The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
In the months leading up to the Iraq war Childers spoke to his folks about making a go of things as a small-time rancher like his dad – maybe even buying a spread in Wyoming. He loved horses and the challenges of working the land, and he felt more at home in the mountains of Wyoming than in any other place. He had begun to think seriously about other careers, too. He talked about becoming an FBI agent, or maybe returning to Africa as a military attachéat an embassy. In one of his last letters to his folks from his Marine campsite in Kuwait he wrote, "I wouldn't do things any other way, but I really do think of getting out after this tour. Have other things to worry about right now, though – Love you, Shane."

Yet the Marines were such an integral part of Childers's identity by then that even his closest friends wonder whether he could have actually made the leap to civilian life, whether it wouldn't have left too big a void. He was neither a churchgoer nor a flag-waver, exactly, nor did he have an allegiance to a particular political party or creed. Childers was a believer in the Corps, pure and simple, and in the fierce principles of professionalism and duty that the Corps had long instilled in him. He had certain self-sacrificial notions of what a Marine, a true Marine, should be.

In Iraq this allegiance to the Corps translated into a firm belief in the bedrock rightness of the mission at hand – to take out a particularly evil tyrant, to save the oil infrastructure that could help pay for the country's rebuilding, to unfurl the flag of democracy in a region of the world to which fate seemed to keep bringing him back.

One day in Kuwait, Odom recalls, "He told me, 'Make sure the Marines in your squad know why they're here, and that they're doing the right thing.' In camp he had read something in a newsmagazine that said, 'Nothing in Iraq is worth risking a single American life.' Well, that really pissed him off. He told me, 'There are things worth dying for. Make sure you tell your Marines that.'"