As a significant new offensive to invade Fallujah looms, US Marines seeking closure over recent casualties held a memorial service Wednesday for eight comrades killed in a suicide bombing over the weekend.
Holding back tears, and at times letting them flow, Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines gathered in a rudimentary dining hall to remember fallen colleagues.
Mixing the sacred and profane, marines told heartwarming and heart-breaking stories about young grunts and husbands, sons and fathers, whose lives were stopped short while they were still being built.
As US and Iraqi forces gear up for an expected invasion of Fallujah that they hope will crush a spreading insurgency, survivors vowed to leave their grief behind and get back to the battlefield.
"I want to get back out - they all want to go," says Staff Sgt. Jason Benedict of West Milford, N.J., whose wounded left hand is bandaged. He was in the troop carrier hit by the bomber. "They don't want their brothers going out without them.
"It was an eye opener - a tough lesson learned," says Sergeant Benedict, holding his injured hand. "The day after, I was full of rage at the Iraqi people. I got that out of there. [These marines] know that fighting with revenge in mind will cause more problems. We've talked a lot about that."
While some 150 marines sat silently, trying to keep their emotions in check by steady sniffing, one officer said that "hate consumes, and hate will not let us focus - focus like a laser on our enemy."
The marines were remembered individually - often as fun-loving, family-loving, God-fearing, and rule-breaking model marines - by those who knew them best on their squads and their platoons.
But thoughts of revenge still bubbled up for one marine remembering Lance Cpl. Michael Scarborough from Washington, Ga.
"I know, where he is now, he'd want us to burn Fallujah down for what [they] did to him, and that's exactly what's going to happen," the marine vowed.
The service is part of a healing process aimed at letting out marines' grief while controlling the reaction and drawing focus back to the battlefield, says US Navy Capt. Bill Nash, a marine division psychiatrist from Cardiff, Calif.
"They are supporting each other, healing each other, and trying to figure out how in the world [they will] go back out there and take the same risks, knowing that this can happen," says Captain Nash, who has been meeting with small groups from Bravo Company.
"One of several tools that warriors use to do the work they do, is denial - that's the No. 1 primary defense," he says. "But once that denial is blown away - literally - by something like this, it's harder to get back out."
Coping with trauma, or even recognizing it as a problem, has historically been stigmatized in militaries around the world as a sign of weakness. But US military officials increasingly recognize that post-traumatic stress must be dealt with early on.
In Iraq, insurgents have killed more than 1,100 US troops since the war began - a fact that weighs heavily.
"The nature of the conflict over here is such that it increases their stress load enormously," says Nash, ticking off the variables. "To be in a passive, defensive position; to not know who the enemy is; to know that the people you are shaking hands with during the day, and giving candy to their children, are going to be the same one who mortar you at night."
"The changing rules of engagement; the lack of clarity of the mission; political issues back home - all of those add to the stress level," he continues. "I reinforce the basics: We are professionals, and this is our job - but once we're here, we're fighting for each other, to protect each other, so that as many as possible can go home well and alive."
With guns slung over their shoulders, standing uneasily at podium made by an olive-drab mosquito net draped over a table, Marines put an emotive human face on comrades whom they often refer to only by rank and last name.
A few wept, or buried their faces in their uniforms. They spoke of brotherhood melded by combat and the stress of Iraq, and pranks during past deployments together.
Sgt. Kelley Courtney of Macon, Ga., "left behind a wife, Cindy, a 1-year-old daughter and a younger son, all of whom he loved very much," said one marine.
Lance Cpl. Andrew Riedel, who lived in Northglen, Colo., had a "[military] bearing," and protected his younger sister by scaring away potential suitors - an image that brought some laughter. He had, said a friend, "a certain arrogance, which you want in a machine-gunner."
Cpl. Christopher Lapka, of Peoria, Ariz., was "gracefully clumsy" and couldn't bear to remain in college while other soldiers fought. He had a love for video games, not a love for the Marine Corps, and "wanted to be better than himself."
Quotes from the Bible were read, including one from Ecclesiastes: "A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time for war, and a time for peace."
One officer also quoted Teddy Roosevelt: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly - who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause."
Lance Corp. John Byrd II, from Fairview, W. Va., exhibited those devotions. When he came to Iraq, his wife Jessica was pregnant, marines said, adding that "the day he was married, he was the happiest man on earth."
"John didn't know how to dance, so I decided to teach him a few steps," said one friend, prompting laughs. "I had to drag him out there on the dance floor, but he got the hang of it."
"Now he's in a better place - a place where there is no fear. He's in peace with the Lord," the marine said.
"He kept telling me: 'I just want to see my child,'" another marine added, about Byrd's son, due in February. "He wasn't scared of dying. The only thing he feared was that his child would be without a father."