The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
In the predawn darkness on Friday, March 21, 2003, the sandy plain of southern Iraq still holds the previous day's heat. Marine Second Lieutenant Therrel Shane Childers stares at the flickering outlines of a vast oil pumping station, listening to the murmur on his intersquad radio. He rides standing in his "track," a 28-ton amphibious assault vehicle, pointing out developments on the horizon, his Kevlar helmet bobbing high above the hatch in the desert air. Perched up there Childers presents a clear silhouette for any snipers who might be waiting in the darkness. It's a posture that worries some of his platoonmates, who at times think their lieutenant carries himself with a confidence that borders on the reckless – "like he thought he was Rommel or something," as one of his men will later put it.

Childers roars across the Rumaila oil fields in a large convoy – some 200 men riding in several dozen tracks, Humvees, and tanks. His lip bulges with Copenhagen as he alternately fidgets with a map and squints at the landscape. The country, what little Childers can see of it in the darkness, is flat and featureless and marked only by the occasional piece of derelict petroleum equipment half-swallowed by the sand. Up ahead trench oil fires burn in large arcs around the pumping station complex, laying down a mantle of noxious smoke that has rendered his night-vision equipment useless.

Childers is a rangy, meticulous man quivering with energy. He has a triathlete's build and smoldering eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate. He speaks in a steady voice that, in accent, is a blend of West Virginia, Mississippi, California, Puerto Rico, Wyoming, the Carolinas, and all the other places he's lived in his 30 years – which is to say there's no discernible accent, only the resolutely American voice of the Corps. Childers's face is lit by periodic explosions, flares, and antiaircraft tracers. He seems happy to be where he has always wanted to be, leading a platoon of United States Marines into combat in the opening hours of a major ground war.

Childers clutches his M16 rifle. He's wearing a Finnish-made Suunto digital watch, a Kevlar flak jacket with slide-in ceramic plates, and a load-bearing vest packed with ammunition. A Mag flashlight on a lanyard is slung around his neck. He carries a compass, a GPS device, two canteens, three radios, two smoke grenades, and two M67 fragmentation grenades. On top of it all he's sheathed in a charcoal-lined NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) suit that makes him sweat profusely. His gas mask dangles in its canvas creel at his side.

Childers's company – Alpha Company of the Fifth Marines (known as the "1/5") – has been given one of the first clear missions of the ground war. Their assignment is to secure an important facility in the vast Rumaila oil fields, a complex marked on the map simply as "Pumping Station No. 2." The station is enormous, 1,500 meters square, an industrial labyrinth designed to pump and pipe crude from a nearby gas-oil separation plant east toward the port ofUmm Qasr. According to the recon reports an entire Iraqi brigade of more than 1,000 men has dug itself in at the compound and is poised to either fight or blow the place up.

Childers takes a long pull from his CamelBak hydration pack. As the commander of Alpha Company's 2nd Platoon he is in charge of the fate and welfare of 42 men, most of them kids 18, 19, 20 years old. At Camp Pendleton, their base on the Southern California coast, he's had the better part of a year to mold this particular group of grunts. Fifteen of them are squeezed inside his track right now, and Childers can sense that they're anxious about the coming battle. He gives them a pep talk, reminding them that they've spent weeks training for their objective. During the long stay in Kuwait he had his men poring over satellite imagery of the pumping station and studying photographs provided by Predator drones. They constructed a scale model of the facility and rehearsed seizing the compound. "We're ready," he wrote in a letter home shortly before their departure. "Every day we just get harder and tighter, more disciplined."

Now Childers's track idles with the other vehicles in the Alpha Company convoy, which is aimed at the pumping station in an enormous diamond formation. "You're good to go!" Childers shouts over the deafening rumble of the diesel engines. "You're the best fuckin' devil dogs in the 1/5 – I'm proud of you!" He listens intently to his radio headset and waits for the signal to attack.

At about 3 a.m. Marine artillerymen unleash a barrage of mortars and rockets on the pumping station, a furious assault that lasts some 20 minutes. In an effort not to destroy the plant they're trying to secure, they train their sights only on outlying buildings where recon indicates that the largest numbers of Iraqi soldiers are holed up.

A few minutes later the signal comes. Metal ramps drop from the backs of the tracks, and Childers and his platoon storm down on foot, fanning out across the vast complex.