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U.S. may have won the battle of Fallujah, but at a great personal cost

FALLUJAH, Iraq—After sleepless days of intense, house-to-house combat in Fallujah, the men of Alpha Company, of the 1st Infantry Division's Task Force 2-2, were ready to talk to each other, sitting in the dark, inside a Bradley Fighting Vehicle or lying in the dirt between firefights.

Sgt. Randy Laird, a blond, a 24-year-old from Lake Charles, La., told of his father, who committed suicide when he was 12. Laird dropped out of school when he was 14. He spoke often about his son, 2 {-year-old Brayden, who was back at home in Germany with his mother.

"Every time he sees somebody in uniform, he thinks it's daddy," Laird said.

Brayden would run up to soldiers and hug their legs, thinking he'd found his father. "I'm sure after a while, he'll understand that I killed people, that I've seen dead bodies," Laird said. "It's emotional now when I see a war movie because I know what they're going through. Especially when guys in full dress uniform go to a mother and say her son is dead and she falls to the floor. It makes me think about my mom getting that call."

Sitting a couple of men over on the bench of a Bradley was Sgt. Dave Bowden, whose father had been in the 82nd Airborne Division and who grew up knowing he'd join as soon as he turned 18. His father later became a sheriff's deputy at the Pike County, Pa., sheriff's department, and his mother got a job at a local factory.

"When people say that war is the most terrible thing, they ain't wrong," Bowden said. "The things it does to people. You think that killing people for your country is cool, but when you do, it just numbs you."

Sgt. Scott Bentley, 22, of Philadelphia, re-enlisted last October because he knew his unit was headed to Iraq and he didn't want them to go without him. "I remember every face I see out there, every moment out there," he said. "I can't forget it. I can't make it go away."

11.12.04, Friday

Standing in the rubble, the soldiers gathered the AK-47s and RPGs left by the group of fighters who'd fled.

The house, yet another in a line of dozens, if not hundreds, had been blown apart by Bradley and Abrams tank fire. "It's intense, that's about all there is to say," said Spc. John Bandy, 23, of Little Rock, Ark. "The determination these guys have against our forces, these little bands of guys shooting at tanks, it's almost admirable."

He took a long drag from his cigarette. Bullets were in the air. Artillery shells whooshed by, on their way to punching a hole in some building or person.

A sofa survived the shelling, and some men were sitting on it, taking a breather. They could see into the next house through holes in the wall.

The cat and mouse pursuit, insurgents flitting from one spot to the next, a step ahead of heavily armored vehicles and the infantry, made the men angrier.

Increasingly, they turned to Laird, a forward observer for the artillery, and asked him to pound a house with 155 mm shells.

"We trained to fight a country with armor on a field," Laird said. "These guys shoot at us, drop their weapons and become a civilian again."

The men picked up their weapons and jogged to the next house. Spc. Fredrick Ofori was in the lead. A 24-year-old from Ghana, whose family moved to New York looking for work, Ofori's face was drawn tightly, without emotion, as usual. His lithe, compact body showed muscle at every movement.

Spc. Arthur Wright teased him about not going out to clubs back in Vilseck, Germany, where the unit was based, about not throwing down drinks with his buddies and picking up women. "That is your life," Ofori would respond. "It is not for me."

Ofori said more than once that getting a Combat Infantryman's Badge meant little to him. The ribbons, he said, were for talking, and he was here to fight so he could go home.

He respected the insurgents, he said, for their willingness to fight to the death.

The streets outside were littered with dead men, their corpses left for cats and dogs to gnaw on after the sun set. The sight of bearded insurgents, eyes open, lying in gutters, was no longer a novelty.

Walking through the house, Ofori turned his gun toward a doorway. Shots rang out. A fighter in the room had been waiting with a grenade in hand. He'd probably been listening the entire time as the men sat on the sofa next door, their voices wafting through the holes in the wall.

When he jumped forward, he didn't scream "Allahu Akbar"—God is Great—as insurgents often did. He moved in silence, until Ofori's fire blew him back. Ofori looked down for a few seconds and walked out of the room. The soldiers behind him went inside to ogle. "Damn, look at Hajji," one said.

Walking into the garage, Ofori found a dead fighter lying on the ground next to a pickup truck outfitted with a machine gun.

Having heard of the incident, the New York Post wrote a headline calling Ofori a "Coney Island Hero."

His mother told the newspaper "he doesn't like that Army food."

Later in the day, an RPG tore through the torso of Lt. Edward Iwan, the company's executive officer, ripping his body apart. He was 28.

11.13.04, Saturday

The day before his men pushed into Fallujah, company commander Capt. Sean Sims, 32, from Eddy, Texas, went through a "rock drill" with Task Force 2-2. The platoons' leaders stood around a sketch of the city, fashioned in the dirt with rocks for houses and the tips of artillery shells for mosques. Code names such as Objective Panther and Objective Lion marked schools and mosques to be taken.

Six days later, sitting with a map of the city in front of him, Sims no longer spoke in military lingo.

His friend, Lt. Iwan, was dead. The fight had creased Sims' face, bleared his eyes and turned his voice more hesitant.

"It's tough. I don't know what to think about it yet," he said slowly, searching for words. "All of this will be forever tainted because we lost him."

A reporter offered him, again, a satellite phone to call his family. Sims thought about it, and said no. He wanted to get through the fight first.

A CNN crew came by, accompanied by an escort from Task Force 2-2's headquarters. They wanted to see houses where there'd been fighting, and they were taken to the one where Ofori killed a man the day before.

One of the reporters asked Ofori to talk on camera about killing the insurgent in the first room. He said all he'd agree to do is point to where it happened.

The fighter Ofori found by the pickup truck had been nibbled on, probably by neighborhood cats who always went for the softness of the lips first. With his lips eaten away, the man's teeth were frozen in a joker's grin.

Most of the First Platoon soldiers stayed outside. They'd already seen the dead and didn't need to see them again.

The men then loaded up in their Bradleys and, with the tracks crunching the concrete below them, rumbled down the street.

Sims took a group of men to clear a house so they could set up an observation post on the roof.

Inside, a group of rebels was waiting. They'd slept for days on dirty mats and blankets, eating green peppers and dates from plastic tubs.

Gunfire raged when Sims and his men came through the front door. Two soldiers were hit near the shoulder and were rushed out by the men next to them.

Crouching by a wall outside, Laird screamed into his radio, "Negative, I cannot move, we're pinned down right now! We have friendlies down! Friendlies down!"

He crouched down on a knee, sweating and waiting for help. A line of troops ran up, taking cover. They shot their way into the house.

They found Sims lying on the kitchen floor, his blood pouring across dirty tile. An empty teapot sat on concrete stairs nearby. A heart, drawn in red with an arrow through it, adorned a cabinet.

Someone grabbed a radio: "Terminator Six is down."

"The b-------," Bentley said. "We've got a blood trail leaving the building, going into the next house."

A group of soldiers ran out the door, looking for revenge. Others gathered blankets.

They couldn't lift Sims' body, so they called in Spc. Sheldon Howard, 20, of Farmington, N.M., who lugged the squad's heavy machine gun but whose broad shoulders were sagging from the news.

Once Sims was laid on the floor of a Bradley outside, six soldiers and a reporter climbed in, slowly at first, trying not to step on the body. Someone outside yelled at them to cram in, if they had to step on Sims' body, do it, god damn it, do it.

Gunfire was pounding back and forth.

The hatch closed. The soldiers stared at each other. The soldiers stared at the ceiling. The soldiers stared at the hatch. The soldiers stared at anything but the mound on the floor.

Wright was sobbing and shaking. Howard had tears streaming down his cheeks.

The Bradley dropped them off at another house, where the platoon leaders from Alpha Company had gathered in a courtyard. Their commanding officer and their executive officer were dead.

An airstrike with a 2,000-pound bomb was ordered. Men huddled around each other, hugging those who couldn't stop crying. They passed out a handful of cigarettes.

Ofori had no tears on his face. He'd been looking at the ground for 10 minutes.

Sgt. Isaac Ward walked up to him, put a hand on his shoulder and said: "We have work to do now. We'll talk about this later. Get ready to go."

Artillery and mortar fragments flew over the courtyard wall.

It was Bowden's 22nd birthday.

"I had to help put him in the body bag," Bowden said. "When we took the blanket off him and saw his face, all these thoughts ran through my head—I'd just seen him in the morning."

Laird and Ward rode to a house a few streets away, where Marines had taken up camp. They climbed some stairs, jumped over a wall and stayed low as the bullets flew by. Looking out over the houses, Laird called in artillery and gave coordinates for the 2,000 bomb.

Smoke covered the horizon, and with a boom, a mosque's minaret disappeared. Buildings burned.

Spc. James Barney, who drove the Bradley that carried Sims' body, stood by the vehicle outside, talking to himself. "We need to just finish it, level the whole damn city," he said. "I'm tired of this place, I'm tired of this shit."

11.14.04, Sunday

Saturday night, the men had rested for the first time in seven days, sleeping on a patch of dirt just outside the city. They'd huddled beneath tarps, close to each other for body heat. When they awoke, they walked around looking at their Bradleys and the deep gouges on the sides from AK-47 fire and shrapnel. One had caught fire after an RPG hit it, and its crew was sorting through charred ammunition boxes and pulling out bullets that hadn't cooked off. An RPG had destroyed the protection plate on the side of another, and in daylight the soldiers could see the tip had been an inch or so from exploding into the cabin.

Their uniforms were almost brown with dirt and sweat. Several had blood on their pants.

The 1st Infantry Division's commanding officer, Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste, came by, his uniform clean and neatly pressed. He moved quickly from one vehicle to the next, talking in a low tone and shaking hands.

The soldiers looked at him with sunken eyes and said little.

A few days later, Laird and some of the guys were given a few hours at camp near Fallujah to get some chow-hall food and take showers. They sat at the table, with TV news about Iraq in the background, and ate without talking much. A discussion of Sims tapered off. The men who had killed the captain had gotten away.

"Being in our track and smelling him—I'm glad I never saw his face," Ward said of Sims.

On his way out, Laird turned and said he'd been thinking about his son.

"I don't want my boy to know his daddy's a killer," he said. With that, he picked up his gun and walked out the door.

———

To read more about Capt. Sean Sims, visit http://texasbug.blogspot.com/

There, read Sims's obituary and a tribute to him from his father, a retired army colonel, and view pictures of Sims and his family.

———

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041124 USIRAQ FALLUJAH

ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030318 Harrier, 20040427 USIRAQ Fallujah, 20030314 USIRAQ Abrams, 20030319 Bradley vehicle

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