Cpl. David Kreuter had a new baby boy he had seen only in photos. Lance Cpl. Michael Cifuentes was counting the days to his wedding. Lance Cpl. Nicholas Bloem...

Share story

HADITHA DAM, Iraq — Cpl. David Kreuter had a new baby boy he had seen only in photos. Lance Cpl. Michael Cifuentes was counting the days to his wedding. Lance Cpl. Nicholas Bloem had just celebrated his 20th birthday.

Travis Williams remembers them all — all 11 men in his Marine squad — all now dead. Two months ago, they shared a cramped room stacked with bunk beds at this base in northwest Iraq, where the Euphrates River rushes by. The room has been stripped of several beds, brutal testament that Lance Cpl. Williams’ closest friends are gone.

For the 12 young Marines who landed in Iraq early this year, the war was a series of hectic, constant raids into more than a dozen lawless towns in Iraq’s most hostile province, Anbar. The pace and danger bound them together into what they called a second family, even as some began to question whether their raids were making progress.

Now, all the Marines assigned to the 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, based in Columbus, Ohio, are gone — all except Williams. They and three other Marines were killed Aug. 3 by a roadside bomb set by insurgents. Most of the members in Williams’ squad were in their early 20s; the youngest was 19.

“They were like a family. They were the tightest squad I’ve ever seen,” said Capt. Christopher Toland of Austin, Texas, the squad’s platoon commander. Even though many did not know each other before they arrived in Iraq, “they truly loved each other.”

All that is left now are photos and snippets of video, saved on dusty laptops, that run for a few dozen seconds. As they pack up to return home by early this month, the Marines from Lima Company — including the squad’s replacements — sometimes huddle around Williams’ laptop, straining to watch the few remaining moments of their young friends’ lives. Some photos and videos carry the squad’s adopted motto, “Family is Forever.”

In one video, Lance Cpl. Christopher Dyer, who graduated with honors last year from a Cincinnati-area high school, strums his guitar and does a mock-heartfelt rendition of “Puff the Magic Dragon” as his friends laugh around him.

In a photo, Kreuter rides a bicycle through a neighborhood, swerving under the weight of body armor and weapons, as Marines and Iraqis watch and chuckle.

Each video ends abruptly. Some are switched off as soon as they start — some images hurt too much to see now.

Hunting insurgents

The August operation began like most of the squad’s missions — with a rush into a lawless Iraqi city to hunt insurgents and do house-to-house searches, sometimes for 12 hours in temperatures near 120 degrees.

On Aug. 1, six Marine snipers had been ambushed and killed in Haditha, one of a string of river cities that line the Euphrates. Marines in armored vehicles, including the 1st Squad, rumbled into the area two days later to look for the culprits.

Like other cities in the region, Haditha has no Iraqi troops, and its police force was destroyed this year by a wave of insurgent attacks. Marines patrol roads on the perimeter and occasionally raid homes in the city, which slopes along a quiet river valley. Commanders say insurgents have challenged local tribes for control and claim Iraq’s most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once had a home here.

Since their arrival in February, the Marines had spent nearly all their time on such sweeps or preparing for them, sometimes hurrying back to their base to grab fresh clothes and then heading off again to cities that hadn’t seen U.S. or Iraqi troops in months.

The intense pace of the operations, and the enormous area their regimental combat team had to cover — an expanse the size of West Virginia — caught some off guard.

The combat certainly was not what Williams, 21, had expected.

“I didn’t ever think we’d get engaged,” said the soft-spoken, stocky Marine from Helena, Mont. “I just had the basic view of the American public — it can’t be that bad out there.”

During some sweeps, residents warmly greeted the Marines. In others, such as operations in Haditha and Obeidi near the Syrian border, squad members met gunfire and explosions. In the Obeidi operation in early May, another squad from Lima Company suffered six deaths. Williams perhaps saved lives, once spotting a gunman hidden in a mosque courtyard, said Toland, the platoon commander.

An uneasy Toland couldn’t sleep the night before the Aug. 3 operation. Instead, he spent his last night with his squad members talking and joking, trying to suppress worries the mission was too predictable for an enemy that knew how to watch and learn.

“I had concerns that the operation was hastily planned and executed, with significant risks and little return,” Toland said.

The road had been checked by engineers and other units, Marine commanders say. But insurgents had been clever — hiding the massive bomb under the asphalt.

Several Humvees first drove over the bomb, but the triggerman apparently waited for a vehicle with more troops. As the clanking sound of their armored vehicles neared, a massive blast erupted, caused by explosives weighing hundreds of pounds. A 26-ton Amphibious Assault Vehicle was thrown into the air and landed upside down in flames.

The blast was so large that Toland and his radioman, Williams — traveling two vehicles ahead and not injured — thought their vehicle had been hit by a bomb. They scrambled out to inspect the damage, but instead found the blazing carnage several yards down the road.

Fourteen Marines and one Iraqi interpreter were killed.

Grief, anger, frustration

There was no time for grieving — not at first. There was only sudden devastation, then intense anger as the Marines pulled the remains of their friends from the vehicle.

Then there was frustration, as they fanned out to find the triggerman. Instead, they found only Iraqis either too sympathetic toward the insurgency, or too afraid, to talk.

Although the bomb had been planted in clear view of their homes, residents claimed they had seen nothing of the men who had spent hours digging a large hole several feet deep and concealing the bomb.

It was a familiar — and frustrating — problem.

“They are totally complacent with what’s going on here,” said Maj. Steve Lawson of Columbus, Ohio, who commands Lima Company. “The average citizen in Haditha either wants a handout, or wants us to die or go away.”

In a war where intelligence is the most valued asset, the Marines say few local people will divulge “actionable” information that could be used to find insurgents.

Some Iraqis apparently fear reprisal attacks from militants. Many want to stay out of the crossfire. Others hate the Americans enough to protect the insurgents: Marines say lookouts in cities often would launch flares as their vehicles approached.

In this region ruled by Sunni tribal loyalties, few voted for the new central Iraqi government, and many suspect the U.S. military is punishing them and empowering their longtime rivals, the Shiites of the south and the Kurds of the north.

“From a squad leader’s perspective, the intelligence never helped me accomplish my mission,” said Sgt. Don Owens, of Cincinnati, a Lima Company squad leader who fought alongside the 1st Squad.

“Their intelligence is better than ours,” Owens said.

Feeling alone

The first night after the attack, Williams couldn’t sleep. He stayed near his radio, listening to the heavy sobbing of fellow Marines.

He thought of his best friend, Lance Cpl. Aaron Reed, a 21-year-old with a goofy demeanor and a perpetual smile, now dead.

A world without his second family had begun. The young men Williams had planned to meet up with again, back in the States, had vanished in minutes. He was alone.

Yet, from a military standpoint, it was important to press on to show the enemy that even their best hits couldn’t stop the world’s most powerful military. The Marines were ordered away from the blast site, to hunt insurgents, one hour after the explosion.

They stayed out for another week, searching dozens of homes in nearby Parwana and struggling to piece together intelligence about who had planted the bomb.

“I pushed them back out the door to finish the mission,” Lawson said. “They did it, but they were crying as they pushed on.”

As word spread back in the United States that 14 men had been killed, the Marines on the ongoing mission at first couldn’t contact their families to let them know they had survived.

Disparate views

Marine commanders say the large-scale raids in western Anbar province have kept the insurgency off-balance, killing hundreds of militants and leaving a dwindling number of insurgent bases.

They say the sweeps are critical to beat back the insurgent presence in larger cities such as Ramadi and Baghdad, where suicide bombings have been rampant.

But, among some Marines and even officers, there are doubts whether progress has been made.

Insurgents are capable of launching mortars and suicide car bombs and quietly re-entering cities soon after the Marines return to their outskirt bases.

“We’ve been here almost seven months, and we don’t control” the cities, said Gunnery Sgt. Ralph Perrine, an operations chief in the battalion from Brunswick, Ohio. “It’s no secret.”

Even commanders acknowledge that, with the limited number of U.S. and Iraqi troops in the region, the mission is focused on “disrupting and interdicting” the insurgency — that is, keeping them on the run — and not controlling the cities.

“It’s maintenance work,” said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of all Marine operations in western Anbar. “Because this out here is where the fight is, while the success is happening downtown while the constitution is being written and while the referendum is getting worked out. … If I could bring every insurgent in the world out here and fight them all day long, we’ve done our job.”

For Williams, the calculation is much more visceral and personal.

“Personally, I don’t think the sweeps help too much,” he said, sitting in a room crowded with Marines resting from a late mission the previous night. “You find some stuff and most of the bad guys get away. … For as much energy as we put in them, I don’t think the output is worth it.”

Williams, a Marine for three years, has decided not to re-enlist.

Instead, in these last days in Iraq, he thinks of home and fishing in the clear streams of Montana. He hopes to open a fishing- and hunting-gear shop and complete his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology. He looks forward to seeing his mother, his only surviving parent, and traveling to her native Thailand this fall.

He said his “best memory” will be the day he leaves Iraq. His only good memories, he said, are of his friends:

Of Dyer, 19, an avid rap-music fan who would bop his head to Tupac Shakur. He played the viola in his high-school orchestra and had planned to enroll in a finance honors program at Ohio State University.

Of Reed, his best friend. He was president of his high-school class in Chillicothe, Ohio, and left behind a brother serving in Afghanistan.

Of Cifuentes, 25, from Oxford, Ohio. He was enrolled in graduate school in mathematics education and had been working as a substitute teacher when he was deployed.

“I think the most frustrating thing is there’s no sense of accomplishment,” Williams said. “You’re biding your time and waiting. But then you lose your friends, and it’s not even for their own country’s freedom.”