Monday, November 15, 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Capt. Sean Sims had little time for formality. He liked to be at the front with his men, but fought with cautious deliberation.

Last Monday, the 32-year-old Texan commanding officer of Alpha company had led his men into Fallujah from the turret of his Bradley fighting vehicle. By Saturday, he had a thick stubble and his face was streaked with dirt.

Minutes after talking to a reporter, he walked casually into an apparently abandoned house in the south of the city with two soldiers and was suddenly confronted with a room full of armed men.

A hail of bullets rang out and the two soldiers retreated, both hit in the shoulder. The body of Capt. Sims lay on the kitchen floor, blood seeping from his head.

Staff Sgt. Colin Fitts, a combat-hardened NCO, called his men together.

“The CO is dead,” he rasped, “and I’ll tell you why. They were just a gaggle walking into some house. They weren’t clearing the building properly before going in.

“We were doing that, and that’s why we’re living. Do not let your guard down here, or you’ll be the next one dead.”

The previous day, Capt. Sims, whose wife had just given birth to their son, had lost his executive officer, 1st Lt. Edward D. Iwan, 28, when he was hit in the abdomen with a rocket-propelled grenade. “All of this will be forever tainted because we lost him,” Capt. Sims had said.

No one could speak about Capt. Sims in the past tense.

“Sean is Sean,” said Lt. Col. Pete Newell. “He’s pretty stoic. I asked him how he was doing after Lt. Iwan was killed and he said, ‘It hurts. We’ll deal with it when we get back.’”

Sitting in a building strewn with rubble and with a large hole in the ceiling from an artillery shell, soldiers from the 3rd Platoon reflected on their losses. Sgt. Maj. Steve Faulkenberg, Task Force 2-2’s senior noncommissioned officer, had been killed by a sniper’s bullet.

“He was the real deal,” said Staff Sgt. David Bellavia. “There wasn’t one fight we had when I didn’t see him there, spitting Red Man [chewing tobacco] through his stained teeth.”

Lt. Joaquin Meno, the platoon leader, said: “Lt. Iwan had a lot of plans. He had just got back from Australia.”

But the atmosphere was far from maudlin. They had gone into battle and survived.

“The 1st Infantry Division has a proud heritage,” Sgt. Fitts said. Like past conflicts, not everyone was going back home. “It’s a cruel world and it’s war,” he said.

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