The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
"He was living for that day," says Sergeant Bradley Nerad. "Man, he was in it for this."

Nerad sits in a debriefing room at Camp Pendleton, the immense military preserve pinned between the sprawls of Los Angeles and San Diego. A burly hoss of a man from Wisconsin, Nerad is the staff sergeant for Alpha Company's 2nd Platoon – Childers's unit. Like all the other Fifth Marines, he has just returned from Iraq. Their belongings from the war are parked outside, crammed into green metal containers that have yet to be sorted. Members of the 5th Battalion march in tidy columns nearby, preparing for a change-of-command ceremony. Many of them still wear bandages and dressings from various gunfights in Iraq.

It's late June and Camp Pendleton, home of the "Fighting Fifth," the most decorated regiment in Marine history (its unofficial motto is "Make Peace or Die"), stirs with the triumphant sounds of long-absent war machines. Bright banners are draped over the gates, and the returning Marines have been greeted as heroes at the conclusion of a successful mission.

But the war isn't over, and everyone here knows it. American soldiers are still dying in Iraq at a steady snare drum's beat – dying in checkpoint ambushes, in sniper shootings, in suicide bombings, in drive-by incidents too numerous and too messily ordinary to lodge in the public's memory as anything more than a blur of low-grade despair.

Nerad doesn't know what to make of the war now. Mostly he just looks relieved to be home. He's worn out, sick of sand, and in dire need of alcohol. Tomorrow he goes on leave, and he'll do what he can to forget the past four months.

Right now Nerad wants to talk about his buddy Childers. As the highest ranking noncommissioned officer in the platoon, Sergeant Nerad often butted heads with the lieutenant. "He was zealous. I'd say overzealous," Nerad says, shaking his head and smiling. "Sometimes he wanted to work the platoon to death." But it's obvious Nerad loved Childers, and worried about him, like a brother. Childers was lonely, he says, in the way that the most hardcore Marines are lonely. Such was his devotion to the Corps – to the ascetic purity of the jarhead existence, to the hard life of fitness, to all the Marine protocols and nomenclature and lore – that there wasn't room for much else.

He would rise before dawn every morning and go running before breakfast. He'd swim laps in one of Pendleton's Olympic pools, or take his $2,000 road bike on long rides around the base. He was keenly interested in the nuances of ballistics and was constantly trying to perfect his aim or work out the bugs in the sights of his various weapons. "He wouldn't socialize much," Nerad says. "He wouldn't go out drinking with the others and come back red-eyed. He'd be out driving around in his red Ranger pickup, buying stuff for his platoon at Home Depot – batteries, lumber, stupid stuff he thought they needed for their training. Then he'd just go home, to his apartment in San Clemente, get a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, and stay up all night, sipping Scotch alone." He'd dig into one of the hundreds of technical military books on his shelf, titles like The Art of the Rifle, Maneuver Warfare, Stormtroop Tactics. As the night wore on, Nerad says, he'd "get to dreaming up shit to do with his platoon. He'd go online, looking stuff up. Sometimes he'd call and wake me up at, like, three in the morning, just to talk about some exercise he had in mind. He'd want to talk for hours."

Childers enlisted in the Marines when he was 17, a headstrong high school senior from Saucier, Mississippi, a small Gulf Coast town near the Little Biloxi River. He completed his basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, just in time to be shipped out for the first Persian Gulf war. After the war (the duration of which he spent on a navy warship in the Gulf) he volunteered to stay on to help ship back supplies, then floated the Mediterranean and the Pacific on extended Marine cruises. He spent the next several years at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, taking specialized courses such as jump school and training for night navigation. Then, like the proud Marines who so transfixed him as a kid in Tehran, he earned a diplomatic post as a guard at the American consulate in Geneva. He escorted foreign VIPs around town, traveled to Paris for a high-level diplomatic conference, and took an avid interest in outdoor sports, spending much of his free time climbing, mountain biking, and whitewater rafting in the Alps. A year later he accepted a similar assignment at the embassy in Kenya, where he climbed Mount Kenya, went on Serengeti safaris, and pursued an intense love affair with a beautiful young Israeli woman named Adi. He considered converting to Judaism, in part to please her family and in part because the demands of the faith appealed to his sense of rigor. But ultimately the relationship fizzled.

At the advanced age of 25 Childers, then a sergeant, decided he wanted to become an officer. To do that, however, he knew he had to graduate from college, something no one in his immediate family had ever done. In 1998 he qualified for a special program that landed him at the Citadel, South Carolina's venerable military academy. He consumed the experience whole, majoring in French and landing on the dean's list, competing in numerous school triathlons and exploring parts of the Appalachian Trail on breaks and long weekends.

Then he resumed life in the Marines on an entirely different career track. Childers had become what the Marines call a "mustang," a special breed within the ranks. Mustangs are officers who earn their commissions relatively late in their careers and who, as a result of their grunt pedigree, often still act and perceive situations like noncoms. Enlisted men say you can't get anything past a mustang, because he's already seen everything and knows all the tricks. Having gotten most of their carousing out of their systems, mustangs tend to be more serious than younger officers. It's often said that mustangs have a total perspective that gives them a special confidence on the battlefield.

Certainly all this was true of Childers. But he could also be moody, Nerad says, and he had his moments of anxiety. Nerad remembers one such moment just days before the war. They were bivouacked in a huge tent city in Kuwait that the Marine planners christened, with characteristic poetry, Living Support Area Number Five. Everyone was bored, frustrated by the false warnings, the seemingly endless ramp-ups and rev-downs. Childers and Nerad were sitting around talking about what the war would be like, wondering when they'd finally be crossing the LOD, the line of departure. Maybe his nerves were getting the better of him, but at one point Childers stared off into the distance and said, with an unfamiliar severity in his voice, "I probably won't come back."

Nerad looked at him funny. "Hey, c'mon."

"I don't know, man," Childers said. "I just don't think I'm coming home."

Nerad tried to reassure him. "You bet you are," he said. "The Marines need you – you know too much."

Whatever it was, Childers couldn't shake the feeling. It lingered in the air for an uncomfortable moment. Then he turned away and fixed his eyes on the desert.