled over the noise around him. “We’re having to move deliberately through the rubble.”

He took another look around the rooftop, then scurried back downstairs and into his Bradley.

Mortar rounds began to fall, at first far away, then closer and closer as unseen insurgents walked their mortar fire forward a few feet at a time. Sims’ Bradley was stuck between two other vehicles, but to veer off the road would risk hitting a mine or bomb. Another mortar fell, and its shrapnel tattooed the side of the Bradley and rattled those sitting inside. “Kill those b——-, kill those motherf——,” someone screamed in the darkness.

No one said another word.

11.9.04, Tuesday

Thirteen hours after the push began, Sims and his men looked gray and worn. Dirt was beginning to cover their faces and uniforms. Their ears ached. After two hours of sleep on a concrete floor of an abandoned house, their eyes were dulled.

“At first, last night, when we came in and heard all the AK-47 fire we freaked out,” said Sgt. Brandon Bailey, 21, of Big Bear, Calif. “But now as long as it’s not coming right at us, we’re fine.”

Later, Bailey said it felt like the enemy was coming from every direction.

“So we just went ape shit with the cannon, shooting everything,” he said.

How many people did they kill? Bailey shrugged his shoulders.

Sims’ temporary headquarters was a mostly empty house. It stood on the north side of Fallujah’s main road which, like all east-west roads there, was given a woman’s name by military planners: Fran. On the other side stood the beginnings of the city’s industrial district, where more insurgents lay in wait.

Tanks were parked up and down Fran, and ordnance disposal teams were already identifying the homemade bombs – Improvised Explosive Devices, in military lingo – that lined the road. They were densely packed, but with no one to detonate them, the bombs sat idle as Army trucks rolled by.

Inside the house, the family that fled left handwritten verses of the Quran on the doorways, a tradition intended to keep homes safe. Baby formula was scattered around and a kerosene heater was stored in a utility closet. A painting of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, hung on the wall in the front room.

Bullet holes pocked the walls of the house. Its windows were shattered. Pieces of plaster and concrete were strewn about. A solider defecated in a stairwell, and the stench grew with the morning sun.

Staff Sgt. Jason Ward was sitting outside the house in his M-113 armored truck – a square box on tank tracks used to cart casualties off the battlefield.

Ward, from Midland, Texas, had a deeper accent than Sims, a square jaw and a blank expression. He was chewing on a Slim Jim. Ward said he’d ferried at least 10 injured soldiers the night before.

“It’s been very intense,” he said. “For a lot of our younger soldiers, it’s overwhelming.”

He wore a bracelet with the name “Marvin Sprayberry III” etched on it, just above “KIA” and “True Friend.”

Sprayberry was Ward’s best friend. He was a good man. He was killed on May 3 when the vehicle he was in rolled over during a firefight. That was all Ward had to say on the matter.

Resting in a Humvee nearby, 1st Lt. Edward Iwan was scrolling down a flat blue computer screen, mounted to the dashboard, that showed the location of every Army and Marine unit in Fallujah. Iwan, Alpha company’s executive officer, noted that his men were deeper in the city than any other unit.

“It’s a fairly complex environment, like we thought it would be,” said Iwan, 28, of Albion, Neb. “Cities are where people die. That’s where you take most of your casualties.”

Iwan looked out through the Humvee’s window at a thicket of buildings in every direction.

“There are 8,000 places to hide,” he said, shaking his head.

Across the street, a long row of shops, once home to mechanics and carpenters, lay in ruins. Tin cigarette stands leaned on their sides, pocked with bullet holes.

Sims was on the roof of the house, sitting against a wall, his legs crossed at the ankle with a map on his lap. A little past dawn, after an hour or two lull, the shooting started again.

A reporter offered Sims a satellite phone to call his family. No thanks, he said. He wanted to talk with them when he got somewhere quieter. He had an infant son, Colin, whose brown hair and small ears, which poked out on the sides, looked just like his father’s.

Sims wondered aloud if the bullets flying by were aimed at him. During the next couple minutes, several ricocheted off the roof near him.

“OK, that’s a sniper right there,” he said with a small grin as his men grabbed their guns and crouched so only the top of their heads showed above the roofline.

Sims picked up the radio and called in an artillery strike to “soften” the sniper positions. His call sign was Terminator Six.

Barreto moved his rifle slowly, scanning the cluster of houses nearby. “He’s somewhere from my 11 o’clock to my 3 o’clock,” he muttered.

Spc. Luis Lopez, 21, was too short to rest his M14 sniper rifle on the roof, so he created a step from a metal box containing a child’s Snoopy sneaker.

The company radio squawked with sightings of snipers and everyone adjusted their aim: a circle window to the southwest, a rooftop to the southeast, a crevice in the wall to the southwest. With every new location, the men clenched their triggers and shell casings flew up in the air. The sniper rounds stopped. And then, they began again.

“He shot right at me,” yelled Barreto, ducking. “He shot right AT me.”

Those soldiers who weren’t on sniper rotation sat on the roof with their brown Meal Ready to Eat packets, finding the main meal – bean burrito, country captain chicken, beef teriyaki – and dunking it with water in the cooking pouch, which smelled of cardboard and chemicals.

They talked about Steve Faulkenburg, the battalion sergeant major, shot in the head the night before. What the hell was he doing out there, they asked. Directing traffic, trying to get a truckload of Iraqi National Guardsmen out of the line of fire. The tough 45-year-old was from Huntingburg, a small town in southern Indiana where there are cornfields and a population of about 5,500. There’s a Victorian-style downtown district there with brick-lined sidewalks and streets named Chestnut and Washington. Thousands of miles from home, he’d fallen dead, in the dark, on a street with no name.

“Friendlies coming up, friendlies coming up,” other soldiers yelled as they climbed the stairs to the roof.

A building a few blocks away quaked with fresh explosions that sent ashes falling like snowflakes. Flames shot into the sky.

The radio squawked: “OK, I’ve got an injury to sergeant … and I’m unaware if it is a gunshot wound to the groin or a shrapnel wound to the groin.”

Another report came in: A second sergeant had been shot. The soldiers on the rooftop with Sims paused, shook their heads, then turned back to the fight.

When they got bored or scared of being on the rooftop, some of the men – young and with an awkward day’s stubble on their upper lips – went outside and around the corner to see the Fat Man. “Hey dude, we’re going to see the Fat Man, wanna come?” they said.

Their boots crunched hurriedly across the rubble outside the house and then slid down a muddy hill of trash and feces.

The Fat Man lay in his own blood. He was an Iraqi insurgent who’d hidden in an alley next to a garbage dump waiting for the Army to come by. A couple 25 mm high explosive rounds, shot from a Bradley, blew off his left leg, leaving a stump of bone, and, from the looks of it, punched a hole through his midsection. Two or three others died with him. A group of insurgents managed to drag the others away, but the Fat Man was too big. His arms were still splayed back from where his comrades tried to pull him through the narrow alley.

Some of his guts – perhaps an intestinal tract – were splattered on the wall. His eyes were open, peering out from his dirty face and scraggly beard, staring at the heavens. A traditional red-and-white checked Arab keffiyah headdress was wrapped around his waist, and a bag with slots for RPG rounds – all empty – lay on the ground next to him.

The Fat Man was the first dead person that many soldiers had seen. They grew solemn as they leaned over his body and peered into his eyes, but never too close, never close enough to touch his skin or take in too deep a whiff of death.

11.10.04, Wednesday

Joshua Franqui, a big kid with a tooth missing from the bottom of his smile, grew up in Augusta, Ga., and had never been farther than Louisiana before he signed up with the Army.

His uniform was stiff with sweat and dirt, and he’d become quiet over the past few days. No one asked why. Maybe it was all the noise from the gun he manned from his Bradley’s gunner seat: the M242 25 mm “Bushmaster,” a weapon capable of shooting 200 high explosive rounds a minute.

Maybe it was seeing what his “25 mike-mike” did to human bodies.

A buddy walked up and asked, “Hey, Franqui, how many kills you got?”

Franqui looked down, the smile slipping off his face.

“I don’t know, man,” he said. “Sometimes they sort of vaporize when we hit ’em.”

Franqui was standing in the front room of the house where he and his First Platoon mates had been catching off hours of sleep for the past couple days. They’d urinated in the corners and defecated on the floor.

Many of the men wore skull and crossbones patches sewn onto their vests.

But Fallujah was not the place for bravado. It was constant, pounding violence, the sort that left the heat of passing bullets on a young soldier’s face, and the crack and boom of RPGs ringing in his head.

On Tuesday, about eight men from the platoon had been trapped on the roof of a schoolhouse, with RPGs thudding into the walls and bullets coming down on them. A Bradley shot smoke rounds, and the soldiers jumped off the roof to escape slaughter.

Soldiers didn’t discuss it when sitting around and sharing cigarettes.

Resting against his SAW machine gun – a large gun with a tripod that weighs more than 16 pounds – Spc. Sheldon Howard, 20, listened as his platoon commander gave orders to move out in a few minutes. Dark rings formed below his eyes. Dirt showed in thick bands across his forehead when he took off his helmet.

Howard, who wore glasses and had a round face, grew up near a Navajo reservation outside of Farmington, N.M., and usually didn’t speak much.

“I’m tired and I don’t want to be here,” Howard said. “I don’t want to take all of this back with me, but I probably will.”

Picking through a box of MREs, Sgt. Scott Bentley, 22, said he didn’t mind killing insurgents in Fallujah because it would keep them from coming up to his base north of Baghdad. “I’m tired of my buddies dying,” he said.

Bentley, of Philadelphia, allowed that the past few days had been rough.

“Every place we take a roof, the RPGs come flying,” he said. At times, he said, he and his men were “just kind of spraying and praying.”

The lieutenant walked in and said it was time to go. Howard hefted up his weapon and jogged outside to his Bradley, the one with the number “16” written on an orange tarp hanging off the back of the turret.

The vehicle began taking fire almost immediately. Its 25 mm gun roared.

A group of fighters darted from one house to the next, launching RPGs, which were exploding all around.

Spc. Arthur Wright watched out of the porthole-like windows of the Bradley.

“They killed somebody,” he yelled. “There’s body parts all over the streets. Yes! Yes!”

The back of the Bradley lurched open, and the men scrambled toward a house where insurgents had fled.

A shotgun blasted the front door, a kick and then another shotgun blast. Smoke filled the house.

“Don’t touch anything,” said Sgt. Isaac Ward. “They may have deliberately broken contact to lure us in.”

M-16 fire rang through the next room. Howard ran that way, only to find soldiers staring at an open back door.

The soldiers went through the door and down an alleyway, scanning the roofline for movement. Gunfire started a couple blocks away.

Ward wiped sweat from his eyes.

“They’ve got this shit figured out,” he said. “They’re running around the back of a house as we bust in through the gate.”

Outside, the bodies Wright had seen were lying in the street.

One of them had been run over by a Bradley, leaving a mound of meat and bones in the sunlight. A large green bag lay next to the remains.

Howard took out a camera and clicked a few pictures.

Bentley ran over to grab the bag. He gave it a yank, and an arm rose out of the pile, but the strap would not give. With his friends looking on, Bentley pulled harder and harder, and the arm flapped in the air. Another soldier joined in the tug of war, and the arm leapt up, disgorged from its body, and Bentley fell back a little, bag in hand.

“F—— Hajji,” he muttered, using grunt slang for Iraqis.

Inside, a stack of $100 and $20 bills was covered with gore. Bentley flipped through quickly, and counted about $800 in all.

Back in the Bradley, Wright asked if Bentley would get to keep the money. No, said Sgt. Randy Laird. It was being put in a plastic bag and handed over to an intelligence officer. Laird, a 24-year-old from Lake Charles, La., with dirty blond hair, paused.

Besides, he said, who would want cash with all that blood on it?

Sgt. Dave Bowden laughed.

“It’s just a little bit of Hajji blood,” he said. “What’s the problem?”

11.11.04, Thursday

Despite heavy gunfire outside, Laird popped open the Bradley’s rear hatch a few inches for fresh air. Alpha Company was pushing through southern Fallujah, a maze of factories and empty buildings they called Queens. Hardcore insurgents were rallying there, some of them swimming across the Euphrates river to join the fight.

A pack of Marlboro Reds, one of the last good packs of cigarettes left in the platoon, was passed around. There was no moon in the sky, the crescent having disappeared a few nights before.

The battle had pushed 72 hours straight, and the soldiers had gotten, maybe, seven hours sleep.

Wright began to talk about his past in a jumble. He’d joined the Army after the state of New Jersey sentenced him to probation for marijuana possession. His mom was an administrative assistant at a hospital in Harlem.

The Army made him a supply clerk. He hated it – passing out notebooks and pencils while others went out on field exercises. So he’d asked Sims if he could switch with a guy who was leaving the infantry unit. He got his wish. The two were close – when Sims heard Wright wasn’t getting care packages, Sims called his own wife, a school teacher, who got a class to adopt him. Wright would walk into the captain’s room, sit down and talk about “girls and what I want to do with my life.”

Touching his hand to his gaunt face, Wright’s voice softened.

“I’ve gotten so skinny since I’ve been in Iraq,” he said. “I mighta lost 30 pounds.”

In the glow of his night-vision goggles, hanging off his helmet, the high cheekbone of his ebony face glistened with sweat.

Throughout the week, most of the soldiers had moments of confession – in the back of a Bradley, lying on the ground just before closing their eyes, taking a break between firefights. Their voices came out of the darkness, tired and usually directed at no one in particular. Some were sweet. The men missed their girlfriends and wives, and they took their pictures out of notebooks to look at them one more time. Some stories were hard. One guy talked about guard duty in Kosovo one day and getting angry about being there, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nothing. He saw a mentally ill child who always came to the gate, asking for candy. The soldier told him to come over, and then he punched him as hard as he could, over and over, just to see if the kid would come back the next day. When he did, the soldier beat him again, laughing.

After that story, Laird told the soldier he was a coward and an ass.

Laird’s father committed suicide when he was 12, and Laird dropped out of school when he was 14. He spoke often about his son, 2 1/2 year-old Brayden, who was back at home in Germany with his mother.

“Every time he sees somebody in uniform, he thinks it’s daddy,” Laird said.

Brayden would run up to soldiers and hug their legs, thinking he’d found his father. “I’m sure after a while, he’ll understand that I killed people, that I’ve seen dead bodies,” Laird said. “It’s emotional now when I see a war movie because I know what they’re going through. Especially when guys in full dress uniform go to a mother and say her son is dead and she falls to the floor. It makes me think about my mom getting that call.”

Sitting a couple men over on the bench of a Bradley was Bowden, whose father was in the 82nd Airborne Division and who grew up knowing he’d join as soon as he turned 18. His father later became a sheriff’s deputy at the Pike County, Pa., sheriff’s department, and his mother got a job at a local factory.

“When people say that war is the most terrible thing, they ain’t wrong,” Bowden said. “The things it does to people. You think that killing people for your country is cool, but when you do, it just numbs you.”

Bentley re-enlisted last October because he knew his unit was headed to Iraq and he didn’t want them to go without him. “I remember every face I see out there, every moment out there,” he said. “I can’t forget it. I can’t make it go away.”

11.12.04, Friday

Standing in the rubble, the soldiers gathered the AK-47s and RPGs left by the group of fighters who’d fled.

The house, yet another in a line of dozens if not hundreds, was blown apart by Bradley and Abrams tank fire. “It’s intense, that’s about all there is to say,” said Spc. John Bandy, 23, of Little Rock, Ark. “The determination these guys have against our forces, these little bands of guys shooting at tanks, it’s almost admirable.”

He took a long drag from his cigarette. Bullets were in the air. Artillery shells whooshed by, on their way to punching a hole in some building or person.

A sofa survived the shelling, and some men were sitting on it, taking a breather. They could see into the next house through holes in the wall.

The cat and mouse pursuit, insurgents flitting from one spot to the next, a step ahead of heavily armored vehicles and the infantry, made the men angrier.

Increasingly, they turned to Laird, a forward observer for the artillery, and asked him to pound a house with 155 mm shells.

“We trained to fight a country with armor on a field,” Laird said. “These guys shoot at us, drop their weapons and become a civilian again.”

The men picked up their weapons and jogged to the next house. Spc. Fredrick Ofori was in the lead. A 24-year-old from Ghana, whose family moved to New York looking for work, Ofori’s face was drawn tightly, without emotion, as usual. His lithe, compact body showed muscle at every movement.

Wright teased him about not going out to clubs back in Vilseck, about not throwing down drinks with his buddies and picking up women. “That is your life,” Ofori would respond. “It is not for me.”

Ofori said more than once that getting a Combat Infantryman’s Badge meant little to him. The ribbons, he said, were for talking, and he was here to fight so he could go home.

He respected the insurgents, he said, for their willingness to fight to the death.

The streets outside were littered with dead men, their corpses left for cats and dogs to gnaw on after the sun set. The sight of bearded insurgents, eyes open, lying in gutters was no longer a novelty.

Walking through the house, Ofori turned his gun toward a doorway. Shots rang out. A fighter in the room had been waiting with a grenade in hand. He’d probably been listening the entire time as the men sat on the sofa next door, their voices wafting through the holes in the wall.

When he jumped forward, he didn’t scream “Allahu Akbar” – God is Great – as insurgents often did. He moved in silence, until Ofori’s fire blew him back. Ofori looked down for a few seconds and walked out of the room. The soldiers behind him went inside to ogle. “Damn, look at Hajji,” one said.

Walking into the garage, Ofori found a dead fighter lying on the ground next to a pickup truck outfitted with a machine gun.

Having heard of the incident, the New York Post wrote a headline calling Ofori a “Coney Island Hero.”

His mother told the newspaper, “he doesn’t like that Army food.”

Later in the day, an RPG tore through the torso of Lt. Iwan, the company’s executive officer, ripping his body apart. He was 28.

11.13.04, Saturday

The day before his men pushed into Fallujah, Capt. Sims went through a “rock drill” with Task Force 2-2. The platoons’ leaders stood around a sketch of the city, fashioned in the dirt with rocks for houses and the tips of artillery shells for mosques. Code names such as Objective Panther and Objective Lion marked schools and mosques to be taken.

Six days later, sitting with a map of the city in front of him, Sims no longer spoke in military lingo.

His friend, Lt. Iwan, was dead. The fight had creased Sims’ face, bleared his eyes and turned his voice more hesitant.

“It’s tough. I don’t know what to think about it yet,” he said slowly, searching for words. “All of this will be forever tainted because we lost him.”

A reporter offered him, again, a phone to call his family. Sims thought about it, and said no. He wanted to get through the fight first.

A CNN crew came by, accompanied by an escort from Task Force 2-2’s headquarters. They wanted to see houses where there’d been fighting, and they were taken to the one where Ofori killed a man the day before.

One of the reporters asked Ofori to talk on camera about killing the insurgent in the first room. He said all he’d agree to do is point to where it happened.

The fighter Ofori found by the pickup truck had been nibbled on, probably by neighborhood cats who always went for the softness of the lips first. With his lips eaten away, the man’s teeth were frozen in a joker’s grin.

Most of the First Platoon soldiers stayed outside. They’d already seen the dead and didn’t need to see them again.

The men then loaded up in their Bradleys and, with the tracks crunching the concrete below them, rumbled down the street.

Sims took a group of men to clear a house so they could set up an observation post on the roof.

Inside, a group of rebels was waiting. They’d slept for days on dirty mats and blankets, eating green peppers and dates from plastic tubs.

Gunfire raged when Sims and his men came through the front door. Two soldiers were hit near the shoulder and were rushed out by the men next to them.

Crouching by a wall outside, Laird screamed into his radio, “Negative, I cannot move, we’re pinned down right now! We have friendlies down! Friendlies down!”

He crouched down on a knee, sweating and waiting for help. A line of troops ran up, taking cover. They shot their way into the house.

They found Sims lying on the kitchen floor, his blood pouring across dirty tile. An empty teapot sat on concrete stairs nearby. A heart, drawn in red with an arrow through it, adorned a cabinet.

Someone grabbed a radio: “Terminator Six is down.”

“The b——-,” Bentley said. “We’ve got a blood trail leaving the building, going into the next house.”

A group of soldiers ran out the door, looking for revenge. Others gathered blankets.

They couldn’t lift Sims’ body, so they called in Howard, who lugged the squad’s heavy machine gun but whose broad shoulders were sagging from the news.

Once Sims was laid on the floor of a Bradley outside, six soldiers and a reporter climbed in, slowly at first, trying not to step on the body. Someone outside yelled at them to cram in, if they had to step on Sims’ body, do it, god damn it, do it.

Gunfire was pounding back and forth.

The hatch closed. The soldiers stared at each other. The soldiers stared at the ceiling. The soldiers stared at the hatch. The soldiers stared at anything but the mound on the floor.

Wright was sobbing and shaking. Howard had tears streaming down his cheeks.

The Bradley dropped them off at another house, where the platoon leaders from Alpha Company had gathered in a courtyard. Their commanding officer and their executive officer were dead.

An airstrike with a 2,000-pound bomb was ordered. Men huddled around each other, hugging those who couldn’t stop crying. They passed out a handful of cigarettes.

Ofori had no tears on his face. He’d been looking at the ground for 10 minutes.

Sgt. Isaac Ward walked up to him, put a hand on his shoulder and said: “We have work to do now. We’ll talk about this later. Get ready to go.”

Artillery and mortar fragments flew over the courtyard wall.

It was Bowden’s 22nd birthday.

“I had to help put him in the body bag,” Bowden said. “When we took the blanket off him and saw his face, all these thoughts ran through my head — I’d just seen him in the morning.”

Laird and Ward rode to a house a few streets away, where Marines had taken up camp. They climbed some stairs, jumped over a wall and stayed low as the bullets flew by. Looking out over the houses, Laird called in artillery and gave coordinates for the 2,000 bomb.

Smoke covered the horizon, and with a boom, a mosque’s minaret disappeared. Buildings burned.

Spc. James Barney, who drove the Bradley that carried Sims’ body, stood by the vehicle outside, talking to himself. “We need to just finish it, level the whole damn city,” he said. “I’m tired of this place, I’m tired of this shit.”

11.14.04, Sunday

Saturday night, the men rested for the first time in seven days, sleeping on a patch of dirt just outside the city. They huddled beneath tarps, close to each other for body heat. When they awoke, they walked around looking at their Bradleys and the deep gouges on the sides from AK-47 fire and shrapnel. One caught fire after an RPG hit it, and its crew was sorting through charred ammunition boxes and pulling out bullets that hadn’t cooked off. An RPG destroyed the protection plate on the side of another, and in daylight the soldiers could see the tip had been an inch or so from exploding into the cabin.

Their uniforms were almost brown with dirt and sweat. Several had blood on their pants.

The 1st Infantry Division’s commanding officer, Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste, came by, his uniform clean and neatly pressed. He moved quickly from one vehicle to the next, talking in a low tone and shaking hands.

The soldiers looked at him with sunken eyes and said little.

A few days later, Laird and some of the guys were given a few hours at camp near Fallujah to get some chow-hall food and take showers. They sat at the table, with TV news about Iraq in the background, and ate without talking much. A discussion of Sims tapered off. The men who had killed the captain had gotten away.

“Being in our track and smelling him — I’m glad I never saw his face,” Ward said of Sims.

On his way out, Laird turned and said he’d been thinking about his son.

“I don’t want my boy to know his daddy’s a killer,” he said. With that, he picked up his gun and walked out the door.

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