The First American Casualties of our Iraq “Adventure”

The fallen shed fluid we should always hold as immeasurably more precious than oil, writes Michael Daly.

The Sun Herald/AP; Moises Castillo/AP

He was the first man to die for a mistake.

Marine 1st Lt. Therrell Shane Childers became the first American combat casualty of the war in Iraq ten years ago tomorrow, on March 21, 2003, shortly after his unit secured Pumping Station No. 2 at the Rumaila oil fields 20 miles north of the border with Kuwait. A pick-up truck loaded with Iraqi soldiers appeared seemingly out of nowhere and Childers was hit once in the stomach. It was the wartime equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

Childers was 30 years old and the son of a career Navy man. He had wanted to be a Marine since he was five, when he saw the Marine guards at the embassy in Tehran while his father was stationed in Iran. The approaching Islamic revolution caused the family to be evacuated in 1978. His father, Joseph Childers, had been briefly held hostage the following February, in a scenario that would now be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Argo.

The family was living in Mississippi when Therrell Childers enlisted in the Marines at the age of 17. He was subsequently selected an officer training program. He had the distinction of becoming a “mustang,” a Marine enlisted man elevated to officer. He kept rock-hard fit by running, swimming and biking as if in a perpetual triathlon. He often said his dream was to lead a platoon into combat.

After 9/11, Childers would have been more than willing to lead his men in tracking down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He trusted the wisdom of his leaders when they said national security would best be served by sending him into Iraq. He did not stop to ponder whether the Bush administration was just using 9/11 as a pretext to go after Saddam Hussein. He did not wonder aloud at the irony of going into battle against the same army that had been battling the fanatics in Iran who had briefly held his father prisoner.

“We’re ready,” he reportedly wrote in a letter home.

When the order came, Childers’ mission was to secure something that Afghanistan did not have, part of what made Iraq of such interest to the Bush folks: an oil facility. He did so with all his skill and nerve. He was acting in the finest traditions of the Marine Corps when he placed himself at the forefront of danger when the pickup truck began speeding toward them. The bullet struck him just below his body armor, which had apparently hiked up a fatal inch when he raised his own rifle to fire rather than just directing his men to do so.

Among the machinery for pumping what was only oil, the wounded Marine’s heart pumped blood through a torn artery. He had voiced a presentiment before shipping out that he would not be returning, but he still told his fellow Marines that he could not believe he had been shot, before going silent forever.

Just down the pipeline from Pumping Station No. 2, in the port of Umm Qasr, 22-year-old Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez became the second man to die for a mistake. He had begun life as a homeless street orphan in Guatemala, his parents having been killed in the civil war there. He had walked, hitchhiked and hopped freight trains during his 2,000 mile solo journey to America. He had been taken in by a foster family in California, but had not forgotten a sister he had left behind in his native country. He had joined the Marine Corps hoping thereby to become a citizen and bring her to America. He figured he could at the same time get money for college and become an architect.

By all accounts, Gutierrez, too, was a brave and dedicated Marine. Another fine life bled out beside a petroleum facility when he was killed by friendly fire. He became a citizen posthumously.

As he prepared to go into combat, Gutierrez had written to his foster mother. His words now embrace all of the 4,484 other Americans killed in Iraq during the war that began a decade ago—as well as the living Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who remain ready to shed what we should always hold as immeasurably more precious than oil.

“Pray for all of us. Not just me.”