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For Echo Company, fighting in Iraq takes a heavy toll

RAMADI, Iraq—Finally back in the safety of his bunker, looking at the empty beds of dead comrades, Lance Cpl. Deshon Oety began to cry.

His Marine battalion had just lost more members—16—than any other single U.S. unit so far in Iraq. Seven members of his own platoon were now gone, their bunks vacant before him.

"I didn't sleep. I lay in the bed," Oety recalled, sitting alone with a cigarette after a Marine memorial service Sunday.

The American deaths fell most heavily on Oety's 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment, a storied unit known as "the Magnificent Bastards" that hardly needed another infamous battle on its resume.

Five died from just one 13-man squad ambushed on a road they patrolled every day.

"I can't stand that area," said Oety, 24, of Louisville, Ky. But Oety did what his battalion is known for: plunging back in.

"I went right back on patrol the next day."

World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm. Now this patch of dust along the Euphrates River in central Iraq. The "2/4" has lost another 16 members in what may herald a significant new turn in the war in Iraq.

"As countless men and women before us, we have come to understand and appreciate our freedom more deeply," Lt. Brian Weigelt, the battalion chaplain, said at the camp's memorial service. "We have experienced the great joy of brotherhood and the sinking emptiness of grief."

One by one, Marines paced to the front of the hangar and paused at a makeshift shrine made of a single M-16 draped with 16 dogs tags, topped by a helmet.

"I want to kill these guys more than when I first got here," PFC Gregg Arneson, 19, of Janesville, Wis., said afterward. Speaking of one fallen comrade, he said: "It was one of the hardest things losing him. It was like losing a brother."

Ramadi has been a baptism by fire for many of the 400 or so men from two companies who are serving their first combat mission.

Echo Company, a 165-man unit of the battalion based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., now is down by 50 dead or wounded, mostly since the devastating series of ambushes on Tuesday.

"It was the worst day of my life, I tell you that," said Lt. Tom Cogan, 23, commander of Echo's 3rd Platoon, which lost five men. "It's my job to take care of these guys and get them home as safe as possible. It's my duty to them and their families."

"It makes me feel like I failed," Cogan said, then stopped himself. "Like I could've done something better or different."

Arriving in early March to replace a departing Army unit, Echo Company had spent most of its time upgrading its base, patrolling supply routes and access roads, and dismantling or destroying insurgents' bombs that the Marines call "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs.

In the past month, Marines patrolling on foot had found and detonated dozens of the devices, usually made from single 100-mm or 105-mm mortar rounds wired with a blasting cap and trigged remotely by a cell phone or garage-door opener.

Then on March 25, they had their first real firefight after a squad took a wrong turn on a road and accidentally came up behind a group of Iraqi fighters who appeared to be waiting in ambush formation.

"We took them out," Cogan, who led the operation, said. "It's a motivating thing. Even the guys who took hits were joking about it. We were pumped up. ... It created bonds that weren't there before."

But it all went wrong a week later.

The Third Squad from Cogan's Third Platoon was patrolling one section of the city when word came of another unit under fire. When they raced to try to link up, Third Squad also got hit. Bullets and rocket-propelled grenades rained down from all sides.

"You're fighting for the guy on your left and right, that's what it really comes down to," Cogan said.

While many details were still hard to reconstruct, one of the squad's Humvees was hit and destroyed, and five men were eventually killed. A corpsman was also killed.

Cogan said it took the squad "a couple hours to move a couple hundred feet. We killed numerous enemy, we slaughtered a lot of them."

Several platoons were hit that day, eventually 12 Marines were killed and at least 30 wounded. The confidence and morale felt from the first firefight in March was under assault as well.

"It hurts when you lose your buddies and friends. And it did hurt morale," Cogan said. "It was tough on them. They were hurting pretty bad. They won't tell you that, but they were hurt."

Echo Company rebounded as best it could. Short of armored vehicles but bucking to reassert themselves, the Marines searched homes for insurgents and taking no chances.

On Saturday, the Marines engaged another group of insurgents with far different results: many insurgents killed or wounded, and just one Marine casualty.

"We lost another from my platoon. He was a good Marine, but you feel better because we beat the crap out of the enemy," Cogan said. "We lit them up. It made everybody feel a lot better."

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(Swanson, a photographer with The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported from Ramadi. Ginsberg, who reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer, contributed to this report from Philadelphia.)

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

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

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