The word spread quickly among the families and friends of Alpha Co., 1st Battalion,
5th Marine Regiment.
Mortenson and Cannan were dead. And a lot of strong men were crying.
Lance Cpl. Marty G. Mortenson and Cpl. Kelly M. "Matt" Cannan were killed in Ramadi,
Iraq, on April 20, in an all-too-familiar way. They were riding in Humvees, on a mission to try to catch some terrorists
who reportedly were meeting in a local cafe, when an I.E.D. - an "improvised explosive device," or roadside bomb - was detonated
beside their vehicle. Cannan died instantly. Mortenson, unconscious and gravely injured in the head, died later
Mortenson was 22 years old. Cannan was 21. Both were on their third combat
tour in Iraq. They were the first Alpha Company Marines to die since the 1/5 went back to Iraq in late February.
I knew Mortenson and Cannan. They were among the Camp Pendleton-based Marines
of the 1/5 that I was embedded with during the march to Baghdad in 2003, and again during occupation duty in the Sunni Triangle
last year. They weren't among my closest Marine friends, but I'd bounced around on patrols in Humvees with them, ate
MREs with them, slept on the bare ground with them - and I was there when they left Camp Pendleton two months ago, still young
and alive and full of hope. They were good Marines, and good kids.
Cannan's buddies nicknamed him "Ice Cold" because of his cool, watchful demeanor.
He had a sister, but not much else of a family. Although he came from a small town in upstate New York, he was a huge
Miami Dolphins fan.
Mortenson was known as "Mad Dog," because whenever the Marines had to hump some gear
Mortenson always volunteered to carry more than anybody else. A quiet, reserved kid, he came from a close-knit Christian
family in Flagstaff, Ariz. He was the best friend of Lance Cpl. Eric Young of Orange, whom I often mentioned in reports
from Iraq and who is also on his third tour over there.
Eric was in the same convoy when it got hit, and when he felt the explosion, and
he heard over the radio that there were two casualties, and he saw the Navy corpsmen working on them in the back of a bloody
Humvee, he started thinking, "That better not be Marty. Please don't let it be Marty." But it was.
That's a common reaction also among families and friends of servicemen and servicewomen
in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you hear there's been a death, you hope and pray that it's not someone you love or someone
you know - and then you feel bad about it because when you're hoping for your loved one or friend to be alive, it means you're
hoping that someone else is dead. It's a terrible feeling, but you're human, and so you hope for it anyway.
There was a lot of grief over the deaths of Cannan and Mortenson - among their families,
certainly, but also among their friends. After the word went out, my closest Marine friend, who had been with Mortenson
and Cannan twice in Iraq but is now stationed stateside, called me to talk about it.
My friend is the toughest and bravest man I've ever known. And he was crying.
They were crying in Iraq, too. I heard about the corpsmen crying because they
couldn't save Cannan or Mortenson, and about their Marine buddies standing around, some with blood still on them, hugging
each other and sobbing, and about a young lieutenant I know, another brave, tough guy, breaking down in tears back at the
base that night. They were all "crying like babies," someone said.
But no, they weren't crying like babies. They were crying like men.
And if there's anything good to be found in those tears, maybe it's this. In
some wars and battles past, there was so much dying, so many men being killed, that some of their comrades found it impossible
to shed tears over them. Death was so commonplace that if they started crying they never would have been able to stop
- and so too often they forced themselves to suppress it, to simply move on.
But it's not that way in Iraq. As sad as the casualty figures are, they remain
statistically rare enough that each of the dead can be individually mourned, and wept over.
Maybe it's not much of a consolation. But in Iraq, and here at home, strong
men are still able to cry.
And let's hope they always will be.