Sunday, February 13, 2005



By Pamela Hess

Last May, members of the 2/4 dropped in on an elementary school they had paid an Iraqi contractor to rebuild. He told them he was finished, but before they handed over the cash, they wanted to see that the work was actually done. So they got into four Humvees loaded with soccer balls, coloring books and candy and went to the school. They were in and out within 10 minutes. By the time they got outside, children were crowded around the trucks, scrambling for the candy and toys they had come to associate with the Marines.

This part was actually something they all look forward to -- tossing balls to the kids, seeing happy faces in a town that was roundly hostile to them.

Within moments the air around them exploded: two "insurgents" down a side alley had fired a rocket into the crowd of children, killing five instantly and wounding many others.

Marines are trained for crisis. Some went after the shooters. Others, carrying wounded children, ran from door to door to try to call an Iraqi ambulance. No one would let them in. Still others tended the children lying like litter around the Humvees. That's when a second rocket came, tearing the leg off a Marine who was tending to the injured kids. He died a week later.

I defy anyone to suggest to the Marines present that day they should feel ambivalent about killing their enemy in Ramadi.

When I returned to Mattis' headquarters after my time with the 2/4, he summoned me into his office -- rarely a good thing -- and asked for my observations. I was still sorting out my thoughts, so I repeated something a young lieutenant told me: If nothing else comes out of this war, the Marines have a battle-hardened force.

Mattis nodded, not at all ambivalently. He then told me this: Go into any VFW or American Legion Hall in the United States and the true combat veterans are easy to spot. They are invariably huddled together off to the side. They are not talking about war, or battles, or the friends they lost. They talk about anything but that.

After General Mattis' experience last week, perhaps we know why. We don't want to hear it.

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