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Excerpt: 'Joker One'

On May 27, I woke up to a horrible feeling of dread. I can't really properly put that heavy sense of impending doom into words, but the feeling meant that, for the first time, I was so scared about what the day held that I didn't want to leave my sleeping bag. I had been scared before other missions, of course, but never before had I felt such a deep certainty that something bad would happen to my men if they left the Outpost that day. I didn't want us to leave, but what I wanted was irrelevant. We had a mission, and, with or without me, my Marines were going to go out into the city and get it done. I forced myself out of bed and headed downstairs.

Our task that day was deterrence. General Jim Mattis, in charge of all USMC ground forces in Iraq, was hosting the second day of talks with dozens of tribal leaders and local officials at the Government Center. Such a concentrated host of important people from both sides made the center a very attractive insurgent target, so one Joker platoon was tasked to guard the building itself while another patrolled the environs to prevent mortar attacks. The day prior, Joker One had stood post on the Government Center'swalls. Now it was our turn to leave them to patrol the city.

We planned to use five Humvees to zip unpredictably about the city, moving quickly from one foot patrol site to another as we investigated areas favorable for mortar launches. However, at the last minute, very typically, the CO threw an unexpected change at us. In consonance with his contracting duties, the Ox needed to inspect an elementary school that Golf Company had paid a local builder to repair. As long as Joker One was patrolling the area, the CO reasoned, the company could kill two birds with one stone by taking the Ox to the schoolhouse and guarding it while he performed the inspection. I protested mightily. After our last experience with Joker Five and his decision-making process, I didn't want the man coming within one mile of my Marines and a mission. Furthermore, inspections take time, and from numerous previous patrols I knew that the area around the school offered only minimal cover for vehicles. A lengthy wait in the middle of a densely populated area with our vehicles completely in the open was a recipe for disaster. I said as much to the CO.

However, he overruled me, and my sense of unease deepened. To limit the damage from this undesirable assignment, I made two demands of the Ox: 1) that he give no orders to my men and 2) that he take no more than five to ten minutes inside the schoolhouse. Ten minutes, I told him, was pushing it; any longer than that and we were almost certain to get attacked. The Ox, still humbled by the Devil Siphon debacle, agreed. Done with the COC, I finished readying myself, and sometime before 10 am, Joker One left the Outpost in five Humvees to carry out our assigned mission. As usual, Bolding was right behind me, driving our second vehicle.

We started our foot patrols with a few open areas in the middle of the city, then we moved in the vehicles to the wide fields at Ramadi's southwestern tip. There we spent at least half an hour patrolling the lush rural area next to the Euphrates offshoot, hoping to focus the enemy's attention on that place before we mounted up and headed back into the city for the school inspection. Sometime shortly before noon, we abandoned the open fields for the densely packed butchers' district and the little nameless school it contained. Ten minutes later, we arrived. The school was constructed somewhat strangely in that it was not the usual thickly walled compound with a squat building complex inside. Instead, four thin, one-story, wall-less buildings joined together to form a hollowed-out rectangle, with a small break on the northern side creating an entrance to the rectangle's center and the open courtyard it contained. To its north, west, and south, the school was surrounded by twenty to thirty meters of soft dirt field, and beyond them the dense housing complexes sprouted thickly again all around. To the east, though, there was no field, just the usual long line of housing compounds separated from the school itself by a small, trash-lined north-south street. It was on this street that we pulled up sometime around noon.

Immediately upon arrival, the Ox hopped out of his vehicle and headed into the school with the translator, a radio operator, and one of my teams. Just before he stepped through the rectangle's northern break, I called the Ox on the PRR.

"Hey, Five, remember, no more than ten minutes. I don't like this area."

"Yeah, One-Actual, I got it. I'll be out shortly."

"Roger that. I'd better see you soon."

The rest of us dismounted and knelt next to our vehicles, taking what cover we could. The drivers, Waters, Bolding, Fyfe, Henderson, and Lance Corporal Moore, stayed close to the driver's side doors in case they were immediately needed. They were a bit more exposed, but it was a necessary trade-off. The Humvees ran in a long, evenly spaced line down the street, from the tip of the very northernmost school building to the end of the open field to the rectangle's south. If the stay extended any longer than ten minutes, we would reposition the vehicles to form a rough 360-degree perimeter around the school, but establishing that formation would take precious time, as would getting out of it. As long as the inspection finished quickly, we would stay well aligned, ready to mount up and head out in ten seconds or less.

Three blocks to our south we could see the busy east-west street, called Baseline Road by us, that marked the southern boundary of the butchers' district. I eyed the compounds lining it with hard suspicion, but nothing seemed amiss. Civilian foot and vehicle traffic was normal for the time of day. The weird little rhythms of commerce that marked the area seemed in sync, and all three squad leaders called in periodically. Nothing unusual to report, sir.

After five minutes, I started getting nervous, and I called the Ox to get a situation report. He was just finishing up, he said. He'd be right there. Five more minutes passed with no sign of the Ox. I called back, more forcefully this time, informing Joker Five that he either needed to leave the building immediately or let me know how much longer he was going to stay so that we could modify our defensive posture accordingly. Even with the heavy .50-cals mounted and manned on our first and last vehicles, sitting in a line along the road was only appropriate for a very short stop, I reminded him. His stay was starting to put us in danger. He'd be right out, the Ox replied.

Maybe three minutes later, the Ox and his entourage finally reappeared, trailing the usual crowd of twenty to thirty small children behind them. Designated Marines rapidly handed out the soccer balls and other small gifts that we had brought, and, vastly relieved, I gave the order to mount up. The drivers hopped back in first, and the rest of Joker One began loading the vehicles smoothly and quickly, just as we had done hundreds of times before.

I waited with my door open until the last of the Marines started mounting. The little kids stood in a tight knot on the sidewalk right next to our third vehicle, waving at us as we hopped in the Humvees, pleading for us to hand out more gifts. I smiled a bit—it was nice to be appreciated—and threw my left leg through the door as Noriel, Bowen, and Leza called out almost in unison that all squads were mounted and ready to head out.

Then a few things happened simultaneously, or maybe there was a timeline, but everything sort of runs together in my head as I try to remember it. A boom tore open the silence and an RPG hissed by, maybe a few feet over the top of my closing door. Small-arms fire rang out from our south, and from the .50-cal turret right above me, Brown started firing back with his heavy gun. My platoon sergeant flung himself out of the way of the rocket, twisting in the air, wrenching his back. Another explosion rang out, and the crowd of small children disintegrated into flame and smoke. From somewhere behind me, Marines started screaming out the worst words a platoon commander can hear: "Doc up! Doc up! Someone get a corpsman! Doc up!"

I jumped out of the Humvee and looked around. I can't give specifics of the scene—I was too busy scanning the whole area and sorting out the enemy threat in my head—only a general impression, and it was of a macabre tableau from hell. The rocket had missed us. Instead it had impacted squarely in the middle of the crowd of small children. Dead and wounded little ones were draped limply all over the sidewalk, severed body parts mixing in with whole bodies, or in some cases flung even farther, into the street. Blood, always the blood, streamed onto the sidewalk and into the dirt, where it settled darkly in pools or rivulets. Across the whole scene drifted smoke and dust. The Marines jumped out of the vehicles and ran helter-skelter among the children, collecting the wounded and their body parts, applying first aid where they could. The docs were working frantically. I noticed, strangely enough, that they hadn't bothered to put on their latex gloves.

Throughout it all, Brown continued hammering at the enemy firing position he had spotted in the housing compounds across Baseline Road. At some point in time, the AKs ceased chattering, and one of my Marines, Fyfe, shouted at me that he had seen the RPG gunners, that they had taken off to the east, that he could guide us there. All three squad leaders called in to report that none of our Marines had been wounded and that the only fire we appeared to be taking was coming from due south.

That information was what I needed to hear, so I started giving orders over the PRR:

"One-Three, you are the casualty squad. Stay here with the docs and set up a collection point for the kids inside the school. One-One, One-Two, mount up. We're heading south."

Three terse "Rogers" came back, and first and second squads flung themselves into the first three Humvees with abandon. When they were mounted, the first two vehicles screeched south in pursuit of the terrorists. My driver took a hard turn, skidding the Humvee sideways, and headed east. Behind us, Bolding took the turn more carefully, and his vehicle dropped back. Twisting around and not seeing his vehicle, I called back to Fyfe, sitting in the seat kitty-corner from me.

"Where'd they go, Fyfe? Where'd they go? Tell me!"

He was suddenly no longer sure, and I can't blame him for that, for as soon as we had made the eastern turn onto Baseline, the Humvee had been enveloped by the normal butchers' area crowd. Completely impervious to our private tragedy just three blocks away, the locals were carrying out business as usual. Foot traffic thronged the area, merchants hawked their wares, and more blood, animal this time, ran through the streets. Fyfe settled on a likely house, and my driver bounced the compound gate open with the Humvee. Five of us hit the house, but it was a dry hole. I came back out to find that our vehicle was still alone. We had left too quickly, and the other three Humvees were zipping about somewhere nearby. I tried raising them on the PRR, but had no success. With crowds everywhere and no sign of our attackers, I decided to head back to the schoolhouse and the misery and to regroup there. On the way, we caught Joker Five calling over the PRR, and I instructed him to rally the rest of the convoy with us at the school. Less than ten minutes after we had left hell, we were back.

While squads one and two had been hunting, Bowen and his men had been doctoring, emptying their first aid kits until they had no bandages left, then using whatever else came to hand—bandannas, T-shirts, anything to help the kids. At some point during the process, Brooks found a little huddled pink-and-red mass, blown almost ten feet from the site of the explosion. Leaving his weapon dangling across his chest (and himself completely defenseless), Brooks picked up the bundle with both of his arms to find a pale, badly wounded little girl, bleeding profusely from her neck and breathing shallowly. Later, Brooks told me that as he ran with her to the docs, all he could think of was his own daughter. She was the same age as the shredded thing that he now held so tenderly.

When I arrived back at the scene, a pale but composed Bowen ran up and reported in. I noticed that his first aid kit was open and that his sleeves were rolled up to mid-forearm. Both sleeves and forearms were streaked dark with blood. I could barely make out the tattoos.

"Sir, we've got most of the little kids back in the school, but that explosion blew them everywhere. We're still finding them in random places, sir. The docs are working as hard as they can, but we've lost some already, and we're gonna lose more if they can't get to a hospital or something. We've managed to keep some of the most badly wounded alive, sir, but we can only do so much. They need to get some professional help."

His report finished, Bowen waited expectantly for direction, and right at about that time the rest of the convoy pulled up.

I wish I could say, given what followed, that I thought for a bit then, that I carefully weighed the pros and the cons of the various available courses of action, that I made a well-reasoned decision based on an in-depth analysis of the varying outcomes of any action. I wish I could say that I stepped back and coolly and dispassionately evaluated the situation, but if said that, I would be lying. The fact of the matter is that as soon as I spotted my first and second squads, my decision was already made. We were United States Marines, and a bunch of dying children needed our help. It was just that simple. There were too many of them to medically evacuate all, and the U.S. doctors might not cooprate even if we did so, but damned if we couldn't remain there to protect and minister to the little ones until Iraqi help showed up. Of course, a protracted stay meant another attack, and I knew this fact even as I settled instinctively on my decision. But we had been hit dozens and dozens of times to date, and none had yet resulted in any serious casualties. With the decision made, I started issuing orders, and I began with Bowen.

"Okay, Bowen, we're gonna stay until these kids get some help. We're gonna form a solid defensive perimeter around the CCP [casualty collection point], so you've got the standard six to ten o'clock area. Keep the docs and whoever else you need working on 'em and get Anderson and his scope up on a house so we've got overwatch to the west. One-One'll take ten to two, and One-Two'll take two to six. Got it?"

Bowen nodded. "Yes, sir. We'll make it happen." Then he was off, hustling toward the school and shouting orders at his men. I relayed the defensive perimeter positions to Noriel and Leza over the PRR and got two "Roger that, sirs" in return. With the decision made and the orders issued, I paused for a second to watch my squad leaders in action. They were magnificent. To the north, Noriel had one hand on his weapon and another outstretched as he stormed fearlessly this way and that in the middle of the street, indicating exactly where he wanted his vehicles and their machine guns pointed. I could hear the distinctive Filipino voice ring out.

"No, damn it, I want him here!" He gesticulated forcefully. "Here! No, not Hendersizzle [Henderson's nickname], stupid, the vehicle, damn it, the vehicle. Right here. Two-forty this way. This way! Tig, where are you, Tig? Oh, good, get your team up in one of these buildig. Now, move it, damn it! Move it! Bolding, where are you? Oh right, by the Humvee. Okay. Good."

Then, over the PRR: "One-Two, where are you tying in?"

Leza called back. "I've got Raymond's team right in that building—see it?" I looked over to see him pointing. "No, not that one . . . Yeah, that one. I'll watch the street to our south. Make sure you get the one to our north. Hey, One-Three, where's your guys?"

In my left ear, Bowen spoke up. "Hey, we've got the kids inside the building and I've got some of my squad tied up with them. Can you guys take more of my sector? I think we're gonna have to put some guys on the top of the school to cover the west. One-Two, I need you tie in farther south. Oh, shit, I've found another kid. They're everywhere. Hey, if your men find them, bring them here inside the compound."

Everything was moving fluidly. Just north of the school, the docs were hustling around in the street, treating the kids who were hurt too badly to be moved inside the compound. I wanted to help, to reposition the vehicles and shape our perimeter as I saw fit, but my squad leaders were doing a much better job corporately than I could have done individually. For now, I reasoned, I was best off staying out of their way. Just then, the full impact of the moment hit me: My men didn't need me, they were doing just fine without me. I had done my job with my squad leaders. The feeling produced ten seconds of beauty inside a day of horror.

The Ox interrupted the reverie, but, for once, I was glad to see him—because, for once, he had a productive suggestion.

"Hey, One, George and I can bang on all of these houses to see if someone'll let us use their phone to call an ambulance? We've gotta get these kids some fucking help."

It was a good idea. I had no idea when or if the locals would take action, and we—and the children—couldn't afford to operate under the assumption that they would. I had already called the COC to inform them of the situation and to let them know that our battalion needed to call the Iraqi police liaison and get some help on scene. The Ox's idea, however, promised more immediate returns, so I nodded my agreement, and the Ox took off. Something like ten minutes later, though, he was still gone, and my pride in my men had been dispelled by the anxiety of remaining tethered to a fixed position. I called the Ox.

"Hey, Joker Five, where are you, what's taking so long?"

"Hey, One. These stupid Iraqis won't open their doors to us. I've got the translator screaming at them that we just need to use their phone to call an ambulance, but they don't care. They won't let us in. I hate these fucking people. Their own kids are lying wounded in the street and we're trying to help as best we can and they won't even let us in. Fucking cowards. Screw this, I'm kicking in a door."

The tirade over, the Ox signed off. I sympathized with his feelings. Five minutes later, he was back on the PRR. The hospital had been contacted. An ambulance was on its way. I breathed out my relief, then continued moving around the perimeter, keeping a watchful eye on my Marines and the surroundings for any signs of trouble, but it was Corporal Walter who spotted trouble first and called over the PRR.

"One-Actual! One-Actual! The people on that street three blocks west just started running."

"Roger that," I shouted back. "Everyone, stand by, we're about to get hit."

Later, Walter informed me that right after his transmission and during mine, he had started raising his SAW to his shoulder to take aim down the street over his open Humvee door. Halfway through the motion, two men dressed in head-to-toe black suddenly popped around the corner, one standing, armed with an AK, and the other kneeling, armed with an RPG. Walter fumbled with the SAW's safety for a second, then pushed it through the weapon and loosed off a few rounds. Maybe he hit the men, maybe not. It didn't really matter. Our attackers had managed to get the RPG off.

At the time, I was walking on the eastern side of the school, halfway down the long side of the rectangle. I heard the first boom and whipped my head north; then I heard the second. Gunfire rang out, and mixed with it came the horrifying cries of my first squad screaming, "Doc up! Doc up! Doc up!" My heart sank. I started running north, toward the sound of the explosion and the gunfire.

As soon as they heard the cries for the corpsman, Docs Smith and Camacho rose from where they had been taking cover and ran pell-mell down the street toward the second explosion, heedless of the tracers that clearly zipped all around them. I watched as together they sped across my field of vision, and then I continued my run toward the action. Over the PRR came Noriel's frantic voice: "Sir, sir, sir. Bolding's been hit, sir. His legs, they're gone, sir. They're gone, sir."

I heard the transmission, and some part of me howled out briefly, but the rest was so overwhelmed with trying to sort out the tactical situation that it didn't feel anything at all. Adding to the confusion, at just that time, despite all the fire, an ambulance trundled up to the school from our north. The drivers belatedly realized what they had gotten themselves into, and they dived out of the van, disappearing into the rectangle's interior. Still running, I reached the northern tip of the school and took cover behind some junk. Then I called breathlessly over the PRR to Noriel.

"One-One . . . Get ready to evac Bolding . . . You and the docs'll get him out of here . . . I'll be there in just a bit."

No reply came, and I started moving carefully toward Walter to get a visual on our enemies. As I ran across the street, it slowly dawned on me that the firing had ceased. By the time I made it over to Walter, all signs of combat had vanished. All signs save the screaming Bolding, of course.

The human body has a lot of blood, more than most of us realize. Cut some of the major veins that carry that blood and it starts spilling out everywhere. Cut some of the major arteries and it starts spurting out everywhere. Major veins and arteries run up and down the legs, and Bolding didn't have any of those anymore below his knees, so blood absolutely poured out of the lower half of his body. First squad, Staff Sergeant, the Ox, and Docs Smith and Camacho worked frantically to stop it.

As is often the case, Bolding was unaware of his missing appendages, perhaps because his nerve tissue had been badly burned. The RPG that took his legs had first hit a lightpost next to which he had been kneeling, as he faithfully stayed near his vehicle in case his services as driver were needed. The impact with the lightpost had caused the RPG's hot metal penetrator to detonate, and some combination of molten copper and sharp metal post fragments had gruesomely severed both of Bolding's legs at his knees. The Marines collected the separated pieces, and they gently placed them into an ice chest in the back of a Humvee. The legs were still wearing their boots.

The medical term for this type of injury is "traumatic amputation," and, like much of our shorthand, these two sterile words paper over a lot of gruesome reality, like, for example, the fact that Bolding was shouting, over and over, that his legs felt tangled. Would someone please untangle them, he asked. Or the fact that, for a second, the shouting stopped as Bolding gripped Walter, his best friend, by the collar and demanded to know if his nuts were still in place. I don't know whether Walter checked or not, but he did reassure Bolding that everything he needed was still intact. I'm told that Bolding was greatly relieved.

I'm told because I never saw the injury at close range. Once I realized that the firing had stopped, I moved out of cover and started walking to the street corner where I could see the docs hunched over, working on Bolding. I made it to within about ten feet of them when the Ox did a wonderful and magnificent thing. Seeing me approaching, he straightened up from where he crouched near Bolding, walked up to me, and held up his outstretched hand. Blood dripped from it.

"Hey, One. That's close enough. You don't need to see this, trust me. It'll just fuck you up. You need to fight the platoon with a clear head, and you're gonna have a hard time doing that if you see Bolding up close. We're doing everything we can. We'll get him out of here. Turn around. Fight your guys."

Over the Ox's shoulder I could see Bolding's torso jerking and twitching, and the docs working to hold him steady. I still felt nothing, and in my detached state I realized the truth of the Ox's words. I nodded and turned around to find a defiant Sergeant Noriel.

"Hey, sir," he said. "We're good here. We don't need to go. We need to stay and fight, sir. Get someone else to evac Bolding, sir. I want to fight."

Later, Noriel would tell me that at that exact moment he was furious and that he and the rest of his squad wanted only to fight and to kill, to exact some revenge in retaliation for what had just happened to their most beloved member. However, I sensed none of this bloodlust. As I stared at my angry squad leader, all I knew was that his squad was the casualty evacuation (casevac) squad that day—they were always the casevac squad—and that now they had to do their job. Whether they wanted to or not was, like everything else in our world, absolutely irrelevant. So I replied very simply to Noriel's demand: "One-One, you're the casualty squad. You know that, you've been that on every mission. It's because you've got the most drivers. You are evac'ing Bolding and you are doing it ASAP because he's bleeding out. Get going. Link up with us back at the Government Center when you're done."

I have no idea what happened to the children after our departure; the need to fight had yet again overtaken the need for compassion. I know that we saved a few of the kids, and I can only hope that some of the children survived who otherwise wouldn't have, because God knows we paid a terrible enough price for staying.

As my two squads pushed west, everybody we encountered fled as soon as they set eyes on us. It could have been that news of the fight traveled quickly, but I believe it was more likely that the civilians knew immediately by our faces, by our body language, by the way we moved in short, vicious spurts that we were on edge and looking for any excuse to take up a fight. None offered itself, and none of my men were so far gone that they made up their own, so we made it back to the relative safety of the Government Center without firing a shot. I have no idea how long our movement lasted or what time we made it back there, only that we did and that I was completely exhausted when we finally took off our helmets in a room inside the center. First squad may have been there by the time we returned, but they may also have arrived a bit after us. Again, time in these situations is very fluid.

As I sat there, vest on, forearms resting on my thighs, head hung down above my knees, weapon slung limply across my chest, I still felt nothing. My mind was fixed in tactical mode, trying to sort out which new problems were going to present themselves and how I should prioritize and respond to them. Slowly, it dawned on me that we weren't fighting anymore. I looked around at my Marines.

Some of them sat as I did, stunned and silent. Others gathered in huddled little knots, talking quietly to one another. Still others, like Teague, stood by themselves with hard eyes and stone faces, fingering their weapons. Over time, I watched as more of my Marines joined the latter category, and I knew what that group wanted. They wanted revenge on our faceless enemies and on the fearful civilians whose hesitance had prolonged our waiting and cost us one of our best men. They wanted revenge on the stupid, broken Iraqi public services whose ambulances had taken so long to respond to the wounded little children whom some of us had watched die. And they wanted revenge on the whole miserable city of Ramadi for forcing us to make horrible choices, day in and day out, until it seemed like no matter what path we took, we lost.

I knew that the hard ones were thinking these thoughts because I was thinking them myself. The numbness had worn off, and in its stead rose a dull rage at more or less everything in my world except for my Marines. But the rage was irrelevant. I was a lieutenant, and a leader, and no matter what I felt, I had to take care of my men and accomplish our mission, and, unfortunately, revenge wasn't our mission.

After some time sitting there, I sorted myself out enough to figure that my job hadn't ended just yet. My Marines still needed caring for. So I found the squad leaders and told them to gather our men. When they were ready, I spoke words to the platoon that I didn't feel but that needed to be spoken nonetheless because they were true and because they would help us. I started by telling Joker One that I wanted to kill very, very badly, and that a part of me didn't really care what it was that I killed as long as I got to do so. I fixed my eyes on Teague as I said this, and he nodded back. I told the Marines that a lot them probably wanted something similar. Teague nodded again. Then I told everyone that what we wanted didn't matter because we were United States Marines, and since our Corps had been founded, we had kept our honor clean and that Joker One was going to be no exception to this rule. We knew our mission and what we had come to do and it was still worthwhile, and we knew that as well. Something horrible had just happened, but it didn't change the mission and it didn't change how we got it done, and they knew this, I told them.

Some of the Marines nodded, but most just stared blankly at me.

So here's what we're gonna do, I continued. We're gonna go out there tomorrow and we're gonna try to make life a little bit better for the people we can. (Teague's face was immobile at this.) And if anyone attacks us while we're doing this, God help them because we're going to kill as many of them as best as we possibly can. And when we're finished fighting, we're going to get back to the business of rebuilding. (Teague's face was still blank.)

At about this time, I noticed that the CO and the Gunny had somehow appeared at the back of our room and that they were watching me. I ignored them because I wasn't talking to them, and I continued the little speech to my Marines:

Here's what we're not going to do. We're not going to kill everyone we feel like. We're not going to shoot indiscriminately at random civilians every time the fire breaks out. We've worked too hard to quit on the mission now. (At this, more Marines started nodding. Some were still silent, tears running down their young faces. Teague's dry eyes, though, bored back at me, his face still emotionless.) And you know what? I continued. Bolding wouldn't want us to start killing everyone randomly. You know Bolding, you know this is true. If he were here, you know that he would tell us to never mind him, to keep doing what we were doing because it's the right thing to do. You know this. You know this.

Now almost every one of my Marines was nodding. Some were still crying and some were still dry-eyed, but they were nodding along with the words. I looked at Teague. He was nodding, too, and I knew that I had gotten through.

As soon as I knew this, though, the mantle of leadership crumbled, and the full weight of what had happened finally overwhelmed the tactical numbness. The dull rage died, and in its place I felt only tremendous sadness and the crushing feeling of failure. Because of my decisions, one of my Marines had lost both of his legs. It may not have been my fault, but it was certainly my responsibility because everything that happened to my Marines was my responsibility. That's one of the first things you learn as an officer, and if you're a leader who's any good at all, then as you go on you know that you always err on the side of taking too much responsibility until the weight crushes you, and then your men pick you up, and then you take still more responsibility until they need to pick you up again.

Staring at the Marines, I started getting crushed, and I started losing it. Tears welled up, and I choked them back and probably finished up the talk with a few inane, meaningless sentences. Then I literally turned on my heels and fled the room, helmet in hand, for the filthy, excrement encrusted, piss-stained Iraqi bathroom down the hall and to the right. I arrived there blind from tears and banged open the door with my shoulder. Then I sank to the ground, curled up on myself, and cried and cried and cried.

I didn't know it, but the Gunny had noticed my abrupt departure. Maybe ten seconds after I crashed through the door, he opened it very gently and looked in on me. I didn't see him then, and in fact I didn't notice the Gunny's presence at all until he sat down next to me and wrapped his arms around me. Instinctively, I hugged him back, buried my face into the rough Kevlar of his shoulder, and sobbed. He told me that it was all right, and then he didn't say anything at all.

Excerpted from JOKER ONE: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood by Donovan Campbell. Copyright © 2009 by Donovan Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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