The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
Childers and his platoon comb the burning outskirts of Pumping Station No. 2, looking for signs of life. The Marines wield grenade launchers, SAWs, and M16s, and sweep flashlights over every recess of the compound. Aside from the steady drone of pumps, turbines, and generators, the site is eerily quiet. All the lights have been switched off. Throughout the complex are freshly dug foxholes, but the "brigade" of Iraqi troops appears to have vanished. The grounds are littered with American propaganda leaflets air-dropped days before, urging prompt surrender. Many of the buildings look as though they've only recently been vacated. Burning candles sag in lumps of glistening wax, and plates of half-eaten dinners sit on tables. Bedding and prayer mats are tossed about in corners.

Childers is having trouble getting a fix on how, or even if, the Iraqis have been planning to defend the place. It appears to him that they've been taken completely by surprise. As he and his men move deeper into the compound they can see that the artillery barrage prior to their attack took a toll. Perhaps a dozen corpses are scattered about, and a number of Iraqis lie moaning in pathways and by roadside ditches, clutching shrapnel wounds. On his headset Childers calls in medical corpsmen to treat the wounded.

A few Iraqi soldiers begin to emerge from crude underground bunkers. They offer themselves up in ones and twos, waving grimy white rags, their hands up, trembling in fear. Some wear green Iraqi army uniforms; others wear robes over their military garb, as though they're attempting to disguise themselves as noncombatants. Many seem to be civilians from nearby villages pressed into service. The Marines begin to round them up and bind them in zip-ties – handcuffs made of hard plastic.

Then, around dawn, Childers and his men spy an Iraqi soldier hopping onto a motorcycle and taking off across the desert. The Marines open up and eventually the Iraqi man is hit, hurled over the handlebars in a dust cloud. Still alive, he has a bullet hole in the back of his head and much of his lower face has been blown off. It is quite possibly the first shooting of the ground war.

As the sun climbs over the sand flats to the east, the assault on Pumping Station No. 2 is already winding down. Childers is ecstatic: In a few short hours his men have taken control of the facility. The first ground mission in Iraq is shaping up to be an unqualified success, part of a larger preemptive action throughout the region that military planners will later cite as one of the masterstrokes of the war. Any plans Saddam Hussein may have had to sabotage the oil fields have been averted. And there has not been a single American casualty.