HADITHA DAM, Iraq — Cpl. David Kreuter had a new baby boy he'd seen only in photos. Lance Cpl. Michael Cifuentes was counting the days until his wedding. Lance Cpl. Nicholas Bloem had just celebrated his 20th birthday.
Travis Williams remembers them all -- all 11 men in his Marine squad -- all now dead. Two months ago they shared a cramped room stacked with bunk beds at this base in northwest Iraq, where the Euphrates River rushes by. Now the room has been stripped of several beds, brutal testament that Lance Cpl. Williams' closest friends are gone.
For the 12 young Marines who landed in Iraq early this year, the war was a series of hectic, constant raids into more than a dozen lawless towns in Al Anbar, Iraq's most hostile province. The pace and the danger bound them into what they called a second family, even as some began to question whether their raids were making progress.
Now, all of the Marines assigned to the 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, based in Columbus, Ohio, are gone -- all except Williams. They died in a roadside bomb set by insurgents on Aug. 3 that killed a total of 14 Marines. Most members of the squad were in their early 20s; the youngest was 19.
"They were like a family. They were the tightest squad I've ever seen," said Capt. Christopher Toland of Austin, Texas, the squad's platoon commander. Even though many did not know each other before they got to Iraq, "They truly loved each other."
All that is left now are photos and snippets of video, saved on dusty laptops, that run for a few dozen seconds. As they pack up to return home by early October, the Marines from Lima Company -- including the squad's replacements -- sometimes huddle around Williams' laptop in a room at the dam, straining to watch the few remaining moments of their young friends' lives. Some photos and videos carry the squad's adopted motto, "Family is forever."
In one video, Lance Cpl. Christopher Dyer, who graduated with honors last year from a Cincinnati area high school, strums his guitar and does a mock-heartfelt rendition of "Puff the Magic Dragon" as his friends laugh around him.
In a photo, Kreuter rides a bicycle through a neighborhood, swerving under the weight of body armor and weapons, as Marines and Iraqis watch and chuckle.
Each video ends abruptly, leaving behind a blank screen. Some are switched off as soon as they start -- some images just hurt too much to see right now.
The August operation began like most of the squad's missions -- with a rush into another lawless Iraqi city to hunt insurgents and do house-to-house searches, sometimes for 12 hours in temperatures near 120 degrees.
On Aug. 1, six Marine snipers had been ambushed and killed in Haditha, one of a string of river cities that line the Euphrates, filled with waving palm trees. Two days later, Marines in armored vehicles, including the 1st Squad, rumbled into the area to look for the culprits.
Like other cities in this region, Haditha has no Iraqi troops, and its police force was destroyed earlier in the year by a wave of insurgent attacks. Marines patrol roads on the perimeter and occasionally raid homes in the city, which slopes along a quiet river valley. Commanders say that insurgents have challenged local tribes for control and that Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi, once had a home here.
Since their arrival in February, the Marines had spent nearly all their time on such sweeps or preparing for them, sometimes hurrying back to their base to grab fresh clothes and then heading off again to cities that hadn't seen American or Iraqi troops in months.
The intense pace of the operations, and the enormous area their regimental combat team had to cover -- an expanse the size of West Virginia -- caught some off guard.
The combat was certainly not what the 21-year-old Williams had expected.
"I didn't ever think we'd get engaged," said the soft-spoken, stocky Marine from Helena, Mont. "I just had the basic view of the American public -- it can't be that bad out there."
In some sweeps, residents warmly greeted the Marines. But in others, such as operations in Haditha and Obeidi near the Syrian border, the squad met gunfire and explosions. In the Obeidi operation in early May, another squad from Lima Company incurred six deaths. Williams himself perhaps saved lives, once spotting a gunman hidden in a mosque courtyard, said Toland, the platoon commander.
The night before the Aug. 3 operation, an uneasy Toland couldn't sleep. Instead, he spent his last night with his squad members talking and joking, trying to suppress worries that the mission was too predictable for an enemy who knew how to watch and learn.
"I had concerns that the operation was hastily planned and executed, with significant risks and little return," Toland said.
The road had been checked by engineers and other units, Marine commanders say. But insurgents had been clever -- hiding the massive bomb under the road's asphalt.