WITH THE U.S. MARINES IN CENTRAL IRAQ - They didn't know the name of the Iraqi soldier they killed, but India Company's machine gun team yesterday replayed again and again the events that led to his death.
How Cpl. Bryson Medlock, the father from Minnesota, spotted the smoke of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher coming from a break in a pile of sandbags.
How Pfc. Benjamin Putnam, the shy evangelical Christian, fed the 7.62 mm rounds into the M-240 Gulf machine gun.
How Pfc. Keith Pelton, a deer hunter from Missouri, aimed and pulled the trigger, unleashing 30 rounds on the target until the Iraqi's gun fell silent.
"It was extreme. It was an adrenaline rush," said 19-year-old Pelton as he stood in his foxhole yesterday searching for ways to describe his first taste of combat in Iraq.
No one in the Marine Corps' 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, could quite put a finger on how best to communicate what it was like to be there early Tuesday when they repelled an ambush by the Iraqi army.
About 40 Iraqis were killed and 30 others taken prisoner during an intense firefight. One Marine was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his vehicle and a second was injured.
The battle lasted 15 minutes. But the Marines agreed that in that short period of time, something had changed for all of them. They had come to war and experienced combat - something many members of the military never experience.
Yesterday, as the Marines took a morning to relax, catch up on sleep and regroup after the fight, nearly everyone in the company had a story to tell or tell again. About the Iraqis crushed underneath the tracks of a Marine assault vehicle. About the accuracy of the Marines' marksmanship. The way the Iraqis then shot up their hands and surrendered.
At times, a few Marines admitted that they realized how much they felt afraid.
Company officers said that for the Marines it was some of the closest fighting since the start of the war and perhaps since the Vietnam War.
Some officers yesterday talked about writing up reports for commendations for members of the company who demonstrated bravery in the firefight.
Lt. Col. Carl Mundy, commander of the Marines 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, choked up, nearly shedding a tear as he remembered watching Marines push over the sand berm where the heavily armed Iraqis were firing on a Marine convoy.
Members of the machine gun company attempted to convey the experience of being in combat to one another.
"It was surreal. Everything slowed down. It was like coming into a room and having 30 people taking pictures of you," recalled Cpl. Medlock, 24, from Minneapolis, as he tried to describe what it was like to see the attack start.
He considers himself very lucky to have survived. So lucky that Medlock wonders if they could be so lucky again in this war.
"I've seen combat. I've done that. Now I want to leave with all my friends and get back for my boy," he said, pointing to an ultrasound of his 4-month-old son that he has carefully taped to the butt of his M-16.
Medlock is concerned about the battles he will likely experience in the days and weeks ahead.
"Now I know these guys are not going to give up. This is their house and we are coming to knock on their door," he said. "It gives me the jitters just thinking about it."
Disturbing, too, was the scene after the end of the firefight, the Marines said. The bodies of Iraqi soldiers littered a long trench beyond the sand berm where Iraqi troops surprised the passing convoy.
They have been trained to see such scenes, they said. But there was nothing like seeing it in person.
"I saw people firing and I thought, `This is war.' I saw the bodies and I though `This is real,'" said Pfc. Putnam, a fresh-faced 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minn.
"I felt compassion for them," he said. But he felt no guilt for his part in the war.
"They have their cause. We have ours. If you look at the Bible you'll see that God has a place in war," he said.
"This," he went on, pointing to the muddy desert landscape that was the center of ancient Mesopotamia where he was in a foxhole, "is a place of the Bible. This is where many wars were fought."
"If all goes well we'll democratize Iraq. Even if we are taking lives, we are saving others," Putnam said. "When we were helping the Iraqi prisoners some of them were smiling. We are not terrible killers."