By Todd Pitman
In the ground-floor corridor of Government Center, Marines rested on cots and worn sofas, some smoking in silence as they waited to head out on mission.
The building complex houses the office of the Iraqi governor of Anbar province, and is such a magnet for insurgent attack it shakes with incoming mortar rounds or rockets just about every day.
Stepping outside wrapped in his flak jacket - not even the compound's inner courtyards are safe - Del Gaudio punched a number into a small blue satellite telephone that only worked in the open air.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound Marine's eyes were strained. His cheeks flushed. The signal bounced skyward, then down into America, joining worlds 6,000 miles apart for a few precious minutes.
In Jacksonville, N.C., it was early Sunday morning, April 2. His wife, Nicole, mother of his nearly 20-month-old daughter, was on the line.
Del Gaudio had been hit in his right forefinger by shrapnel. His fingers had been burned from touching smoldering flesh.
Regulations obligate Marine authorities to call family in the event of injury. The same rules prohibited Del Gaudio from saying that hours earlier he had helped pull his dead friends - his Marines, ``my boys'' - out of the burning wreckage of a Humvee, under fire.
``Look, if I had my way, I never would have told you about this, but they're going to call and tell you anyway. I didn't want you to worry,'' Del Gaudio said.
Worry - he knew she would.
It was outgoing fire. Boom-boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom.
Somewhere outside, insurgents were running among a maze of buildings ripped apart by rocket-fire, spraying automatic weapons bursts at Government Center, a virtual military bunker.
``I've got to go,'' Del Gaudio said. ``I love you.''
Nearly four weeks earlier, some 1,000 troops from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment said goodbye to wives and friends, parents and children. The troops were troops were heading to Iraq, most of them for a second tour. As buses came to take them to the airport, some savored every last second. Some took that one last kiss. Some were eager to get going.
``At some point you've got to cut the tie there, you gotta go. It never makes it any easier,'' Del Gaudio said.
He didn't want to linger. He had to get Kilo Company moving.
In the crowd was Cpl. Scott J. Procopio, a 20-year-old machine-gunner from Saugus, Mass. An avid weightlifter, Procopio had married his longtime sweetheart six months before. He liked to work with his hands, and later built a broad wooden bench that stood outside his platoon's living quarters in Ramadi.
There was Lance Cpl. Yun Y. Kim, a 20-year-old rifleman from Atlanta. The son of a Korean national, he was a first generation American, fond of expensive clothes and the latest cell phones, his friends said.
There was Geovani Padilla-Aleman, a 20-year-old medic from South Gate, Calif. The Mexican-born sailor had been attached to Kilo Company a few months before. Known for his sense of humor, his comrades called him a ``chow-hog'' who gulped military rations ``down to the packets of gum.''
Then there was Staff Sgt. Eric A. McIntosh, ``Mac,'' a good-natured 29-year-old infantry leader from Trafford, Pa. He had joined the Marines a few months after graduating high school in suburban Pittsburgh and was making a career of it. Missions had already taken him to Haiti, Japan and Iraq.
In the base parking lot, Del Gaudio came upon McIntosh holding his wife in his arms.
``He said, 'Aw, hey sir, she's leaving right now,''' Del Gaudio recalled. ``I said, 'It's cool if she wants to hang out, it's not a big deal.' But he said: 'I've got to get ready to do this, too. I've got to get the boys ready to go. She's going to work, and I don't want to hold her up.'''
The Marines were pumped up - they had spent the last half year in training for their second Iraq tour, practicing marksmanship, keeping fit, studying first aid, weapons systems, the rules of war.
But there was anxiety, too.
It seemed as if they'd just returned from their last tour, a seven-month mission that ended in August. Then, they had been spread out between Fallujah and the outskirts of Baghdad.
This time, they were headed to Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, a city of 400,000 people along the Euphrates River: Tall palm trees. Ornate columned villas. It was the heart of the Sunni Triangle and the insurgency. There was, many would say later, no more dangerous city in the world.
``Everybody knew what they were getting themselves into,'' Del Gaudio said. ``Regardless of where you go, there's always that same level of angst that's associated with it. A combat deployment is a combat deployment. We knew what it was going to be.''
The families left behind knew that, too, and somehow grew to accept it.
``My wife,'' Del Gaudio said, recounting his story at Government Center, ``she knows I wouldn't trade this for the world.''
Kilo Company was assigned to an all-male Marine base called Hurricane Point, a sand-filled sprawl on the western edge of Ramadi. It wasn't much, but it would do.
A small, wooden chow hall served scrambled egg and pancake breakfasts, hot dinners of meat and gravy, and sandwiches in between.
There was a gym. There were trailers with shower cubicles and sinks. There were palm trees. There was a lot of dirt and a lot of dust, and sandbags that were still being piled ever higher.
Most Marines slept on bunks in large rooms that housed whole units together. Kilo Company's HQ was inside a single-story palace guesthouse from the Saddam Hussein era, but much of its work was downtown, a couple of miles away, in the bombed-out zone around Government Center.
They wore protective goggles and extra side armor plates. They carried pistols, M-16s, M-4 carbines, anti-tank rockets, ammunition and grenades - and used them all.
Some parts of town seemed normal: souks, mosques, water towers, villas, busy streets, children walking to school. Other parts did not. Whole buildings had been gutted and blackened by rockets and automatic weapons fire. Every pockmark had a story to tell: of past battles, of people who huddled or fought or died.
The Marines had enormous firepower, but their enemy was hard to see. The insurgents melted into the population - there one second, gone the next.
``When you see things like that you ask yourself, why do they hate me so much?'' said 2nd Lt. Brian Wilson, a 24-year-old platoon commander from Columbia, S.C.
``If everybody in Ramadi was nice to us, we'd be nice to everybody. It's not like we're these warmongers that just want to come shoot, kill, rape, pillage - not even. We just want to come here and help, do what we're asked to do, and go home to our families - just like they do.''
In their command center in Hurricane Point, Marines tracked insurgent activity by the minute, pinning colored tacks on a satellite map on the wall that marked suspected roadside bomb sites and suspected enemy snipers. Sometimes there was so much activity, they joked they were running out of tacks.
They knew the streets only by the names they'd given them: Ice Cream. Racetrack. Sunset. Broadway. Some roads were seeded with so many bombs they tried to avoid them.
Kilo Company's three platoons were rotated endlessly through a nonstop cycle of war: They would spend five days in Government Center, fending off daily attacks from rooftop machine-gun nests, even as the governor received guests and planned reconstruction projects in his office below.
They would spend days in another outpost up the road, then head back to the relative safety of Hurricane Point, where they had hot showers and meals, but were dispatched on daily foot patrols that nearly always came under fire.
Some complained. Some joked. But they believed they were doing the right thing and they believed in the mission: supporting a fledgling Iraqi democracy, training Iraqi forces to take over the fight, battling terrorism in its heart.
They didn't have time to watch television and they lived beyond politics, far from the debate over the war back home. Their loyalty was to each other, and their primary goals simple: keep each other alive and leave no man behind.
Rest? That was something they'd do when they got home.
There was a heavy downpour - for some troops the first rain they had ever seen in Iraq.
Del Gaudio and McIntosh shared a sink that morning in one of the trailer showers. They shaved, talked about their wives, about what they would do when they got back home.
The day's mission was to be a patrol on wheels. The objective: ``provide atmospherics, take a look at the population, take a look at what was going on the area, looking for the enemy,'' Del Gaudio said. ``That's basically what it was, basically what it turned out to be.''
They studied the route in detail, checked for roadside bombs. ``Nothing to worry about,'' said Wilson, the platoon commander. After the briefing, McIntosh gave a thumbs up, smiled, and said, ``Hey sir, I got that. We can do that,'' Del Gaudio recalled.
When dawn broke, the rain eased, leaving a gray sky and slick roads full of puddles.
As six Humvees idled, Marines threw on flak jackets, tightened helmet straps, checked weapons.
The convoy began to move, one Marine leading each vehicle to the gate on foot - a safety measure to slow traffic inside the base.
They paused at a row of sand-filled barriers, clicked off the safety switches on their weapons, then rolled out of Hurricane Point and into the city.
The streets were deserted, but that was normal for the hour: It was just before 7 a.m.
Then, 15 minutes into the patrol, the convoy ran into something that wasn't on their maps - a barrier consisting of a wall of some sort, with cars parked in the road.
They weren't surprised. Sometimes, what looked like a street on the map turned out to be an impassable alley. They turned around and drove off-course for a few blocks, checking in with each other by radio.
From the last vehicle, McIntosh - his call sign was Alpha 3 - acknowledged the change of course.
``Roger, we got the rear,'' Del Gaudio recalled him saying.
As the convoy rounded a corner, some heard a loud pop. It didn't sound like much - they were cocooned inside armored Humvees fitted with thick bulletproof glass.
A block behind them, there had been a tremendous explosion.
Del Gaudio looked back and saw debris flying onto the main road. His vehicle commander, Cpl. Jason Hunt, a 24-year-old from Wellsville, N.Y., saw what he thought was a body cartwheeling through the air.
Across the radios, there was a call: ``Is everybody all right?''
There was no response from Alpha 3.
Amid the flames and smoke and smell of burning diesel, there was little left of the Humvee but a blackened knot of scalding, twisted steel. It looked bad - what troops call a ``K-Kill'' - a catastrophic event that claims the life of everyone on board.
The bomb, a cluster of artillery shells buried under the pavement, had strewn smoldering debris across the road. Almost nothing was recognizable. A tire. A smashed engine transmission. A gun-shield turret blown onto a rooftop. One of the Iraqi flags the Marines sometimes hand out while on patrol was thrown across the face of a building.
There had been five men in McIntosh's truck. Four died instantly. Marines rushed toward them. The body of Padilla-Aleman lay near the center of the road. McIntosh and Procopio were still in the wreckage of the burning vehicle. Kim was found later - blown 60 feet onto the far side of the street.
The fifth man aboard, Lance Cpl. Rex McKnight, 19, of Panama City, Fla., lay on the ground beside the blazing truck, convulsing in shock and blood with a broken arm and a severely injured leg. Marines dragged him away from the fire, took a tourniquet out of his pocket and wrapped it around his arm. Others dragged Padilla-Aleman's body by the back of his flak vest to Del Gaudio's truck and loaded him into the trunk.
Somewhere up the road, beyond the acrid billows of smoke, insurgents had been watching - and now they opened fire. Rounds pinged off the ground, off the trucks, but in the chaos, few noticed.
The priority was to get McKnight to ``Charlie Med,'' the main U.S. medical facility on a large U.S. Army base nearby.
``Don't you die, don't you die,'' Wilson recalled telling McKnight. ``If you let me get you to Charlie Med, you'll live, I promise you.'' McKnight survived, and was eventually flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Del Gaudio stayed behind to protect the blast site with three other Marines, including Hunt, until help could arrive. As ammunition and grenades in the burning Humvee exploded, Del Gaudio tried to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher. His own Humvee was behind him, moving back and forth to make itself a harder target for rocket-propelled grenades.
``I wanted to believe they were alive, but I knew they were all dead,'' Del Gaudio said. ``It was just the principle of not leaving them alone. I wouldn't leave them, couldn't leave them. I wouldn't leave my boys.''
He remembered images of the four dead U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah in 2004.
From buildings somewhere down the road came more volleys of machine-gun fire. Rounds slammed into the wreckage, and Del Gaudio kneeled for cover behind what was left of McIntosh's truck.
Squinting through the scope on his M-4 carbine, he saw a dozen gunmen through the smoke in jumpsuits and civilian clothes. One was filming the burning Humvee with a video camera. Others, he said, were holding onto several children by the shoulders, using them as shields in case the Marines fired back.
Del Gaudio did not fire, but a piece of shrapnel, perhaps a bullet fragment, sliced through the edge of his forefinger and struck his rifle. Adrenaline pumping, he ignored the wound, looked through his scope again and saw the children had fled. He shot back, but couldn't tell if he hit anything.
Seconds later, back at his truck, Del Gaudio saw other Marine Humvees pulling up, followed by Army wreckers and tanks. As the two sides traded sporadic fire, they recovered Kim's body from the other side of the road. Marines pulled McIntosh and Procopio out of the wreckage, and loaded them into body bags. Their flesh was so hot it burned Del Gaudio's fingers.
``We policed everything up. We took all their gear. We took every last thing that was on the ground out there,'' Del Gaudio said. ``We made sure we left the enemy nothing, like nothing ever happened.''
When Marines die, field commanders cut communications for the troops until next of kin can be notified.
No phones, no Internet.
They call it ``River City,'' a Cold War-era Navy code name for electronic silence.
After the attack, Kilo Company's 3rd Platoon returned to Hurricane Point. They sorted what remained of the fallen men's gear. They took jugs of water and cleaned blood from their trucks.
They were in shock. They were angry. Some shed tears. Some didn't want to eat. Guys like McIntosh, they seemed invincible. How could they be dead? How could they be gone? These were the first Marines Kilo Company had lost in Iraq since arriving the month before.
Del Gaudio went rack to rack, speaking briefly to his men, followed by a chaplain.
``It wasn't them. They were just shells,'' Hunt said. ``You look at this body that was once filled with life and movement and color and an aura of a human being, and then it's just ...'' His voiced trailed off.
There would be no goodbyes. No final salutes - not here, anyway. The plane that carried their four comrades home lifted off early. Del Gaudio left his platoon at Hurricane Point and spent the rest of the day at Government Center, where he stepped outside and called his wife as sporadic gunfire crackled outside.
That night, he did not sleep.
``When you see your friends killed in such a horrific way like that ... the first question you ask yourself is, how I went through the same exact same area, and nothing happened to me?'' Del Gaudio said.
``As a leader, you do everything you can, all the planning you can, to set your boys up for success. But when you roll the dice at the end of the day, it's always better to be lucky than it is to be good. It's a crapshoot every time you go out. It's rolling the dice every time.''
Commanders told troops to stay on their ``A Game.'' Focus on the mission when you're out. Mourn when you get back. Stay alive.
There would be no break. The next morning, the 3rd Platoon was tasked with carrying out another raid.
``They're strong young men who can deal with anything. They saw their friends die, best friends,'' Wilson said. ``And the next day they were out riding down the same roads. Were they scared? Hell yeah. Everybody's scared, but it doesn't matter. You trust your training, you trust your leaders, you ship out and you drive ... on.''
Wilson remembered a Marine captain who lost men during the big offensive that drove insurgents from nearby Fallujah in 2004. The captain said he dealt with the losses by locking them in a mental closet, but ``sometimes you open up that closet and everything tumbles down on you.''
``I can't deal with this now, either,'' Wilson said. ``I throw it in the closet and I'll deal with it when I get home.''
Six days after the attack, Government Center came under sustained assault from several sides. The 3rd Platoon was on rotation there, manning machine guns from the rooftop stacked high with sandbags and tents of camouflage netting. For a couple of hours, it was all-out war.
Mortar rounds exploded around them, shaking the building. Rocket-propelled grenades nearly destroyed one of their sandbagged posts. They fired back mortar shells and anti-tank rockets. They hurled grenades from the roof at gunmen running through the street below.
Across the street from one of the Marine posts was a hole Kim had blasted out of a building a few weeks earlier with a rocket after spotting two men firing automatic rifles. Marines called it Kim's Hole.
Del Gaudio, a white bandage still wrapped around his forefinger, was at Hurricane Point coordinating air support with a military radio phone handset in each hand.
Revenge, he said, never crossed his mind. But ``Mac, Procopio, Doc, Kim, they were watching, we know that,'' Del Gaudio said. ``I think at some level they felt they were going to do this for Mac and the boys. The company as a whole, the battalion as a whole, kind of looked at it that way. I know I looked at it that way that day.''
An Air Force F-18 roared overhead, poised to drop laser-guided bombs that would shake the city and engulf a building across from Government Center in gigantic ball of gray smoke.
``Stingray 6, Stingray 6, this is Kilo 6,'' Del Gaudio said into the radio. ``Please be advised that Air is inbound.''
The fallen leave behind many things. Their gear. Belongings. Memories.
By the 3rd Platoon's barracks at Hurricane Point, troops still sit on the bench Procopio made and hang out as the sun goes down.
On the back of it is written Procopio's name, rank, date of death and ``RIP.''
Nearby, four wooden crosses wrapped with dog tags rise from a bank of sand-filled barriers. A wooden board below the crosses is inscribed with words from ``Blow,'' a movie starring Johnny Depp:
May the winds always be at your backs,
The sun upon your face,
And may the winds of destiny carry you aloft to dance with the stars.
On April 15, Wilson sat on the ground against a pillar at Hurricane Point, sipping lukewarm Gatorade. Somewhere in the distance, machine-gun fire crackled. Another gunbattle was under way.
Later, Wilson would learn that gunner was Justin Sims. He had been among those who came to the rescue of Kilo Company two weeks before when their four Marines were killed by the bomb blast.
Bringing everybody back, leaving no man behind - that was the reason Sims' unit had gone out that day.
As the late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the guesthouse's stone walls and a small grassy field behind it where Wilson sat on a ledge, another convoy of Humvees was gearing up to move out to where Sims' unit was attacked.
The convoy began to move, one Marine leading each vehicle to the gate on foot.
They paused at a row of sand-filled barriers, clicked off the safety switches on their guns, rolled out of Hurricane Point and headed east into the city, down the road to Government Center.
They had been in country for a month. There were six more to go.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Listen to US Army troops running through alleys on the other side of town in Ramadi on April 22, 2006. In this audio, soldiers lay on a corner providing covering fire so troops could cross the street as insurgents fired rounds back. 1 minute).
April 23, 20006
Listen to "Taps" at the memorial service at the Marine base, Hurricane Point.