The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
Corporal Jesse Odom is a bright, young, jug-eared fellow with cropped strawberry-blond hair. He's from Easley, South Carolina, and speaks in a firm, earnest Southern voice. He stands at a chalk board at Camp Pendleton, drawing a diagram of Pumping Station No. 2, marking it with vectors and crosshatchings, trying to explain how a simple situation could slide so thoroughly out of control in a few seconds.

As Odom stares at the diagram he wonders why he's alive – why the bullets spared his life. He's in his mid-20s and still having trouble grasping the caprices of the war from which he has just returned –unharmed, but not untouched.

"That truck, shit – I still don't know where it came from," he says. "Up till that point I guess you could say we were kind of cocky. Damn, it pissed us off, shocked us. It made us keep our alert up – really, for the rest of the war."

Odom, like many of the Marines, has come to view that first day of battle as an encapsulization of the whole war – the speed and confidence with which they seized their objective, the almost eerie lack of initial opposition, the feared chemical counterattack that never came. Then, as they began to encounter Iraqis face to face, Childers's platoon had to deal with the complicating wrinkle that the enemy in this conflict was not to be regarded as an enemy but as a potential friend, a repressed victim of a bad regime. And finally, later that morning, the Marines found themselves entering an even riskier and more open-ended phase, the paranoid policework of occupation.

The incident at Pumping Station No. 2, Odom believes, was a kind of ambush in reverse: The Iraqis in the Toyota, attempting to flee the pumping station complex, were startled to find the Marines dug in by the road, and reflexively struck out with a spray of AK-47 fire as they tried to speed past. Childers, like any good platoon commander, was in the center of things, at the point of maximum danger, looking out for his men.