With a patrol outside the wire, Patrol Base Dakota ran on a skeleton crew: a Marine in each guard post and a team leader manning the Combat Operations Center—a small desk in one of the mud-walled dirt-floored rooms—to relay messages between the patrol and higher-ups. Today the job fell to Lance Corporal Ryan Moore, at nineteen the youngest of the three team leaders in Sgt. Tom Whorl's third squad.
Ryan had grown up in Navarre, a town of maybe fifteen hundred in eastern Ohio, moved out at sixteen, and spent his high school years lifting weights, repairing cars, and smoking weed. In the Marine Corps he found his groove. He listened and he worked harder than others, and when he arrived at Camp Lejeune after boot camp and infantry training, Tom noticed and soon put him in charge of three other Marines. Ryan would rather have been outside the wire on this day leading his men through the farmland and villages of southern Afghanistan and trying to kill Taliban, but he knew the importance of his role back at Dakota, should the patrol find trouble.
Before the Marines walked out of the patrol base that morning, Ryan had hugged Corporal Ian Muller. They’d had enough close calls and heard enough terrible stories to know that life out here was utterly unpredictable. Many of the Marines made a point of telling their friends how much they cared about them.
“I love you,” Ryan said.
“I love you, too,” Ian told him.
From Ian’s first weekend at Camp Lejeune, five months before the deployment, Ryan drew him into his group of friends, and they spent much of their free time together, watching movies in the barracks or hitting the Jacksonville bars. Five-cent Pabst Blue Ribbon at Gus’ on Wednesdays. The mechanical bull on Fridays. All of which suited Ian. As he was always telling his friends, “Live each day like it’s your last.”
Where Ryan could be reserved, Ian was class-clown loud, all smile and uncontained energy, like at Sergeant Clift’s platoon party before they left for Afghanistan, when he ran around the house in an orange wig, slugging Jägermeister. After he’d passed out in a recliner, Ryan and the other guys posed with him for pictures.
Though Ian had been trained as an infantryman, he’d spent his first three years in the Corps with the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, a sort of Marine SWAT team. When he arrived at Lejeune, he was new to the role of infantry team leader, like Ryan. They traded knowledge and learned together, then taught classes for the rest of the squad on everything from the use and maintenance of machine guns to calling for medevac helicopters over the radio. They peppered Tom with questions about his job as squad leader so they’d know exactly what to do if they had to step up.
They regarded their roles as young leaders with something close to sacred respect. Ryan tried to set an example for his men and could often be seen picking up trash around Dakota or fixing a broken piece of equipment—not because Tom had told him to, but because it was the right thing to do. “If I know what needs to be done every day, I’m not even going to make him waste his breath by coming over to tell me,” he says. “I’m going to make sure me and my guys already have it done.” Likewise, when one of Ian’s men had been caught sitting in his sleeping bag during a cold night on guard, Tom left it to Ian to decide the punishment. They filled a hundred sandbags for perimeter defenses—as a team, Ian included, because they were responsible for one another, and an individual lapse in judgment could affect them all.
At Dakota, Ryan and Ian still spent much of their free time together, watching movies or lifting weights. They worked out every day at Dakota’s outdoor gym, an elaborate collection of homemade equipment built from plywood and two-by-fours, with sandbags, metal stakes, and spools of concertina wire as weights. Ryan figured they might get in a good late-afternoon workout when Ian returned from the day's patrol.
The Marines had been out for several hours, and Ryan knew they’d be back soon. He tried to call for their current location over the radio, but transmissions could be spotty inside the building, so he climbed atop the generator in the courtyard. From there he could see over Dakota’s eight-foot-high mud walls and send an unbroken line-of-sight radio message. As he raised the radio to his mouth, a bomb exploded near a string of trees a couple hundred yards north, just where he figured the Marines would be. He saw an eruption of dirt, like a mini-volcano, that threw debris fifty feet into the field along the road, and a second later the sound reached him, a deep crunch and rumble.
He radioed for a situation report, and after a long moment Staff Sergeant James Malachowski’s voice responded, calm and deliberate, with a medevac request.
“Muller’s hit,” he said. “Heavy lacerations, arterial bleeding, left leg and left arm.”
And then Ryan understood. That wasn’t debris arcing over the trees and into the field. That was Ian.
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