Cover Story

Our blood and treasure

Holiday feasts for hundreds of U.S. families will feature a conspicuously empty seat this year. In Fallujah and beyond, U.S. Marines, soldiers, and their families make the ultimate sacrifice to win the war on terror

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

Time flies when you're getting shot at," Marine Lance Corporal Abraham Simpson, 19, wrote in an August letter to his parents. A suicide bomber had that day killed two of his squad-mates at a checkpoint near Najaf. Abraham addressed the letter "To Dad Only," as he did whenever he sent disturbing news from Iraq to his home in Chino, Calif.

"A car blew up at the checkpoint just 50 yards away, and later on some guys tried to run the gate," he wrote. "We blew up their cars, one with a . . . missile, and shot [the men] as they ran away. One guy was burning as he ran out of his car. They cleaned up the bodies this morning, but the burnt-up, shot-up cars are still out there." Abraham knew both U.S. soldiers killed by the car bomb. One was a friend from boot camp, "a nice guy from L.A. named Hannon."

Three months later, on Nov. 9, a nice guy from Chino named Abraham would die in Fallujah. His mother and two younger brothers would be at home when uniformed officers arrived with the news.

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Punctuated by car bombings and beheadings, the war in Iraq since April has lurched along more as a police action than a military conflict. But with fierce firefights, insurgent uprisings sprouting in other cities, and a growing casualty list, the Fallujah offensive brought back into crisp focus the kind of men American families are sacrificing: They are, at turns, momentously brave, endearingly ordinary, extraordinarily decent, and heartbreakingly young.

Sgt. Carlos M. Camacho-Rivera, 24, a truck driver who transported supplies and heavy equipment, died Nov. 5 in a military hospital in Baghdad from wounds he suffered in a rocket attack in Fallujah. When a civilian tried to barrel through a checkpoint on the main road into the city, Marines opened fire. Insurgents fired a rocket, killing Sgt. Camacho-Rivera and wounding five others. He is survived by a wife and 3-year-old daughter.

Before he died, the Puerto Rican might well have saved two men. A civilian fuel tanker had run over a Humvee, and two soldiers were trapped inside, the tanker still perched precariously atop the Humvee. Soldiers on the scene hesitated to take action, fearing any false move might bring the tanker down, crushing the men inside the Humvee. But Sgt. Camacho-Rivera didn't hesitate. Using a forklift and a wrecker truck he was hauling with his convoy, he freed the trapped men. "That's not something you train for," Capt. Erik Hilberg told the [Hampton Roads, Va.] Daily Press. "But Sgt. Camacho made it look easy."

Army Capt. Sean Sims's easy way with his men won him their affection and respect. The 32-year-old Texan and father of an infant daughter commanded Alpha Company without raising his voice, taking it in stride when equipment failed, or even when explosions rocked the earth around his unit's position.

"We'll be OK," he'd drawl mildly. "This'll work out."

When Capt. Sims noticed that one of his young soldiers, Spc. Arthur Wright, 22, wasn't receiving care packages from home, he arranged for his wife, a teacher, to have her class send Mr. Wright cards and gifts.

On Nov. 13, Alpha Company was absorbing the shock of loss: Capt. Sims's executive officer, 28-year-old Lt. Edward Iwan of Nebraska, had died the day before, shot through the torso with an RPG. Capt. Sims and his men tamped down their grief, Knight Ridder reported, suited up, and headed into the Fallujah streets to clear houses.

In one, a terror ambush was waiting. Insurgents attacked when Capt. Sims and his men entered the house, wounding two soldiers who were rushed out of the house by a third. Sgt. Randy Laird, 24, crouched outside, screaming into his radio, "I cannot move, we're pinned down right now! We have friendlies down! Friendlies down!" A fresh squad of soldiers stormed through the hail of bullets, and shot their way into the house, securing it.

But it was too late for Sean Sims. He "lay on a kitchen floor, blood pouring across dirty tile," Knight Ridder's embedded journalist Tom Lasseter reported. "His men gasped. There was no life in his eyes."

As they bundled Capt. Sims's body into a Bradley outside, his soldiers, furious over his death, called in hellfire from above, incinerating insurgent positions with retaliatory airstrikes. In the Bradley, Arthur Wright sobbed in the darkness.

The Fallujah Offensive crushed the heart of the Sunni-led insurgency but has not ended it. Insurgents continue with retaliatory strikes in Ramadi, Mosul, Suwayrah, Baqouba, Buhriz, and Baghdad. Assaults on Iraqi security forces, oil installations, U.S. military convoys, and police stations across Sunni territory showcase the same ruthlessness that shocked the world in videotaped beheadings. In Buhriz on Nov. 15, for example, gunmen abducted Col. Qassim Mohammed, took him to the city police station, and threatened to kill him if police didn't surrender the station. When police refused, the insurgents bound Col. Mohammed's hands behind his back and shot him dead.

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