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

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."

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.

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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.

"You've always got to be looking in every house - behind every couch there could be a guy hiding," says Sergeant Boyd, an Eagle Scout who wore his first camouflage at age 3 and owns more than 20 guns.

Boyd graduated from high school on a Friday, celebrated on Saturday, and left for the Marines on Monday. He says Fallujah is "10 times" as dangerous as the Iraq invasion, during which LAR lost one marine, who stepped on an artillery shell.

"It's a lot faster combat, a lot more deliberate. Grenade, grenade, rocket-boom! You're in," says Boyd. For luck, he keeps an Ace of Spades in his helmet.

"I love the adrenaline of it, the fast pace," Boyd adds. "I'm breathing in plaster and composition B from the grenade, choking on it - spitting out black stuff as I'm clearing the room out. It's great!"

But the edge of this front line is not for everybody. Another chief scout of a sister platoon, called Red, watched at close range on the first day as an insurgent fired a rocket from just 25 yards, narrowly missing his platoon leader.

"Everybody has a breaking point, and his was a lot earlier," says 1st Lt. Paul Webber, the Red platoon chief from Newcastle, Calif. "His eyes were huge. He stood up [after the exchange] and slumped over." Back in the vehicle, Lieutenant Webber recalls, the sergeant "curled up in the fetal position and was banging his head on the toolbox. The doc had to restrain him."

"There is nothing more personal than someone trying to kill you, and you trying to kill him," says Capt. Gil Juarez, the LAR company commander from San Diego, Calif. "Not marriage. Not parenting. Nothing is more personal than having to toe the line, when it's either you or him."

During pauses between operations, the men set up camp, living cramped in occupied Iraqi houses. It's at such times that the marines try to digest the unpredictable moments of Fallujah, with feisty debates that erupt about everything from too-young girlfriends to the utility of God.

"I'm sure they see it in every war; so many people become religious out here," says Milholin, sitting on a floor mattress covered with red satin. The windows of the house are gone - smashed out by the marines so that glass will not fly when mortars land nearby.

Milholin and two others are known as the "Three Wise Men." "I put so much faith in God, I don't know how people do it without being religious."

Corporal McClellan knows how - and often takes issue with the Wise Men's certitude. "I have confidence. Ever since I was a little kid, I knew I was not going to die, so I don't need [religion] to lift me up," says the machine-gunner from Clayton, N.J., turning down the volume on his heavy metal CD.

McClellan racked up 26 counts of grand-theft auto while still a juvenile. He had six ear studs on one side, seven on the other, and a tongue stud - which once got stuck in his lip ring. Joining the Marines has tempered such behavior, but it hasn't erased McClellan's independent streak.

If anything, McClellan says he blames God for what goes wrong - a key reason being the fate of his friend Lance Cpl. Kyle Burns, of Red platoon, who was going to be the best man at McClellan's wedding until he was killed in an ambush Nov. 11.

McClellan took the death hard. He stills clings to a photo of himself and the square-jawed marine in a cowboy hat from Laramie, Wyo., sitting together smoking a Middle Eastern water pipe.

After the ambush, McClellan was put in charge of guarding an Iraqi who had surrendered with a white flag. The marine made no secret of his distaste for the man.

A second marine was added to guard duty to keep an eye on both of them. "If anybody left me alone with him, I would be in the brig [military jail] right now," McClellan says later.

Losing his friend changed McClellan's sense of mission. "Before [Burns] was killed, I thought we were here to kill the bad ones and save the good ones," says McClellan, a wry wit who sometimes jokingly refers to himself "trigger-happy Mick." "Now I think: 'Is he the one who shot Kyle?' It's a revenge thing. Every time I see an Iraqi, I could be face-to-face with the guy who killed my best friend."

Perhaps as a result, McClellan expects this conflict to bring him closer to his father, a former marine who survived three tours of Vietnam unscathed and fought in the urban battle at Hue City in 1968.

"He used to talk about how, 10 seconds from now, you don't know if you'll be alive," McClellan recalls, swinging a pair of dog tags on a chain. "His buddy right next to him was shot in the face and died. Now I know how he felt."

Death and salvation

Burns's death has become a point of debate within the unit. The marine shared McClellan's animosity toward religion until just days before the ambush, when he "gave his life to Christ" at a church service, according to some who were there.

"God has a perfect plan," says Cpl. Christopher DeBlanc, a team leader and one of the Wise Men. He keeps a red leather Bible in his rucksack, part of a pile of personal gear deposited upstairs in the Iraqi house. "For example, Red [platoon] got hit by a [mine], and after that they had a church service. They accepted God; Kyle accepted it. Kyle is in heaven now."

"That was God's gift to Kyle?" asks McClellan incredulously. "Great. You accept God, and the next day you get killed. That's some advertisement. You are done at 20 years and three months, unmarried."

That reaction doesn't surprise Corporal DeBlanc, a tall, reliable marine. His path to the military, and to his overarching faith, has been circuitous. From the age of 12, he worshiped the guitar and played in rock bands, practicing for hours after school in Spotsylvania, Va., often falling asleep with the instrument in his hands. But his rock-star lifestyle didn't take him far. "During my teenage years, I hit the bottom of the barrel," DeBlanc says. "When I joined the Marine Corps, I was done living that way."

His change of heart was sparked by the burial, with full military honors, of his grandfather, a World War II veteran and a man he wanted to emulate.

"I didn't cry [at first], but when the honor guard got up there for the 21-gun salute - as soon as that first round cracked, it was Niagara Falls," DeBlanc recalls. "I didn't like how my life was going, so I gave it to the military."

The marines instill a new set of values and "force you to grow up," says DeBlanc. For him, that included a growing framework of faith that he applies in Fallujah. "The big thing is the spiritual battle going on in our lives - the fight we're fighting is good against evil," he says. He knows the Americans are not the only ones to call on divine power: On the wall of one house, written with yellow paint in Arabic: "God help [Iraq's] mujahideen."

DeBlanc easily reconciles war with the biblical commandment against killing. "Doesn't the Bible say: 'There is a time to pick up the sword, a time for peace, and a time for war?' " he asks. "I can pull the trigger here and have a clear conscience."

To a degree, that goes for Lance Cpl. Jason Bell, the original Wise Man from Spokane, Wash., who tries to balance the battle with the message of his Bible, which he keeps on him in a plastic meal sleeve that also holds a stun grenade and an extra rifle magazine.

"I always prayed, before we came here, that Iraq's innocent civilians wouldn't look badly on us," says Corporal Bell. He wistfully recalls breaking out in laughter with a young Iraqi after several failed attempts to communicate - an uncommon moment of levity between Americans and Iraqis.

Bell's faith was tested during a pre-dawn raid, when small fragments of a US grenade ricocheted and embedded in his cheek, effectively shielding this correspondent from the blast.

"I thought it was a blessing in a weird way - [the wound] wasn't that bad," recalls Bell, who wants to go to Bible college and preach. "It's kind of crazy: God told David he couldn't build a temple, because he had blood on his hands.

"Though we've been in contact, I don't know that I've killed anybody," Bell adds. "I've never hesitated, but it seems whenever I've gone out, there was nothing out there."

DeBlanc also plans to go Bible college, and has dreamed of himself as an elderly man at a pulpit, his wife with three children (as yet unborn) in the front pew. That's a welcome change from the nightmares he had for a year after returning home from Iraq in 2003. "I would wake up, looking for my rifle," says DeBlanc. "I dreamed I was in a fire hole and being overrun, and couldn't find my gun."

"Doc" Nick Navarrette, the US Navy medical corpsman from Omaha, Neb., who serves as Raider's ambulance chief during casualty evacuation, had a nightmare too in Fallujah. "There are 50 Iraqis coming at us, I had an M-16 [rifle] and all it shot is dust," says the slightly built corpsman. "I reach for my [pistol], and it's only crunching sand."

No noncombatants here

The corpsman's job requires him to be a noncombatant, limited to using his M-16 rifle. But when the Raider One vehicle was sent to reinforce Red platoon during the Nov. 11 ambush, he got behind a belt-fed machine gun when he saw three insurgents shooting from a third floor. He killed at least one and stopped fire from the others.

Then, when casualties were announced on the radio, Navarrette's real work began. After he gets home from Iraq, he wants a fourth tattoo: a pair of angel wings across his back.

"As soon as I jumped out [of the vehicle], the shots started flying by my head. I could feel the wind [from the bullets] in my face," Navarrette recalls of his 30-yard dash to the wounded. He got the first casualty back to the vehicle when word came about another one. Navarrette and a gunner, bullets striking in front of their feet, retrieved Burns, who was dead.

There is speculation among Raider platoon that Navarrette may be put up for a bronze star, with a 'V' for combat valor.

But his mother was angry. "She told me, 'Don't do anything crazy,'" he recounts after a call home. "I'm already a hero to her; I don't need to be a hero to anybody else. I tell her: 'It's my job; these are my friends.' "

Days later, wrapped in McClellan's thick blanket to ward off a morning chill in the occupied house, Navarrette elaborated while eating potato chips and French onion dip from a care package.

During the call to his mother, he also learned that a close friend, Shane, was killed the same night. The news also reached Shane's wife, April, just hours after she gave birth to the couple's first child. The emotional ride gave the corpsman pause. He pulls out the video camera he used to film part of the ambush.

The rattle of bullets and pounding high-caliber rounds dominate the soundtrack. Then the footage goes calm, and Navarrette is speaking from the back of the Raider vehicle after delivering the casualties to the combat hospital.

"Yeah, well, we lost two guys. I'm here by myself," he records, clearly shaken. "I got blood all over my hands; I got blood all over my pants, and my flak [vest]. It was not a good day. I never want to go through a day like that again."

"But we're going right back out there. No breaks," Navarrette says, his voice threadbare. "I'll turn you back on, when the [bullets] start flying again. All right - peace."

Yesterday, Lt. Gen. John Sattler said that 97 percent of Fallujah's more than 20,000 buildings "have been swept for the third and hopefully, final time."

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