RAMADI, Iraq—The Marines of Echo Company jumped from their trucks into Ramadi's narrow streets and alleys and ran toward the sound of the guns. They followed their commander, Capt. Kelly D. Royer, through palm trees and warrens of cinder-block buildings.
One of Echo's sniper teams had come under fire, and Royer's "quick reaction force" was going to reinforce the pinned-down Marines.
Before they'd gone far, headquarters at Combat Outpost, a Marine base in the Iraqi city of 500,000 on the Euphrates River, called on the radio. The snipers had repulsed the attackers, but now Echo Company's 1st Platoon, which had been sent out earlier to clear the main supply route through Ramadi, was taking fire and needed help.
Amid the dust and noise, Royer radioed 2nd Lt. John Wroblewski. While Royer's team moved on foot, "Lieutenant Ski," as his men called him, was leading a second Echo quick-reaction force in Humvees through the chaotic streets of Ramadi. Pick us up at the intersection at the marketplace, Royer told Wroblewski.
Wroblewski had told his men the day before to be alert. Something's not right, he said. In this neighborhood, the residents didn't wave and the children didn't flock to the Marines, the way they did in other parts of the city. They only stared.
Although neither Royer nor Wroblewski knew it, earlier that morning, April 6, Iraqi and foreign fighters had slipped through the marketplace, telling shopkeepers to close their stores and kiosks and warning: "Today, we are going to kill Americans."
If the Iraqi insurgency has a center of gravity, Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and a bastion of Saddam Hussein's military and intelligence services, probably is it. The city sits astride the main road from Baghdad to Jordan, and the insurgents in Ramadi were far better organized and far better schooled in guerrilla warfare than the Marines originally realized.
Gunfire rattled to the east, where Royer's force had been moments earlier. Marines seemed to be under attack everywhere. Royer and his men started running to reinforce their comrades in the 1st Platoon.
Two Marines from the 1st Platoon, Pfc. Benjamin Carman, 20, of Jefferson, Iowa, and Lance Cpl. Marcus Cherry, 18, of Imperial, Calif., already were dead.
Carman's high school coach said he was "one of the hardest-working football players I've ever had."
There are five large tires in a field near Jefferson-Scranton High School. Four of them are for tractors; the fifth and largest is for a combine. It's 5 feet tall, and it weighs 80 pounds. As part of their daily workout, the football players had to flip each tire 10 times.
Medium-sized Ben Carman ran straight to the big tire every day, and he didn't flip it 10 times. He flipped it 12.
Like Ben, Marcus Cherry had wanted to be a Marine. But he had to practice that Marine Corps stare. He would stand in front of a mirror at home, jaw forward, eyes hard, and hold it as long as he could before his trademark grin gave him away.
In a letter home from boot camp, Marcus wrote: "I knew, Mom, the Marine Corps was the best decision for my life at the time I joined. It's a fast way to grow up, but I was made for it."
As Royer and his men hustled toward the 1st Platoon, Wroblewski rolled past with his convoy. Royer radioed Wroblewski again: Stop and pick us up.
"Roger, Six," Wroblewski responded, using the military term for "commanding officer."
Royer and his men heard Wroblewski's Humvees and trucks slow as they approached the marketplace.
Then Royer's Marines heard the staccato sound of AK-47 rifle fire, the deeper growl of a machine gun and the thuds of rocket-propelled grenades.
Like Cherry, Wroblewski was where he'd always wanted to be: leading Marines in combat. He'd even named his Alaskan malamute pup Semper, after the Marine Corps motto, "Semper fidelis" ("Always faithful").
Six feet two, with piercing blue eyes and a linebacker's build, Wroblewski, 25, was a natural leader, popular with his men and respected by other officers. Royer called him "one of my best."
The day before the firefight, "J.T." had talked about home as he led a 10-mile foot patrol through Ramadi. He talked about fishing, about the Marines, about his wife, Joanna.
He grew up in Morris County, in northern New Jersey, where he was a high school football and baseball standout, and he graduated from Rutgers before he joined the Marines in 2002.
Wroblewski had caught Joanna's eye at the County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J. "Wow, that guy's hot," she thought. He also was shy. "I had to ask him out," she said. They were married in July 2003.
He had been at home with Joanna in Oceanside, Calif., on Valentine's Day when he got his orders to Iraq. She was making waffles with strawberries for breakfast when the call came. He had to leave the next day.
His last phone conversation with her had been three days earlier. Instead of signing off as usual by saying, "I'll see you soon," he'd told her: "I'll always be with you."
On all sides of the intersection that marked the Ramadi marketplace, Iraqi fighters with AK-47's and rocket-propelled grenade launchers had taken positions on the roofs of the one-story buildings. A heavy .50-caliber Russian-made machine gun was on one corner rooftop, where the gunner could sweep the street. Other fighters were hidden behind trees just beyond the market stalls.
About 50 well-armed insurgents were waiting for Wroblewski and his Marines.