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'The worst thing about dying is ... '

By Karl Penhaul

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, correspondents share their experiences in covering news. Karl Penhaul was the pool reporter for U.S. networks covering the fighting in Fallujah when he filed this report.

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Behind the Scenes

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- "Did I tell you about the time when a Marine platoon and me were pinned down by grenade-tossing insurgents in a house in Fallujah?"

That might be the opening line of a tale I'll tell in a bar one day when the change in my pocket won't stretch to the last drink.

I'll speak of the whoosh of RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] bouncing off the walls, the thud of exploding mortars and the rat-a-tat-tat of Kalashnikov assault rifles.

I'll refer soberly to my days on the "frontline" -- a few days in late April and early May -- sleeping on the floor of a family residence occupied by the Marines of Echo Company.

As proof of journalistic courage under fire, I'd explain how I went two weeks without a shower, ate military rations out of a plastic bag and scrambled in the dirt in a flak jacket and helmet jerry-rigging cables and wires to send images of the fight for Fallujah to the world.

But all that would be missing the point. If there's a point at all, perhaps one of the Marines put it most simply: "The worst thing about dying is that it starts out a normal day. Then it's all over."

One day cameraman John Templeton and I sat on the roof of a family home-turned-Marine-outpost on the northwestern edge of Fallujah. Bullets from poorly trained insurgent snipers zipped over our heads as they usually did around dusk. We sat with a group of young Marines. Some still had pimples, most had girlfriend problems, all were waiting for the next parcel from Mom with the promise of beef jerky or their favorite candy. All of us were longing for a cold beer to slake the dusty thirst.

One of them, I seem to remember, was a young lance corporal. That was a normal day. We were just talking BS. Passing the time. That lance corporal is dead now.

It was Monday, April 26. John, photographer Rick Loomis and I set out with a Marine platoon before dawn. The mission was to push out 250 yards from the Marine outpost and occupy two Iraqi family homes where the Marines would set up lookout posts for the rest of the day.

The Marines smashed their way into the two homes and smashed some more to make sniper holes. The trappings of daily civilian life lay discarded, a sign that the owners had made a hasty exit several days earlier -- family photos in a glass cabinet, a baby's shoes, talcum powder. A small-denomination bill worth about 25 cents lay on the sideboard.

For the first few hours, it was all quiet. It seemed like just another normal day.

Then the volume of automatic weapons fire cranked up. RPGs flashed as they exploded against windows manned by those young Marines. They blasted away as they spotted what they said were insurgents running up and tossing hand grenades underarm into the building.

The first five or 10 minutes are unsettling, frightening too, maybe, if there was enough time for fear. Then slow-motion focus. Gathering up my scarf and water bottle and arranging it neatly in my day sack initially seemed more important than pointing a video camera.

Then screaming Marines, dripping with blood, were dragged from one room into another or pulled in off the rooftop. From that platoon of some 55 men, one -- that lance corporal -- was killed and I believe at least 14 others were wounded. I think one lost a thumb; he was lucky not to lose his arm. Another nearly lost his eye.

The chances of getting out from those buildings unscathed that day were less than four to one -- odds too short to make it a worthwhile bet even if it was just a horse race.

We couldn't show the victims giving their blood on TV because their families were still unwittingly sleeping 6,000 miles away in the United States. Military officials had not yet told a mother she'd been robbed of the chance to hold her son's hand as he lay dying in a dusty Iraqi alleyway.

There were many tales of bravery that day. The machine gunner who lay in the street throughout the gunbattle, pumping out lead until the barrel of his weapon melted. The medics who raced through a wall of fire to drag the injured to safety.

And the young lance corporal who, I was told later, told his mates to pull back from their positions while he manned his machine gun providing covering fire ... until an insurgent bullet skipped over the top of his flak jacket and pierced his neck.

Sometime soon Americans may forget the name Fallujah. The neighbors may stop calling round so often to visit the grieving and I'll probably be scrabbling around in the dirt somewhere else trying to file a report under what editors call "difficult conditions."

I wonder whether the lance corporal's mom will look down at that patch of damp earth where her son now lays and find a point to that chaotic death in a Fallujah alleyway.

Or whether she'll just agree with the matter-of-fact comment that a Marine made that spring day in Fallujah: "The worst thing about dying is that it starts out a normal day. Then it's all over."

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