The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family

The marine is immaculate. He stands at attention inside the embassy, with his polished sidearm glinting at his hip. He looks like a mannequin, a perfect toy soldier. Nothing is out of place. The high and tight buzz cut, the dress blues, the blood stripe, the white-white gloves, the green fourragre tassel, the white cap with its chin strap so firmly cinched it cuts a groove in his skin.

The little boy stares up at the Marine as though he's seen a ghost. "What's that?" he asks, and he points at the radiant creature. His dad shushes him, his mom reminds him it's not nice to point. His older sister and younger brother are there too. They are an American family from West Virginia, just off the plane. Groggy and jet-lagged, they're waiting to get their official identification badges. The boy is five years old, and he has come to live at the American embassy in Tehran, where his dad, a navy Seabee, has been posted as a security engineer.

The year is 1977. The Shah is still in power, but the country is sliding fast into revolution. The family takes an apartment right on the grounds of the embassy, not far from where the Marines stay. Every morning the little boy sees them coming and going. He watches them with his dark brown eyes. He studies their strange movements, asks them endless questions. They pat him on the head and give him presents. They call him by his name – Shane.

One day the boy is swimming in the embassy pool with his parents. A couple of Marines march briskly by, off to somewhere important. They cut familiar looks at him and smile. The boy's fascination with the Marines has yet to wear off. Something about them grabs him – the discipline in their posture, their splendid formality, their ready competence, their otherworldly air.

"Look," the boy says to his parents, and points. "That's what I want to be." He says it with a resolve they'll never forget, a resolve they're not altogether comfortable with.