The Marlboro Marine

This is the photo that made Marine Lance Cpl. Miller -- the "Marlboro Marine" -- famous. Video (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / March 18, 2013)

The young marine lighted a cigarette and let it dangle. White smoke wafted around his helmet. His face was smeared with war paint. Blood trickled from his right ear and the bridge of his nose.

Momentarily deafened by cannon blasts, he didn't know the shooting had stopped. He stared at the sunrise.

His expression caught my eye. To me, it said: terrified, exhausted and glad just to be alive. I recognized that look because that's how I felt too.

I raised my camera and snapped a few shots.

With the click of a shutter, Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, a country boy from Kentucky, became an emblem of the war in Iraq. The resulting image would change two lives -- his and mine.

I was embedded with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, as it entered Fallouja, an insurgent stronghold in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, on Nov. 8, 2004. We encountered heavy fire almost immediately. We were pinned down all night at a traffic circle, where a 6-inch curb offered the only protection.

I hunkered down in the gutter that endless night, praying for daylight, trying hard to make myself small. A cold rain came down. I cursed the Marines' illumination flares that wafted slowly earthward, making us wait an eternity for darkness to return.

At dawn, the gunfire and explosions subsided. A white phosphorus artillery round burst overhead, showering blazing-hot tendrils. We came across three insurgents lying in the street, two of them dead, their blood mixing with rainwater.

The third, a wiry Arab youth, tried to mouth a few words. All I could think was: "Buddy, you're already dead."

We rounded a corner and again came under heavy fire, forcing us to scramble for cover. I ran behind a Marine as we crossed the street, the bullets ricocheting at our feet.

Gunfire poured down, and it seemed incredible that no one was hit. A pair of tanks rumbled down the road to shield us. The Marines kicked open the door of a house, and we all piled in.

Miller and other Marines took positions on the rooftop; I set up my satellite phone to transmit photos. But as I worked downstairs in the kitchen, a deep rumble almost blew the room apart.

Two cannon rounds had slammed into a nearby house. Miller, the platoon's radioman, had called in the tanks, pinpointed the targets and shouted "Fire!"

I ran to the roof and saw smoldering ruins across a large vacant lot. Beneath a heap of bricks, men lay dead or dying. I sat down and collected my wits. Miller propped himself against a wall and lighted his cigarette. I transmitted the picture that night. Power in Fallouja had been cut in advance of the assault, forcing me to be judicious with my batteries. I considered not even sending Miller's picture, thinking my editors would prefer images of fierce combat.

The photo of Miller was the last of 11 that I sent that day.

On the second day of the battle, I called my wife by satellite phone to tell her I was OK. She told me my photo had ended up on the front page of more than 150 newspapers. Dan Rather had gushed over it on the evening news. Friends and family had called her to say they had seen the photo -- my photo.

Soon, my editors called and asked me to find the "Marlboro Marine" for a follow-up story. Who was this brave young hero? Women wanted to marry him. Mothers wanted to know whether he was their son.

I didn't even know his name. Shell-shocked and exhausted, I had simply identified Miller as "A Marine" and clicked "send."

I found Miller four days later in an auditorium after a dangerous dash across an open parade ground in the city's civic center. Miller's unit was taking a break, eating military rations.