The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
The desert sun is blinding but not yet brutally hot. By 7:30 a.m. the trench fires around the pumping station and gas-oil separation plant are slowly extinguishing themselves. The men of Alpha Company, raccoon-eyed from having worked all night, buzz with excitement over their successful action. What started as an assault has become defensive in nature: The Marines are now policing the area for any remaining threats before turning over the entire facility to a unit of British soldiers and petroleum engineers.

Then, a little after 8:00, an explosion shudders the complex: Corporal Brenton Groce, from Alpha Company's weapons platoon, is searching one of the many outbuildings when he triggers a land mine. The blast blows Groce's boot off and mangles his legs. He has two broken ankles, a fractured tibia and fibula, and numerous shrapnel wounds. Medical corpsmen stabilize him and then radio for a CH-46 helicopter to medevac him to Kuwait.

With Groce's injury everyone's nerves are suddenly on edge. They've been fearing land mines all along, but the incident has injected a measure of reality into what had begun to seem a war without repercussions. Now the Marines step gingerly about the compound, trying to finish mopping up.

Around 8:30 the men of Childers's platoon make one last sweep of the area but fail to find any more prisoners. The complex appears to be flushed clean. Childers is satisfied that his platoon's assignment has been fulfilled, so he decides to bring his men together and conduct a debriefing. He yells to his scattered men to collapse back to the vehicles. The tracks are parked together along the side of the road to the east of the pumping station beneath a clump of scrubby desert trees. About a hundred yards away a severed oil pipeline running parallel to the road exhales a continuous breath of fire and smoke.

"Collapse back to the tracks!" Childers shouts again, this time giving the command to his squad leaders over his headset. "Roger that!" he hears back. The 40 men of his platoon abandon their various searches and funnel back to await Childers's next instructions.

Suddenly a tan Toyota pickup truck squeals around a concrete barricade and barrels down the pumping station road toward the tracks. Most of the Marines are turned away from the road, their backs to the truck, and it takes them a moment to pick up on the sound. Childers hears the revving engine and instinctively walks out onto the shoulder of the road to investigate. Most of the other Marines are partially hidden by a berm nearby. Childers crouches down and squints at the truck. It looks harmless, but for some reason it keeps on coming. Someone requests permission to open fire, but Childers gives no order.

The truck continues to accelerate – 40, 50, 60 miles per hour. Now Childers knows something is wrong. He stands up and switches his M16 from safety to fire. The machine-gunners up in the tracks watch with growing concern, but the truck is already so close that there's no time to swivel their big 50-caliber machine guns into position.

The truck races at 70 miles per hour. Childers can see that it's packed with six or seven people, some of them lying low in the bed.

Childers raises his M16 to fire. He hears the Marines behind him fire off a few rounds, but the truck keeps coming. Now the Toyota is right on him, no more than eight feet away. One of the squad leaders, Corporal Jesse Odom, is crouching next to him. For a split second Odom locks eyes on the Iraqi driver. There is fear and desperation in the driver's face, and anger. The Toyota swerves toward them. Odom sees the barrel of a weapon peek from the driver's side window, and as the truck passes by he sees muzzle flashes and hears a stitch of automatic fire. The desert dust kicks up all around him.