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THE FIRST MORTAR round landed as the sun was rising.
Joel and I both had bottom bunks along the western wall of the barracks. As we swung our feet onto the floor, Joel said, “They better know, they wake my ass up like this, it’s gonna put me in a pretty uncharitable mood.” Mortars were common, and one explosion in the morning amounted to little more than an unpleasant alarm.
As we began to tug on our boots, another round exploded outside, but the dull whomp of its impact meant that it had landed dozens of yards away. The insurgent mortars were usually wild, inaccurate, one-time shots. Then another round landed—closer. The final round shook the walls of the barracks and the sounds of gunfire began to rip.
I have no memory of when the suicide truck bomb detonated. Lights went out. Dust and smoke filled the air. I found myself lying belly-down on the floor, legs crossed, hands over my ears with my mouth wide open. My SEAL instructors had taught me to take this position during incoming artillery fire. They learned it from men who passed down the knowledge from the Underwater Demolition Teams that had cleared the beaches at Normandy.
SEAL training . . . One sharp blast of the whistle and we’d drop to the mud with our hands over our ears, our feet crossed. Two whistles and we’d begin to crawl. Three whistles and we’d push to our feet and run. Whistle, drop, whistle, crawl, whistle, up and run; whistle, drop, whistle, crawl, whistle, up and run. By the end of training, the instructors were throwing smoke and flashbang grenades. Crawling through the mud, enveloped in an acrid haze—red smoke, purple smoke, orange smoke—we could just make out the boots and legs of the man in front of us, barbed wire inches above our heads . . .
In the barracks, I heard men coughing around me, the air thick with dust. Then the burning started. It felt as if someone had shoved an open-flame lighter inside my mouth, the flames scorching my throat, my lungs. My eyes burned and I squinted them shut, then fought to keep them open. The insurgents had packed chlorine into the truck bomb: a chemical attack. From a foot or two away I heard Staff Sergeant Big Sexy Francis, who often manned a .50-cal gun in our Humvees, yell, “You all right?”
Mike Marise answered him: “Yeah, I’m good!” Marise had been an F-18 fighter pilot in the Marine Corps who walked away from a comfortable cockpit to pick up a rifle and fight on the ground in Fallujah.
“Joel, you there?” I shouted. My throat was on fire, and though I knew that Joel was only two feet away, my burning eyes and blurred vision made it impossible to see him in the dust-filled room.
He coughed. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said.
Then I heard Lieutenant Colonel Fisher shouting from the hallway. “You can make it out this way! Out this way!”
I grabbed Francis’s arm and pulled him to standing. We stumbled over gear and debris as shots were fired. My body low, my eyes burning, I felt my way over a fallen locker as we all tried to step toward safety. I later learned that Mike Marise had initially turned the wrong way and gone through one of the holes in the wall created by the bomb. He then stumbled into daylight and could have easily been shot. I stepped out of the east side of the building as gunfire ripped through the air and fell behind an earthen barrier, Lieutenant Colonel Fisher beside me.
On my hands and knees, I began hacking up chlorine gas and spraying spittle. My stomach spasmed in an effort to vomit, but nothing came. Fisher later said he saw puffs of smoke coming from my mouth and nostrils. A thin Iraqi in tan pants and a black shirt, his eyes blood red, was bent over in front of me, throwing up. Cords of yellow vomit dangled from his mouth.
I looked down and saw a dark red stain on my shirt and more blood on my pants. I shoved my right hand down my shirt and pressed at my chest, my stomach. I felt no pain, but I had been trained to know that a surge of adrenaline can sometimes mask the pain of an injury.
I patted myself again. Chest, armpits, crotch, thighs. No injuries. I put my fingers to the back of my neck, felt the back of my head, and then pulled my fingers away. They were sticky with sweat and blood, but I couldn’t find an injury.
It’s not my blood.
My breathing was shallow; every time I tried to inhale, my throat gagged and my lungs burned. But we had to join the fight. Mike Marise and I ran back into the building. One of our Iraqi comrades was standing in the bombed-out stairwell, firing his AK-47 as the sound of bullets ricocheted around the building.
Fisher and another Marine found Joel sitting on the floor in the chlorine cloud, trying to get his boots on. Shrapnel from the truck bomb had hit Joel in the head. He had said, “I’m fine,” and he had stayed conscious, but instead of standing up and moving, his brain had been telling him boots . . . boots . . . boots as he bled out the back of his head.
Fisher, Big Sexy, and I charged up the twisted bombed-out staircase to find higher ground. The truck bomb had blown off the entire western wall of the barracks, and as we raced up the staircase over massive chunks of concrete and debris, we were exposed to gunfire from the west. Iraqi soldiers from the barracks—this was their army, their barracks, and we were their visiting allies at this stage of the war—were letting bullets fly, but as I ran up the stairs, I couldn’t see any targets. At the top of the stairs, I paused to wait for a break in the gunfire, sucked in a pained, shallow breath, then ran onto the rooftop. A lone Iraqi soldier who had been on guard duty was already there, armed with an M60 and ripping bullets to the west. I ran to cover the northwest, and Francis ran out behind me to cover the southwest. As I ran, a burst of gunfire rang out, and I dove onto the rough brown concrete and crawled through a mess of empty plastic drink bottles, musty milk cartons, cigarette butts, dip cans, and spit bottles—trash left behind by Iraqi soldiers on guard duty.
As I reached the northern edge of the roof, I peered over the eight-een-inch ledge to check for targets and caught sight of a tall minaret on a mosque to the northeast. It was not uncommon for snipers to take positions inside minarets and shoot at Americans. It would have been a far shot for even the best sniper, but as I scanned the streets, I kept my head moving, just in case.
Women and children were scattered and running below us, but no one had a weapon. Far off to the north, I saw armed men running. I steadied my rifle and aimed. I took a slow breath, focused my sights, laid the pad of my finger on the trigger . . . no. Those were Iraqi police from our base.
I called to Francis, “You see anything? You have any targets?”
Nothing. The sun rose. We felt the heat of the day begin to sink into the roof. We waited. We watched. My breathing was still shallow, and I felt as if someone had tightened a belt around my lungs and was pulling hard to kill me. I glanced over the ledge of the roof again. Nothing. I assessed. We had plenty of bullets, and my med kit was intact. We had the high ground, good cover, and a clear view of every avenue of approach. We’d need some water eventually, but we could stay here for hours if necessary. Sitting there in a nasty pile of trash on the rooftop of a bombed-out Iraqi building in Fallujah, I thought to myself: Man, I’m lucky.
Travis Manion and two other Marines then ran up onto the roof. Travis was a recent graduate of the Naval Academy, where he’d been an outstanding wrestler. I came to know him while we patrolled the streets of Fallujah together. Travis was tough, yet he walked with a smile on his face. He was respected by his men and respected by the Iraqis. A pirated copy of a movie about the last stand of three hundred Spartan warriors had made its way to Fallujah, and Travis was drawn to the ideal of the Spartan citizen-warrior who sacrificed everything in defense of his community. He likened his mission to that of the warriors who left their families to defend their home.
I glanced at the minaret again. The sky was blue and clear. A beautiful day. The radio crackled with traffic informing us that a Quick Reaction Force of tanks was on its way. After the explosion and the gunfire and the rush of adrenaline, the day was quiet and getting hot. Tanks arrived, and a few Humvees rolled in for a casualty evacuation of the injured. Because we’d been in the blast, Francis and I were ordered to leave with the casevac for the hospital. I called over to Travis: “You got it?”
“Yeah, I got your back, sir.”
All the armored Humvees were full, and so a young Marine and I climbed into the back of a Humvee made for moving gear. The Humvee had an open bed. For armor, two big green steel plates had been welded to its sides. Lying flat on the bed of the Humvee, we had about as much cover as two kids in the back of a pickup truck during a water-gun fight. As we drove for the base, we’d be exposed to fire from windows and rooftops. We readied our rifles, prepared to shoot from our backs as the Humvee raced through Fallujah, bumping and bouncing over the uneven dirt roads.
When we’d made it out of the city, I asked the young Marine beside me if he was OK. “You know what, sir?” he said. “I think I’m ready to head home after this one.” Somehow that seemed hilarious to us and we both laughed our heads off, exhausted, relieved.
At Fallujah Surgical, I was treated among a motley crew of Americans and Iraqis, many half-dressed, bedraggled, bloody. I asked about Joel and was told that his head injury had been severe enough that they’d flown him straight to Baghdad.
When I got back to the barracks, I pulled off my boots, peeled off my clothes, and threw my armor in a corner. Everything reeked of chlorine. I stepped into a shower. As the water ran over me, I rubbed my scalp. Down fell tiny bits of concrete from the explosion. I watched as the pieces fell to the shower floor and washed down the drain. That was close.
For the next few weeks I spent every night hacking and coughing in bed. When I woke in the morning and tried to run, my lungs hurt. I felt like they had been zipped half-shut. Still, I ran every day, and eventually I could take a deep, full breath. I lost a bit of my hearing for a few weeks, but it could have been far worse. Not everyone I served with that day would be so lucky.
One month later, Lieutenant Travis Manion would be dead.
When Joel Poudrier arrived at my apartment in D.C., it was the first time I had seen him since the truck bomb. On that day, he was kneeling on one knee outside the barracks as a corpsman tended to his bleeding head wound. Joel was an intel officer. He had worked closely with the Iraqi troops in Fallujah, and he knew the names, stories, and falafel preferences of the Iraqis as well as he knew his own men. Jovial and level-headed, he smoked a good-luck cigarette before every patrol. His wife sent him gourmet coffee, and in Fallujah he had packed his office with boxes of candy bars and tubs of cashews on offer to anyone who walked in to see him.
We talked about his son’s baseball, his golf game. He told me that a psychologist had been sent to evaluate him after his injury and had asked Joel if he had any issues with irritability. Joel said, “I’m always irritable before my morning coffee, but what the hell does that have to do with a suicide truck bomb?”
He was recovering well, and he told me that he wanted to go back to Iraq to rejoin his unit. He bent his neck and showed me the scar where they’d stapled his head back together. I dug my body armor out of a black duffle bag and showed him where the blood—his blood—still stained my armor.
“Can I have that back?”
“You should have ducked,” I said. “Do the Manions know we’re on our way?”
“Yeah, I called ’em just as I was pulling up here.”
We drove together to the Manion home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where we met Colonel Tom Manion, Travis’s father; Janet Manion, his mom; Ryan, Travis’s sister; and Dave, Travis’s brother-in-law.
Tom Manion told us how Travis had been welcomed home. The roads were lined with people saluting or holding their hands over their hearts. The American flag flew from the extended ladders of fire trucks, while police, neighbors, and friends formed a three-hundred-car procession to escort Travis’s body from the church to the gravesite. Tom told us that he had talked regularly with his son on the phone while Travis was deployed, and that they had made plans to run the Marine Corps Marathon together that fall. Now he couldn’t run with Travis. “I was glad, though,” he said, “that all of those people had come out to say, ‘Welcome home, warrior, welcome home.’”
Later we pulled out a map of Fallujah and spread it flat on Colonel Manion’s desk. Joel was able to explain the details of Travis’s death in Fallujah and the patrol Travis had been on that day.
“This is the industrial sector, here . . .”
We tried to give his dad as much information as we could about the work Travis had done in Iraq and the life he had lived there. Travis’s teammates had sent pictures of a ceremony they had performed to honor him in Iraq. In the photographs, U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops gathered around a rifle pointed into the ground with boots on either side; Travis’s helmet hung on the butt of the rifle. Joel went through the pictures one at a time. He explained who all the men were—Iraqis and Americans—who had been there to honor Travis in Iraq.
“Sometimes their snipers set up here . . .”
As we sat for dinner on the porch with the entire family, Joel and I were both thinking, This is Travis’s seat; he should be here. Janet Manion brought food out and we passed it around the table.
“Travis had a group of Marines . . .”
Yet for all their suffering, Travis’s family was not consumed by bitterness, or rage, or despair. The Manions had lost their only son, yet they impressed me with their desire to honor Travis’s life.
The phone rang. Someone on the other end asked about the correct letter and number display of Travis’s rank: “First Lieutenant.” The caller was engraving something for the family.
Travis died four weeks after we’d been on the roof together in Fallujah. The citation for his Silver Star read:
As First Lieutenant Manion’s patrol concluded a search of a suspected insurgent house, it came under precision small arms fire attack. With the Corpsman grievously wounded by enemy fire and the attack developing into a full-scale ambush, First Lieutenant Manion and a fellow Marine exposed themselves to the increasing fire to pull the Corpsman out of the kill zone. After recovering the Corpsman and administering first aid, First Lieutenant Manion led his patrol in a counter attack personally eliminating an enemy position with his M4 carbine and M203 grenade launcher. As he continued to direct the patrol another Marine was wounded by the enemy’s accurate fire. He again moved across the kill zone, under fire by five insurgents, to recover the wounded Marine. Iraqi Army reinforcements, halted by an improvised explosive device, were unable to advance on the flank of the insurgents, and First Lieutenant Manion and his patrol found themselves taking fire from three sides. While fearlessly exposing himself to gain a more advantageous firing position and drawing enemy fire away from wounded Marines, First Lieutenant Manion was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper. His courageous and deliberate actions inspired the eventual counter attack and ultimately saved the lives of every member of his patrol.1
When Travis said, “I got your back,” he meant it.
Travis had been a student of Greek history, and I thought of Pericles’ speech to the families of the Athenian war dead, in which he said, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
As Joel and I drove home, I thought about the connection between hot, brutal warfare in distant lands and the kind of community spirit we had seen both at the Manions’ home and among many Iraqis in Fallujah. I had seen it before in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and other places where courageous people found ways to live with compassion in the midst of tremendous hardship. Across the globe, even in the world’s “worst places,” people found ways to turn pain into wisdom and suffering into strength. They made their own actions, their very lives, into a memorial that honored the people they had lost.
On the frontlines—in humanitarian crises, in wars overseas, and around some kitchen tables here at home—I’d seen that peace is more than the absence of war, and that a good life entails more than the absence of suffering. A good peace, a solid peace, a peace in which communities can flourish, can only be built when we ask ourselves and each other to be more than just good, and better than just strong. And a good life, a meaningful life, a life in which we can enjoy the world and live with purpose, can only be built if we do more than live for ourselves.
On the drive, Joel and I decided that we’d do something for the Manion family. We would find a way to ensure that Travis’s legacy—and the legacy of all those who served and sacrificed—would live on.
Joel pulled his car up to the curb in front of my building. We both stepped out, and I shook his hand and pulled him into a hug.