In the first days of the Marine offensive on Fallouja in November 2004, Lance Cpl. George J. Payton of the 3-5 Marines wondered why his unit wasn't getting any action. The next day the unit was in a firefight and he told me he suddenly realized that in war, you could go from boredom to action in a flash.
He said it sheepishly, almost embarrassed that he had revealed himself to be so new to all-out urban warfare.
Payton, a 20-year-old from Culver City, was unfailingly polite, laughed easily and joked once about the possibility that Tupac Shakur wasn't dead and was actually lying low in Fallouja.
On Nov. 14, Payton was clearing a house and pivoted into one of its rooms. A fighter hiding inside fired a bullet in his leg and lobbed a grenade. Payton fell in the doorway, bleeding, and his buddy Lance Cpl. Kip Yeager dragged him out. A medic wrapped a tourniquet around Payton's leg and they evacuated him.
His company thought Payton would make it, and the young Marines congratulated one another. They thought they had something to be happy about after a week of grim bloodshed.
I still remember how sure they were that they had saved their friend's life. Only later would they learn they were wrong. Payton died during surgery at a military hospital.
Last year, I saw his old platoon commander, who carried Payton's picture in his wallet, along with photos of the others in his unit who died in Fallouja. He glanced at the photos for a second and then put them away.