Chapter 30

I LEANED AGAINST the Humvee door in the fading light, spooning applesauce from a field ration pouch and watching two ants fight for a dropped grain of rice. It had been days since I’d seen a mirror, but my blackened hands looked no better than those of the gaunt and sunken-eyed Marines around me.

The evening was quiet. We were parked in a field just off a narrow country road, hemmed in by stone walls and hedgerows that looked more like Connecticut than central Iraq. I had double-checked the placement of the platoon’s machine guns and hacked a sleeping hole from the soft earth before sitting down to eat dinner and breathe. I dared to hope we’d spend the night in one place, and the field seemed indulgently comfortable.

“Sir, the captain wants all commanders at his truck,” Christeson called from the cab of the Humvee, where he was monitoring the radio and cleaning his rifle. I pocketed my dinner and set off to see what bad news was about to shatter our evening.

When the captain finished his brief, I called the team leaders on the radio. “Hitman Two-One, Two-Two, and Two-Three, actuals to my vehicle. Naptime’s over.”

Walking back across the field, I saw Sergeants Colbert, Patrick, and Lovell converging on the platoon headquarters Humvee. They carried map boards and rifles and looked as if they already knew what I was about to tell them. A Humvee hood doubles as a decent map table, so we held platoon briefings around its ten square feet of dusty fiberglass. They joined Gunny Wynn, chatting together as I walked up.

Colbert grinned and said, “Sir, I don’t like that look in your eye.”

“Yeah, well, we’re saddling up and rolling out of here at 2200 local to move through that town to our west and set up ambushes on the other side to interdict the fedayeen moving toward Highway 7.” After a week of being sniped at, shot at, and mortared, we were going to set the agenda. As the Marine Corps puts it, we were going to take the fight to the enemy.

“Ambushes?” Sergeant Patrick snorted. Clearly, this plan did not excite him. Only ten days before, I had listened as Patrick had cautioned his team with one of his countless southern aphorisms: “Never pet a burning dog.”

“Yeah. We’ll roll through the town as a battalion, then split off as platoons and move to our sectors to set up and watch for fedayeen traffic. At dawn, we’ll pull out and move north to link up with everyone else. We have the chance to hunt here rather than be hunted.”

“I understand that, sir, but moving into our ambush site in unfamiliar territory in the dark is bad business.” Patrick spoke slowly for emphasis. “And then, how are we supposed to identify who’s fedayeen and who’s not? We can’t just walk up to them and ask. Not out there all alone as a platoon.”

Patrick was right about the mission. But contrary to what the platoon sometimes seemed to think, I wasn’t the ultimate decision maker. That was the mission we were given, and that was the mission we would execute. Our job was to figure out the best way to do it, and we had only two hours.

Gunny Wynn’s priority as platoon sergeant, first and always, was the safety of his men. Mine, as platoon commander, was accomplishing our mission. True, each of us cared about both responsibilities, but when the bullets were flying, one goal had to take precedence. Leadership instructors who said naively that the two could coexist had never been in a gunfight. Each of us, on his own, would probably have fallen victim to his natural impulses. Together, though, we had a symbiosis that combined my aggressiveness with his wisdom. And so the debate began.

Around the hood of the Humvee that evening, we ran through different options for executing the mission within the framework of our commander’s intent. He could tell us what to do, but we would decide how to do it. Gunny Wynn and the team leaders systematically strengthened the plan, pointing out weaknesses and suggesting improvements. It is a simple fact of human nature that people will more willingly go into danger when they have a say in crafting their fate. In the end, we agreed that our first and greatest problem would be passing through the town of Muwaffiqiya. It would prove a prescient analysis.

Muwaffiqiya was a medium-size collection of three- and four-story concrete buildings on the west bank of the Al Gharraf River. A platoon of Marine LAVs had approached the bridge earlier in the afternoon. We heard a few bursts of gunfire and watched as an LAV raced past with a wounded Marine in the back. While we gathered around the map plotting our next move, Marine artillery boomed from the south, and the western horizon flickered and flashed as 155 mm high-explosive rounds exploded into Muwaffiqiya. So much for peaceful evenings. After cobbling together a plan we could all live with, the team leaders returned to their positions to brief their men while I cleaned my rifle and tried to sleep for an hour.

Artillery explosions, gunfire, and low-flying jets roared in the dark, but I was too tired to care. Curled up on the ground beneath a poncho liner, I woke at 2130 to Christeson shaking my shoulder. I stood to shrug on my gear before doing radio checks with the teams and lining up the Humvees. We would be on point for the battalion, with Sergeant Colbert first, followed by Sergeant Espera, Gunny Wynn and me in the middle, and Sergeants Patrick and Lovell behind.

We rolled slowly into the darkness, the night warm and silent and blowing through our open doors. The plan called for us to move to the near side of the bridge into town and set up a support-by-fire position on the north side of the road. Third Platoon would follow behind and set up a similar position on the road’s south side. Once both platoons were set to cover the battalion, it would cross the bridge into Muwaffiqiya, and we would fall in behind. It was a classic example of overwatch, a tactic practiced by Marines in the woods and fields of Quantico, Parris Island, Camp Pendleton, and Camp Lejeune.

There had been murmurs about why we hadn’t pushed teams out on foot to recon the bridge earlier in the evening. It was an obvious chokepoint, a logical place for an ambush. Apparently, there just hadn’t been time. Countering these fears were a pair of Cobras sweeping in front of us no more than a hundred feet above the road. The pilots reported heat signatures that might be people and fired a couple of rockets at suspected bunkers on the far side of the river. I held a radio handset to each ear but instinctively reached down and pulled back the charging handle on my rifle to make sure a round was chambered. We kept driving.

“OK, we’re set.” Colbert radioed that he was in place on the north side of the approach to the bridge.

“Negative. I still can’t see the bridge. Keep moving.” Our mission was to secure the bridge for the battalion’s crossing, and I still couldn’t even see it. I saw only a thin stand of trees on the left and a few mud-brick buildings on the right, fifty meters from the road. The Cobras orbited behind us, and the night was again quiet. Everything glowed green and grainy in my night vision goggles.

“Roger,” Colbert said, and we crept forward again.

Colbert’s nickname was the Iceman because he never lost his cool. That’s why I had him on point for the platoon on a night when the platoon was on point for the battalion and the battalion was on point for almost the whole Marine Corps. The next thing I heard through my headset radio was his warning: “There’s an obstacle on the bridge.” Colbert’s voice was measured but taut, the way an airline pilot would tell his passengers about an engine fire. Then I saw it, too — what looked like a Dumpster full of scrap metal pulled out into the road. Large-diameter pipes lay scattered on both sides of it. There was only one explanation.

“Back up, back up, back the fuck up.” The fear was palpable. You could hear it and feel it and even taste it, like a penny under your tongue. But the Marines stayed calm. We were jammed together with trees to our left, buildings to our right, an obstacle in front of us, and the rest of the battalion pressing in from behind.

We had driven into an ambush. I knew it and wondered, for a fleeting second, when the shooting would start. I ducked my head and tried to pull my arms into my bulletproof vest while still holding the radios and my rifle. Marines call it “turtling.”

I gave the order to turn around and got a terse, “Roger, wilco,” from Colbert. As his Humvee began its turn to the left, toward the trees, Colbert radioed, “There are men in the trees,” and opened fire.

The staccato chatter of his M4 sounded distant and tinny, but then the Mark-19 began to roar, spitting grenades into the trees in quick bursts. The other teams opened up with rifles, the second Mark-19, and the two .50-caliber machine guns. Our volume of outgoing fire was immense. Tracers burned across the sky, and muzzle flashes washed out my goggles, replacing green definition with indistinguishable white blobs. I flipped them up on my helmet and tried to figure out what was going on.

Fear passes quickly. Once the shooting started, I was busy directing the platoon, talking on the radio, and shooting back. It wasn’t courage so much as task saturation. Streams of incoming tracers skipped and ricocheted down the road from across the bridge. Passing bullets buzzed and whined, just as they do in cartoons. The enemy machine gunner was shooting low, and his rounds sparked as they caromed off the pavement into our vehicles. Impacts jolted my Humvee.

More enemy fire chattered from the trees. Small arms. Single shots and short bursts. I watched an RPG flash from the right, from somewhere back in the maze of mud buildings. When it blew up in front of me, a shower of sparks burned into my vision and lingered there after the blast faded.

Enemy to our left, right, and straight ahead. This assessment process took only seconds, and I was on the radio requesting air support. I made a conscious effort to be calm and speak slowly, but my request was a shouted, garbled mess all the same. The Cobras roared back, cleared hot to attack anything on the far side of the river or more than twenty-five meters off the road. They poured machine gun fire over our heads, and the whoosh of their rockets blotted out the distant voices in my ear asking for updates.

We had to get the platoon out of the kill zone. Gunfire and shouting rendered our radios almost useless, so dropping my rifle and drawing my pistol, I told Gunny Wynn to turn the truck around while I went out to guide the teams.

“What?”

“Turn the Humvee around, break contact to the rear, and I’ll be right back.” Rarely did I do anything against his advice, but this would be one of those times.

Ducking meaninglessly, since the enemy machine gun fire was at knee level, I ran forward to where Colbert was still frozen in the middle of his turn. My immediate concern was being shot by my own men. They were intent on their firing and couldn’t see me running up from their periphery. Each M4 was equipped with a laser, visible only through night vision goggles. Put the red dot on your target and you’ll hit it every time. Laser dots converged together on shadowy figures in the trees, wavered as the Marines shook and rattled in the moving Humvees, and then disappeared as the figure dropped and they moved to settle on the next target. It was an oddly beautiful and well-choreographed dance.

Time was expanding and compressing like a Slinky. I crouched behind the rear bumper of Colbert’s Humvee, aware of each rivet in the tan armor. But I had no recollection of getting there. Above me, Corporal Hasser fired the Mark-19. Tongues of flame shot from the muzzle, but the deafening weapon seemed silent to me. I was shouting instructions to the two lead drivers and trying to avoid being shot or run over when a calm voice on the radio cut through the gunfire.

“Team Two has a man down.”

Then Gunny Wynn’s voice. “Headquarters has a man down.”

This was every commander’s nightmare. Ambushed and taking casualties. Ironically, I remembered Colonel Ferrando’s words from a briefing the day before: “You can’t volunteer to go to war and then bitch about getting shot at.”

The Marine Recon Mission Essential Task List, that group of skills deemed vital to the job, fills a book. Patrolling, navigation, calling in air strikes, communications, parachuting, diving, shooting, swimming, driving boats, hand-to-hand combat, and so on, seemingly without end. Medical training tended to fall through the cracks, with mock casualties fairy-dusted back to life before they seriously impeded other objectives on any training exercise. I was lucky to have a corpsman who refused to accept that. Doc Bryan was a Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman, or SARC, one of the most highly trained field medics in the U.S. military.

After joining the platoon a few months before deploying to the Middle East, he’d drilled each man on basic trauma care. In Kuwait, he’d put together blowout kits for the whole platoon. The kits contained the essentials to keep a wounded Marine alive — saline IV bag, battle dressings, and QuikClot, a chemical compound to cauterize arterial bleeds. He’d also led the platoon in making tourniquets, to be worn loosely around the neck for easy access, and threatened to pummel any man caught without his. Doc’s final contribution was not material but tactical. He stressed that the job of any Marine wounded in a firefight was to keep shooting until his team or the platoon was out of danger. Wounded men don’t have the luxury of giving up the fight. Doc Bryan’s gifts became real on the road outside Muwaffiqiya.

When the shooting started, Sergeant Patrick felt his vehicle shudder and his foot slam sideways. He looked down to see blood gushing from his boot, and Doc’s training took over. He cinched a tourniquet around his leg; told his team, “I’m hit in the foot — I’m OK, though”; and resumed firing. Perched on the back of the headquarters Humvee, Corporal Stafford, the platoon radioman, had a similar experience. A bullet fragment from one of the ricocheting machine gun rounds tore into his calf, knocking him down. He, too, tied off his tourniquet and got back in the fight.

The firing had slackened. Lovell’s team was the last to turn around. They lingered in the kill zone to spray the trees with machine gun fire while the rest of the platoon retreated back into the darkness. On the battalion’s order, Rudy raced off with a bullet-riddled windshield and two shredded tires to evacuate Sergeant Patrick to the field we had started from. No one outside the platoon had even fired a shot.

I pulled the rest of the Marines back about two kilometers from the bridge, and we herringboned off the road to check on damage, injuries, and ammo counts. The mood was somber. A few gunmen had just stopped a Marine battalion, and we knew it. I also knew I’d lost one of my best Marines to the tactical error of not reconning the bridge. Finally, I feared the order from the battalion would be to move forward and try again to enter Muwaffiqiya. Tanks and LAVs idled a few miles up the road while we tried to enter this town in open Humvees. From an armchair in Iowa, it would have seemed foolish. From a dark roadside in Iraq, its lunacy ate away at our confidence. The mission had become, in grunt parlance, a goat-fuck.

My CO called with an update: “We’re waiting here for thirty mikes while the helos refuel. Then we’ll bring up tanks and LAVs and move forward again.”

Finally. “Two copies all.”

Third Platoon would be on point for the next push to the bridge, with company headquarters in its two Humvees behind them and my platoon in the rear. Team Two still wasn’t back from evacuating Sergeant Patrick, so we were too small to lead the movement. Frankly, that was fine with me.

I moved from vehicle to vehicle, checking damage and talking with the guys. Doc Bryan wrapped a bandage around Stafford’s leg. Stafford was adamant about staying with the platoon, and Bryan gave his tentative approval. I consented. We’d need every gun we had. The Marines were cleaning and reloading the heavy machine guns, changing night vision goggle batteries, and eating. They were silent. There was none of the euphoric banter that typically followed a firefight. No joking, no stories, no tall tales. This one had been too close, and it wasn’t over yet. The focus was still on the mission.

From behind came the distinctive clanking of treads on pavement, and we moved our Humvees off the road to allow the seventy-ton behemoths to pass. Two M1A1 Abram tanks were followed by eight LAV- 25s, each armed with a 25 mm Bushmaster cannon. For a grunt, working with tanks is like having jets overhead or being in the bottom of a deep fighting hole. It just feels good. In an embarrassment of riches, two Cobras reappeared from the east, thumping overhead without lights: lethal, menacing, utterly reassuring.

The lead platoon commander radioed that he was moving. A kilometer ahead, the tanks and LAVs fanned off the road, forming a line along the riverbank, pointing their guns toward the town. With a flash of light and a deafening roar, they fired their first salvo. Then another, and another, and another. When a tank fires its main gun in the dark, a tongue of flame shoots ahead, and the flash and bang of the shot is quickly followed by the flash and bang of the impact. The LAVs pumped chain gun rounds in burst after burst. They sounded like paper being torn, or a long guttural belch. From overhead, the Cobras fired Zuni rockets and Hellfire missiles. Each impact sent up a column of liquid fire. We drove forward into this storm, with smoke swirling through the doors and cordite filling our nostrils. As we drew abreast of the tanks, they ceased fire, and we moved forward to the bridge alone.

I planned to put my platoon on the north side to cover Third Platoon as they crossed into Muwaffiqiya. Once across, they would sit in place on the far side of the bridge and cover our crossing. The tanks and LAVs were too heavy to cross with us. I watched through my goggles as Third Platoon’s five vehicles crept around the Dumpster and across the narrow concrete span onto the riverfront street. Company headquarters followed behind them. Suddenly, the command vehicle, towing a trailer filled with supplies, lurched and settled, as if about to plunge into the river.

“We’re stuck on the bridge,” the captain reported. Considering his situation, he sounded calm. Two Cobras hovered over the river, firing rockets into the alleyways on the far side. The Marines in company headquarters were out of their Humvee, trying to rock the trailer from a hole in the deck of the bridge. As much as any firefight we were in, this one typified the strange distance of combat. Third Platoon was trapped in the hostile town, alone, with no way to be reinforced or to fall back. Company headquarters struggled at the center of the bridge, as if spotlighted on a stage. Only fifty meters from them, we could do nothing. I held the platoon in place on the near side of the bridge, as much for moral support as anything else. In the darkness and smoke, we couldn’t safely fire close to the other Marines. We pushed out security to the flanks and rear and watched the drama unfold.

An hour later, with dawn approaching, headquarters managed to free the trailer. They reversed across the bridge and halted in front of our position. In the gray light, I watched Third Platoon’s Humvees rumble out of the demolished town, one by one, and cross to safety. As they drove past, the Marines looked like caricatures, pale with dark, sunken eyes. Throughout the night, the rest of the battalion had remained behind us, out of the fight. Now a few headquarters officers rushed forward and, as my Marines manned security positions in the fields along the road, eagerly clustered around the men we’d killed. I watched in disbelief as camera flashes popped in the dim light and senior officers laughed and strutted around.

I had kept my cool through almost seven hours of nonstop combat, through killing men so close I could hear them breathe, through evacuating my wounded brothers, through thinking I wouldn’t live to see the sunrise. Finally, I lost control. Running up the road, I was in a rage.

“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted. “You stupid motherfuckers. Taking pictures? You make me sick.”

A headquarters captain grabbed my shoulder and told me to calm down. I shook free. Major Benelli looked at me with disdain, as if it were in poor taste for me to ruin the victory celebration.

Headquarters began to trickle away; my explosion had not been entirely without effect. I looked at the dead bodies sprawled in the trees. Six or seven of them, young men like us, clean-shaven and dressed meticulously in pleated trousers, button-down shirts, and brown loafers. Their silver belt buckles gleamed. They looked more like computer programmers than Islamic fighters. AK-47s surrounded the bodies, along with RPG launchers and piles of grenades.

Clutched in the death grip of one of the men were two hand grenades, seconds from being thrown. Another corpse stood almost upright, stapled to a tree trunk by .50-caliber machine gun rounds. A third fighter looked as if he’d died the clichéd death by a thousand cuts. One of the Cobra’s fléchette rockets had hit next to him, sending thousands of tiny metal slivers into every inch of his body. There was no blood, only razor-thin cuts. We started picking through their pockets for information.

“Holy shit, these guys are Syrians!” Each man carried a Syrian passport, complete with official Iraqi entry visas. The visas were stamped in red ink with blank lines for the date, place, and reason of entry to be written in by hand. Each of the dead men had entered Iraq during the first week of the war at a crossing point on the Syrian border. Their written reasons were all the same: jihad.

I found no joy in looking at the men we’d killed, no satisfaction, no sense of victory or accomplishment. But I wasn’t disturbed either. I fell back on an almost clinical detachment. The men were adults who chose to be here. I was an adult who chose to be here. They shot at us and missed. We shot at them and didn’t miss. The fight was fair. All the same, I was happy my platoon wasn’t here to see what they’d wrought. Sometimes it’s better not knowing.

As I walked away, I heard a shout behind me. “We got a live one over here!”

Far behind the trees, a groaning man lay in the grass, one of his legs nearly severed by machine gun fire. The grass around him was slick with blood. For a second, the Marines looked at me, eyes flashing between my face and my pistol. I think they thought I’d walk up and shoot him in the head, like a lame horse or a shark on a fishing charter. Colonel Ferrando elected to treat and evacuate the wounded man. I felt relieved. Two Marines slid him onto a stretcher and into the back of a Humvee, and he was whisked down the road to our staging area from the night before.

I collected the platoon, and we withdrew back down the highway, the last ones out just as we’d been the first ones in. The teams took their places in the defensive perimeter while Gunny Wynn and I searched for Sergeant Patrick. On our way across the field, neither of us said anything. We were preoccupied with the loss of one of our team leaders for the rest of the war, wondering at the stupidity of the mission that had nearly cost us our lives, and just plain exhausted from massive adrenaline overload. The sun had cleared the horizon, and it was a gorgeous morning. Dew on the grass sparkled in the light and reminded me of early-morning practice on the playing fields in high school.

We found the battalion’s sergeant major aggressively watching our approach, hands on his hips.

“Morning, Sergeant Major. Where’s Sergeant Patrick?”

“How the hell should I know?”

“Well, he was evacuated back here a few hours ago after he got hit. What happened to him?” It was clear from the sergeant major’s confusion that he didn’t know of Patrick’s wound. He hadn’t been on the mission the previous evening and was so far out of the loop that he still didn’t know what was going on. We bypassed him and kept looking.

On a gentle hillside, we saw a supine form under a poncho liner. Patrick’s foot was bandaged, and an IV hung from his arm. “How you doing, Shawn?” I asked.

“Good, sir. What’s up, Gunny? How’s the platoon?”

“Fine. Stafford took some frag in the leg, but he’s OK. Glad to see you talking.”

“They couldn’t get a bird in last night, so I’m just waiting here. A truck’s supposed to take me to the field hospital.”

I told Sergeant Patrick about the wounded Syrian. “He’ll probably be riding out with you. You good with that?”

“Long as he don’t try nuthin’.”

“I don’t think he’s in any shape to try anything.”

Sergeant Patrick’s assistant team leader walked up. Rudy had evacuated Patrick the night before and then returned to lead his team during our second attempt to cross the bridge. “Damn, brother, you’re looking rough,” Rudy said with a grin. “The battalion commander always said you looked like a bum, and this morning I’d say he’s right.”

The four of us were laughing and joking, relieved to be alive and grateful to see Patrick, when the sergeant major ambled over.

“Hey, jokers, get the hell outta here and give Sergeant Patrick his space.”

I thought he was kidding and looked over at him. He was serious. “Get lost, Sergeant Major. You didn’t even know he was here,” I said.

“Now, Lieutenant, that ain’t right . . .” His voice trailed off. Walking away, he looked crestfallen — left out of the mission and then not even able to assert some authority in its wake.

We gathered Patrick’s gear and put together a small bag of things he might need in the hospital. The platoon rotated over in shifts to wish him well and joke about free rides home, million-dollar wounds, and the rest. Despite their humor, I knew that they were rattled. It was hard to see a man so respected get hit, and even harder to say goodbye. The bluster and jokes were a front for Sergeant Patrick’s benefit, but inside we hurt. Gingerly, we lifted his stretcher aboard an open truck and settled him comfortably, one last act of faith for a friend. We loaded the Syrian next and climbed down. Wynn and I waved as the truck pulled away, then we walked back down to the platoon.

The Marines were on autopilot, minds elsewhere as bodies busily cleaned weapons, changed tires, and reloaded ammunition. Gunny Wynn and I took stock of our vehicle. A bullet had torn a ragged gash in the door frame just below his seat, and another had punched a hole behind my headrest that was large enough to fit my fist through. Holes peppered our canvas tarp, one of them surely left by the shrapnel now deep in Stafford’s leg. I followed the paths of the other bullets to make sure they hadn’t done any hidden damage to our equipment that would become apparent at some inopportune time. One round had passed through the tarp, then clear through a box of MREs, before piercing the plastic of a sniper rifle case and lodging against the buttstock of the rifle. I picked up the misshapen lump of lead and dropped it into my breast pocket. Maybe after a few more towns I’d have enough to make my own horseshoe.

I walked among the platoon, from vehicle to vehicle, visiting each team to listen to stories, take requests, and answer questions. Work continued while we talked, and everyone seemed to take renewed interest in the simple pleasures of eating a bag of pretzels or slipping out of his MOPP jacket to feel the warmth of the sun on his shoulders. Evan Wright was sprawled in the grass next to Colbert’s Humvee, laughing with the Marines who stood around him scrubbing their M4s.

“I’m surprised you’re still with us,” I said.

“Because I should have left or could have been shot?”

I laughed. “Both.”

Beneath the banter, the mood was morose. After earlier firefights, I had seen a quiet confidence in the younger Marines, the realization that they had faced the beast and won. That was gone now. The beast had fought back, and although no one was dead, we had paid a blood price. The more experienced Marines were vocal.

“Sir, what the fuck were the commanders thinking, sending us in there with no armor to clear a fucking town? We could have all been killed, and for what? We’re sitting in the same goddamn field we were in last night, as if nothing had happened, except we got the shit shot out of us and lost a great team leader.”

I walked a fine line. As an officer, I couldn’t badmouth decisions the way a lance corporal could. Even as a lowly first lieutenant, I simply had too much rank, too much authority and influence. It would be disloyal and insubordinate, a transgression both moral and legal. At the same time, though, to smile in the face of stupidity and say something about liberating the Iraqi people or living up to the example of Iwo Jima and Hue City would neuter me in the eyes of my men. Men shrink in combat to little circles of trust: us versus them. A platoon that puts its commander in the “them” category is a dangerous place to be. Every young officer quickly learns the difference between legal authority and moral authority. Legal authority is worn on the collar — the gold and silver rank insignia that garner salutes and the title “sir.” It doesn’t win firefights. Moral authority is the legitimacy granted to a leader who knows his job and cares about his men. In combat, I learned to rely on moral authority much more than on legal authority.

So I conceded part of the Marine’s statement. “That was bullshit, bad tactics. After all the artillery prep and with the air escort, no one expected that ambush to happen. We were all wrong. I can’t speak for the battalion, but I can tell you that will never happen again in this platoon.” I paused and locked eyes with the Marine to be sure he knew I wasn’t just talking. “I’m sorry about Pappy. I don’t know if we’ll be fighting for another three days, three weeks, or three months, but I can tell you one thing. We have to learn from what we do right and what we do wrong, then move on. There were twenty-three of us, back to back. Now there are twenty-two. We have to get each other home in one piece.”

The Marine nodded, accepting this line of reasoning. Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. The Marines allowed me to be their commander, and they could revoke their permission at any time.

I stopped at Sergeant Reyes’s vehicle, where half the team was replacing a tire shredded by machine gun fire while the other half brewed coffee and relived the night’s adventure. Behind them, their Humvee’s windshield displayed a hole exactly 7.62 millimeters wide where an AK-47 round had passed within inches of Sergeant Reyes’s head. Now Rudy himself was serving as barista, carefully bringing water to a boil through coffee grounds, then pouring it with a delicate flourish that topped each cup with white crema. He spoke as he worked.

“So I’m driving along when Shawn says, ‘Hey, Rudy, turn around.’” He imitated Sergeant Patrick’s North Carolina drawl. “I start turning to the left, and ack ack ack ack, shooting everywhere. Humvee’s rocking. Tracers over, under, past my head. Madness, brother, just madness. Then I see Shawn jump in his seat and yell. Well, I’m busy turning around in this firefight, trying not to run into anything or get us stuck, and I hear him say, real calm, ‘I’m hit in the foot — I’m OK, though.’ Then that crazy mother ties a tourniquet around his leg, real cool, picks up his M4, and starts shooting again!” Rudy folded at the waist, slapping his knee, struggling to breathe. “Brother, that guy is awesome. Awesome.”

I was nursing the coffee Rudy had poured for me when Christeson’s voice crackled through the radio. “Sir, the CO needs you at his truck.” Looking toward company headquarters, I could see people packing up, getting ready to move.

“Roger, I’m on my way.”

I thanked the guys for the coffee, shouldered my rifle, and walked away.

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