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.”
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.