The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
When Childers absorbs the bullet, his body doesn't immediately register the impact. He has a puzzled expression and he exhales in a groan. With his rifle still in his hands he drops to his knees. Then he falls slightly forward, his helmet tapping the ground. He rolls sideways and curls into the fetal position.

Not entirely sure what's happened, Odom crouches next to his lieutenant. All he can see is that Childers is having trouble catching his breath. For a second he entertains the slim hope that maybe Childers has only had the wind knocked out of him. But then Odom peers into his lieutenant's eyes. They're staring off into space. His expression is vacant, the face hardly recognizable. Childers struggles to say something. "I'm hit," is all he can moan. "In the gut."

Odom spots a small round hole in Childers's uniform, on his right side, just below the bottom of his Kevlar vest. The puncture is about the size of a large pea. Curiously, he can see almost no blood.

Someone cries for a medic, "Corpsman up!"

The Toyota truck has sailed by and is now some 50 yards down the road, racing toward the east. The men "light up" on it. Marines like to say that if they take an enemy round, they reply with a hundred rounds. In a murderous staccato a dozen or more weapons drill the vehicle with bullets. Yet the truck keeps on accelerating.

Odom can see that Childers has stopped breathing. He decides not to wait for the corpsman to get there and bends down to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. There is a trail of tobacco juice on Childers' lips, but Odom hardly notices. He breathes into his lieutenant three or four times.

Childers's eyes blink open. "Can't believe it," he mutters. "Can't believe I got shot."

The Marines are still blasting away at the Toyota. Finally, a hundred yards down the road, the truck veers sharply to the side and comes to a stop close to the billowing break in the oil line. One of the occupants dangles a white shirt out the window and waves it. A smaller party of Marines runs down the road and approaches the vehicle.

Odom is still crouching next to Childers when Jeffrey Calzado, one of the navy medical corpsmen attached to 2nd Platoon, arrives. Calzado hunkers with Odom and inspects the lieutenant. He can see immediately that Childers is in severe shock. Tears well in Childers's eyes. His pant leg is stained with urine. His breathing is erratic, his skin cold. The hole in his abdomen is immaculate, seeping only a tiny amount of blood. Calzado knows that a bloodless bullet wound is not a good sign, that the real bleeding is internal.

In a barely audible voice, Childers says, "It hurts."

They decide to move Childers somewhere safer. Odom hoists him over his shoulder and hauls him back to the cluster of vehicles parked beneath the trees. He lays him down on the metal ramp of one of the tracks.

Other corpsmen stream over to help. They cut away Childers's clothes and equipment with shears, leaving him dressed only in shorts and the blouse of his NBC suit. Noah Glanville gives him a shot of morphine. Calzado props up his legs and checks his vitals. Another medic, Shelton Tapley, administers an IV. When they examine the wound more closely the corpsmen discover that it's actually two wounds: The bullet entered the abdomen just to the right of his navel, went through his left kidney, and cleanly exited his back.

The bullet – most likely a .308 caliber round from an AK-47 – hit a few millimeters below the ceramic plates of Childers's Kevlar vest, possibly striking at the instant when he was raising his weapon to fire, when the vest was momentarily hiked up higher than usual. The bullet angled in such a way that it hit a major artery. Now Childers is hemorrhaging massively. His blood pressure plummets, but still the wound shows only a trickle of red.

While the medics work on him the Marines hear the sound of another car approaching. A beat-up Land Cruiser stuffed with seven Iraqi soldiers charges down the same road, aiming right at them. Just as the last group had done, and the motorcyclist before them, they're attempting a fast break from the pumping station complex. But this time the machine-gunners in the tracks are ready for them. The oncoming truck, about 200 meters away, is clearly within their range. They swivel their big barrels and open up the 50-caliber machine guns. The enormous rounds shred the SUV like foil, and in a few seconds it has stopped, its body yawning with smoky holes. The Marines expect all seven of the Iraqis inside to be dead, so they're amazed to find three of them alive, their bodies maimed beyond recognition. One of the Iraqi soldiers sits with his intestines flung out over his lap.

With Childers down, Sergeant Nerad realizes that he is in charge of the platoon now. He inspects his lieutenant's M16 and notices that, although the trigger has been switched from safety to fire, the weapon hasn't been discharged. Nerad watches Childers struggling for his life. He urges him to stay strong and breathe, breathe, breathe.

The medics know now that the only hope of saving Childers is to chopper him immediately to a hospital in Kuwait. The helicopter that was supposed to medevac Corporal Groce, the land mine victim, still hasn't arrived, so the dispatcher puts in another request, this one issued with maximum urgency.

As the corpsmen continue to work on Childers, Odom stays at his side, stroking his face, talking to him gently. "You're the best platoon commander we could've ever had," he says.

Childers's pupils are dilated. His tongue hangs thick. He gives no reply.