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.
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.
Even some Sunnis have condemned the violent uprisings. Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib, himself a Sunni, called the insurgency a "campaign to divide this country and thrust it into a civil war."
Though the American-led coalition swept to a swift military victory in Fallujah, "winning the military action is only part of the story," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "The political battle of Fallujah will be fought out over a period of months, not days or weeks . . . in the context of developing Iraq's constitution and establishing some form of federalism that is acceptable to the Sunnis."
And even if American troops do stamp out visible resistance in the coming weeks, insurgents may regroup and lie in wait, Mr. Cordesman said, to reemerge in time for elections in January. "Why stand and die against professional U.S. troops when you can live and win against weak Iraqi Interim Government Officials and security forces?" he said.
In a picture he took of his own face after the car bomb killed his boot camp buddy from L.A., Abraham Simpson appeared near tears. But the face of the 2003 Southland Christian School graduate and Eagle Scout also revealed a new, steely resolve. The photo was one of about 700 Abraham sent to his family back in California.
Serving in and around Fallujah since June, Abraham and his squad were assigned to the suburb of Al Kharma, where they worked to shape local Iraqi police into corruption-free protectors of their own people. That meant Abraham was working outside his normal job description, mortarman. Ironically, insurgents rained mortar fire on the Al Kharma compound almost every night.
One day, while most of his squad played football in the compound, Abraham was sitting inside looking at photographs when he heard the ominous whistle of an inbound mortar round. The projectile exploded in the middle of the football game, killing Abraham's squad leader and wounding six others.
That was how Abraham wound up working as a mortarman again. The attack so decimated his squad that they left Al Kharma and joined a larger unit, this one preparing for the massive November ground assault on Fallujah.
That was fine with Abraham, his mother said. He'd always wanted to be out front with the infantry, "getting the job done." He was killed by hostile fire at the beginning of the Fallujah assault-one of 48 Marine deaths tallied halfway through November, and one of six Marines killed in Fallujah who were 19 years old.
The Marine Corps hasn't yet released the details of how Abraham died in Fallujah, but plenty of people have come forward to tell how he lived. James Gibbons, 21, met Abraham at Calvary Chapel of Chino Hills, where the Simpsons were members. With Abraham, Mr. Gibbons told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, "You felt you didn't give back as much as you received."
After a missions trip with Southland Christian School to an area of Los Angeles ravaged by homelessness, Abraham, then a high-school junior, came home with new purpose. He hadn't even wanted to go on the trip-his parents made him. But when his mother picked him up, the first thing he said was, "Thanks for making me go." He didn't know exactly when it had happened, but the trip changed his life, he told her: He had become excited about sharing his faith.
Abraham had long planned to join the Marines after graduation. "He felt God would use him in the Marine Corps," Mrs. Simpson told WORLD one week after his death. One squad-mate wrote the Simpsons to say he planned, on Abraham's advice, to bring his family to Calvary Chapel when he returned stateside. A friend at West Point wrote to say he had been inspired by Abraham's commitment to Christ. Still another said Abraham's behavior in boot camp-he didn't curse like the others-set a memorable example.
"He wasn't perfect," said Mrs. Simpson. "He was an ordinary kid in many ways, but he always had a heart to do what was right."
On Nov. 1, eight days before his death, Maria Simpson received a brief e-mail from her son. It was a how's-everything kind of note telling his parents that he'd moved to nicer living quarters. But since his death, the e-mail's ending has struck Mrs. Simpson again and again: "I'm in a better place now. I thought you'd like to know. Love, Abraham."