RAMADI, Iraq—More than 129 U.S. servicemen have died in Anbar province since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq on May 1, 2003.
The Marine force in Ramadi, the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Marines, nicknamed "The Magnificent Bastards," has had the highest casualties of any U.S. battalion since the war in Iraq began: at least 29 killed and 175 wounded, roughly 20 percent of the battalion's 1,000-man strength. Echo Company has lost 23 of its 185 men, more than any other Marine or Army company. It's had more than 40 wounded.
U.S. soldiers and Marines have stopped patrolling large swaths of Anbar. After losing dozens of men to a "voiceless, faceless mass of people" with no clear leadership or political aim other than killing Americans, the U.S. military had to re-evaluate the situation in and around Ramadi, said Maj. Thomas Neemeyer, the head intelligence officer for the 1st Brigade of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, the main military force in the area.
"They cannot militarily overwhelm us, but we cannot deliver a knockout blow, either," he said.
Joanna Lynn Wroblewski said farewell to her husband, 2nd Lt. John T. Wroblewski, in a letter she read at his funeral. It began:
"I saw you today. We were taking one of our usual strolls with the dog and the sun was shining all around you. You looked at me again the way you always did with that handsome cool smile. That look that told me how much you love me, and how everything was going to be OK. `We're OK,' that was what we kept saying the day you left for Iraq. You were always right. My brave warrior."
Fernando Mendez-Aceves' mother, Sandra, got a letter from his platoon leader after Doc Mendez was killed: "He never complained at all, even if he went on missions that lasted day and night. ... I could tell he was a good man, and whoever raised him did a good job."
In the family's small apartment, a candle burns on a memorial. Fernando watches over them from half a dozen photographs. There's a bottle of Corona beer, a deck of playing cards, a last letter from a girlfriend, unopened, and a plain blue sack with a box that contains Fernando's ashes.
"Fernando believed that all things happen for a reason, and that it is not our place to question God's plan," his mother said.
His younger brother, Kenneth, 15, wears Doc's old oversize T-shirt and baseball cap when he runs and lifts weights. "I'm so proud of him," Kenneth said.
Staff Sgt. Allan Walker's mother, Nancy, got in her son's little red Chevy pickup and drove from her home in Lancaster, Calif., in the Antelope Valley 60 miles north of Los Angeles, to Texas and Iowa and Minnesota, visiting mothers and fathers of Echo Company Marines she'd contacted by mail and e-mail since Allan's death.
She's angry. She hates the war in Iraq, and disagreed with it from the start. She's fiercely proud of her son and has no trouble speaking out against the war and President Bush because, she says, doing so honors the values her son fought and died for.
Her ex-husband, Kenneth Walker, who supports the war, has begun a journey inward to a respite from his pain: the Hindu teachings he's embraced for decades.
"There is no such thing as death," he said one afternoon at his home in Palmdale, Calif., where Allan had played football and flipped burgers. "So if you really believe that, I mean really believe that in your gut, then it makes the death of someone you care about and love easier to deal with."
Kyle Crowley and his dad had parted ways before he left for boot camp. He spent some nights at friends' homes, others in his old Cadillac, but he found refuge at his girlfriend Trisha Johnson's home. Her parents, Steve and Gail Johnson, welcomed Kyle. "He told us: `I want to go fight to protect families like yours,'" Steve said.
"He wanted family most of all, and the Marines are like family," Gail said.
Nelson Carman goes by himself to his son Ben's grave in Jefferson, Iowa. He tries not to grieve in front of his family. He finds comfort there, where tiny American flags have sprouted and someone has stuck a fishing pole in the ground. Some days, he finds a glass of brandy and a cigar butt.
Ben's favorite spot was an overlook on the Carman farm, on a bluff 60 feet above the river. Eagles soar there, and deer roam. Ben and his siblings and friends camped there summer and fall, fished the river, hunted the woods and looked for arrowheads. It's sacred ground for all of them now.
Ben's mother, Marie, said: "What he could have been. ... You just don't know."
A month after Ryan Jerabek was killed, a package arrived at the Jerabek home. It was a late Christmas present that Ryan, who was fascinated with his Irish ancestry, had ordered from Ireland before he left for Iraq. Inside the box was a curved white shield with the family crest painted on the face, and a silver and gold sword for Ryan's younger brother Nick.
His mother, Rita, said simply: "He was a gift."
Sometimes the Ayon family goes out to the driveway and gets in the silver Toyota Solara that Eric Ayon had said would belong to his baby sister, Jazmine, if anything happened to him in Iraq. They sit in his car, start the engine and roll down the windows, but they don't go anywhere.
They remain suspended somewhere between a past in which Eric cracks jokes, dances goofily and lectures Jazmine on the virtue-less nature of boys and the April day when two somber Marines arrived at the door to tell them that Eric was dead, blown up by a homemade bomb.
Eric's sister Cynthia, 23, tells herself that he's just away on vacation. His father, Henry, tries not to talk about it. His mother, Maria, visits his grave every day. As she bustles around the house she talks aloud to Eric, who peers out from a life-size photo over the mantle.
Before he left for Iraq, Eric had said goodbye to one of the kids he'd counseled, 17-year-old Ashley Mendez, whose tangles with gangs and drugs had landed her in juvenile hall repeatedly since she was 12.
"He was a really good friend," Ashley said. "I thought he was going to come back. But he never did."
Two weeks after they buried Chris Cobb, his mother received his last letter home: "I am coming home alive and in one piece," he wrote. "I promise you that mom."
His cousin Kaylee Morris, 18, said she screamed when she heard of his death. "Why would God take such a young person from us?" she asked.
A few days after Chris' funeral, Kaylee got back a package that she'd sent to Chris with a four-page letter and a bundle of beef jerky. "I just saw it there on my doorstep and started crying," she said. "It's the little things like that that make it hard."
On April 3, Marcus Cherry and his older brother, Andre, both Marines, had met at division base camp in Iraq and had a final few hours together.
After Marcus was killed three days later, Andre escorted his casket home.
Marcus and Andre were running backs for the Imperial High Tigers in Imperial, Calif. Marcus was No. 34. The school has retired his jersey. Next season, the players will wear the initials "M.C." on their helmets.
Diane Layfield remembers a slow dance with her son Travis under the stars at a Brooks & Dunn concert last year. She remembers thinking how lucky she was that her son would dance with her in public. She spends her free time filling boxes in her Fremont, Calif., home with photos, letters, articles, anything she can find that has a connection to her "Travi."
Travis' dad, John Layfield, 47, a forklift operator, has restored Travis' most prized possession, a sky-blue 1962 Ford Galaxy, to keep his memory alive.
He carries Travis' last letter home with him. It arrived the day they buried Travis.
Neither of the Layfields has ever voted. Both now question what their country is doing in Iraq. John says "babies" are dying in Iraq, and he thinks about running for president just to get Bush out of office.
Some mornings, Diane wakes up thinking how her lovely son will never marry or give her grandbabies. And how there will never be another mother-son dance under the stars.
In April, when there was a knock at the door at her home in Middletown, Del., Emma Roberts peeked out the window and got a glimpse of a Marine officer's hat. "I tried to run away. I ran into the family room, and they rang again."
Tony Roberts, at 17, had needed his mother's consent to enlist. "I definitely feel responsible," Emma Roberts said. "But he was just so enthused with becoming a Marine."
After Tony died, his family found a poem he'd written about his father's death years earlier:
"I thought my father was invincible
I didn't think he could or would die
All I can do is cry
One thing I really hate
Is I never got to say goodbye."