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A Marine company and a month in Fallujah

Marines talk of guns and God on the front lines.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2004


The first few pages of Marine Cpl. Tim Milholin's small zip-up Bible are stuck together - drenched "too many times" from the sweat of battle, he explains. It lives under his armored vest in his chest pocket, with an inscribed metal plate: "The Lord is my strength and my shield."

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Corporal Milholin, a 21-year-old machine-gunner with a pencil-thin mustache, is girded for war in Fallujah with both book and sword. He is as well-versed in the King James text as he is in the killing potential of hollow-tipped bullets or the amount of C4 plastic explosive and TNT needed to blow through an Iraqi door. To him, they are all essential tools of his warfighting trade, as important as the photo of his wife, Brianne, that's tucked inside his helmet.

"I pray earnestly every day, and believe that God puts his angels out before us, to protect us," says the marine, who fires up his camp stove daily before daybreak to brew coffee for the unit during the violent days of Operation Dawn in Fallujah. Since the dark night of Nov. 8 when they rolled into the dense urban environment of this now-empty city of 300,000, US forces have been in their toughest fight since the Vietnam War. As they search for their enemy, breaking through one closed door after another, the Raider platoon - the Death Dealers, as they dub themselves - are on the front lines in a city hammered to rubble.

They're a microcosm of the modern military, a disparate handful of young men drawn from the melting pot of America. But they share obsessions: with guns and God, with guitars, girls, wives, and fiancées.

Most took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And the common experience of combat has deepened a bond of brotherhood - a tie upon which their lives depend every day on the terror war's most dangerous battlefield: Fallujah. In this crucible, they have seen death and delivered it, and grown mature beyond their years amid unrelenting rigors and danger.

Preparing for battle

Every day, sometimes twice or more in a 24-hour period, the scouts gather for final orders.

The moment of deepest contemplation comes before each attack, often early in the morning, as on the group's seventh day in Fallujah. In near silence and darkness, they clean weapons once more, pack rifle magazines with bullets, and load gear belts with explosives.

Not all are religious, but a few scouts, like Corporal Milholin, keep small Bibles in their chest pockets, close to pounding hearts.

Many use a black permanent marker to ink their hands or gloves with their blood type and "kill" numbers - information that will enable news of casualties to be passed immediately over the radio. It's a habit that's taken on greater significance in the course of a month of battle that has killed or wounded more than 20 percent of Charlie Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) battalion.

Not all are impressed. "I don't write any of that [expletive] on me," says Lance Cpl. Matt McClellan (X58, B+), a tattooed serial rule breaker. "It's bad luck."

Quick response

It was just August when the company commanders created the concept of Raider One - a single vehicle that can deposit up to 10 scouts on the ground within seconds to fight in conjunction with Light Armored Vehicles known as "war pigs." The setup provides new flexibility during hand-to-hand combat and has proven so effective that Raider is assigned constant missions in Fallujah.

It's been during these operations that the brutal emotions of battle, of tragedy and triumph and coping, mix with Washington's calculation that Fallujah - which was a hub for hostage-taking, rebel weaponry, and car bombs - had to be destroyed, to be saved.

"This is urban combat to a 'T,' with 360 degrees of danger," says Sgt. Kevin Boyd, the young-faced chief scout from Pittsburgh, Pa., who forged Raider's clockwork skills of houseclearing by daily practice on the ship to the Middle East, storming stairwells and clearing catwalks on upper decks.