The Gunner

Life and death at age 22 for a U.S. Marine in Iraq

April 21, 2006


RAMADI, Iraq (AP) _ Eyes hidden behind sunglasses designed to protect against flying shrapnel, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Sims sat proudly atop the gun turret of his Humvee as the sun rose one morning over a dusty U.S. Marine base called Hurricane Point.

Wrapped in a heavy flak jacket with side armor plates for extra protection, desert camouflage pants tucked neatly into his boots, the young machine-gunner was waiting as he always did to go out on a mission through Ramadi, a city crawling with insurgents west of the Iraqi capital.

Before every trip "outside the wire," he knew what to do if something went wrong or if he got into a firefight, and went over a memorized list with an Associated Press reporter who traveled with him through the city several times.

_ If a grenade is thrown into the truck? "Yell 'Grenade!' and get the hell out, even if we're rolling," Sims said. "If you jump out and break your arm or leg, you'll be better off."
_ If we are hit crossing the bridge and plunge into the river? "I'll get out, and I'll pull you out."
_ If we get hit by a roadside bomb? "If your legs are still there, yell 'I'm good,'" Sims said. "If we roll over, try to grab my legs and try to pull me inside."

Many of these things happen in Ramadi every day. But they don't happen every time you go out. These are safety procedures _ just in case.

Over the last few weeks, Sims and his crew _ a driver, a vehicle commander and an interpreter _ went on many missions in Ramadi, a city of tall palm trees, villas, and war-wrecked buildings.

Sometimes they went on several a day.

One of those mornings, April 2, was a bad one: three Marines and a sailor were killed when artillery shells buried in the pavement exploded underneath their vehicle in the city center.
As the destroyed Humvee burned, insurgents up the road took potshots at Marines with automatic rifles and filmed the blazing wreckage.

Quick reaction forces were called up to provide security at the site, and Sims was among them.
Marines here are keen to do their duty and carry out their mission, but there is anxiety. Leaving the relative safety of their base, they never know whether they'll be coming back.

Sims would spend a lot of time hanging around in front of his Humvee, getting ready to go, cleaning his gun, listening to music and joking with his crew, smoking cigarettes. He laughed easily.

Sims and his crew often escorted the provincial governor to work. Marines are tasked with keeping the governor alive and defending his office at a wrecked compound of buildings called
Government Center. The compound comes under fire from small arms, rocket-propelled grenades or mortars just about every day.

The center's roof is stacked with walls of sandbags and has a ceiling of camouflage netting and several Marine observation posts. If you wait long enough at those posts, there's usually plenty to see: small groups of men in ski masks maneuvering among buildings that bear the scars of months of war.

At the compound, mortar fire and snipers are a threat when you walk outside. Whenever Sims and other Marines would arrive, they usually sprinted across the exposed areas while another Marine provided cover by pointing his rifle at nearby four- and five-story buildings.

Inside, Sims often kicked his feet back on dusty black sofa seats in a darkened downstairs corridor and hung out with his buddies.

Soon after the April 2 blast, a Marine showed up at Government Center and played the Marine Hymn on a set of bagpipes for troops manning posts on the roof.

A Marines public affairs officer was doing a story about it, and asked Sims what he thought. Sims recounted the brief interview later. "This guy asked me how it made me feel," Sims said, smoking a cigarette one morning outside the Humvee. He shook his head, and seemed to be setting up a joke. "I told him, `What do you think? It made me feel good.' "

Marines deployed in downtown Ramadi sometimes cope with the danger by joking around _ that is, when they have the time and there's no shooting. Humor can help ease the tension.

Like most Marine gunners in Ramadi, Sims usually kept his head down below the Humvee's gun-shield, sitting on a belt-like jump seat. Because of Ramadi's severe sniper threat, it's not a good idea to stand in the turret, as other U.S. gunners in Iraq can do.

One morning Sims was traveling with a Marine detachment picking up the governor to escort him to his office. The governor travels in his own mini-convoy of Mercedes-Benz cars and BMWs.

The driver, the vehicle commander and Sims began betting _ no money involved _ on what color and make the governor's small convoy would be. Two white Mercedes-Benz vehicles and a green BMW? Or would it be all white? Maybe a blue thrown in? The governor has many cars and varies which one he rides in for fear insurgents will try to assassinate him.

Like most troops of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Sims had been in Iraq on a previous tour of duty. The Covington, Ky., native graduated high school in 2003 and married the following year, just before heading out on his first tour in Iraq.

Some Marines carry "lucky charms" with them to keep them safe. Sims said he carried only two things at all times: a cross and most importantly his wedding band, which he wore on a necklace.

"It didn't fail me last time I was in Iraq," he said one day this month, turning the wedding band around and around in his fingers, just a few weeks into his second deployment.

On April 15, Sims was on the way to Government Center, manning his turret as he rolled through the city, past U.S. observation posts and destroyed buildings flattened by U.S. airstrikes or shot up by insurgent weapons fire.

As they pulled through a deep moat of sewage water just outside a gate at Government Center in the lead Humvee, Sims was on the gun turret facing the buildings around them, providing security for the convoy.

Just before they entered the compound, a rocket-propelled grenade came out of nowhere, killing him instantly.

In the dark dust of that moment, "time stood still," said an Iraqi interpreter who was with them at the time, a bespectacled man more than twice the age of the Marines. The interpreter declined to be named for fear of reprisals for working with Americans in Iraq.

The driver and the vehicle commander were fine. The interpreter, sitting in the back seat, was hit by shrapnel in the arm and leg. Some shrapnel hit a pistol in a holster on his hip. The pistol may have saved his life.

Hours later, deeply saddened, the interpreter sat against a wall in a blue chair near where Sims' Humvee was often parked at Hurricane Point.

There were bandages around his arm and leg, blood covering his boots. "He was like a son to me," the interpreter said. "He had his whole life ahead of him."

Justin Sims was just 22 years old.

Copyright 2006 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.