TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. – As his new bride, Amanda, and her friends chuckle at stories over dinner, Jack Self stares in silence. He doesn't laugh much anymore.
He has spent half of the last two years patrolling the cities of Iraq, dodging sniper fire and roadside bombs, and watching friends die. The 26-year-old Marine (search) corporal no longer sees the humor in everyday life.
"You forget how to have fun," he said softly, when I saw him for the first time since we shared a Humvee during the invasion of Iraq two years ago.
With bullets whistling overhead, Jack and I quickly bonded then amid the chaos of war.
We were confused together and nervous together. I watched as he fired grenade after grenade from his Mark 19 machine gun. He once exploded in anger at me — but really at himself — over one deadly trigger pull he has never forgotten.
Listening to Jack now, in a different Humvee (search) at a Marine base in California's Mojave desert, it quickly becomes clear that the invasion we thought was chaotic and dangerous was nothing compared to what was to come.
That first deployment Jack now calls "Disneyland." His second stint in Iraq, fighting the deadly, amorphous Sunni (search) insurgency — that was "Vietnam."
Enemy fire thumped the windshield of his armored Humvee on one day, his door on another. He returned from a patrol to find his bulletproof vest pocked with shrapnel. The front of his vehicle crumpled when it ran over a mine.
Officially, the mission of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines was to help stabilize the country, train Iraqi troops and lay the groundwork for democracy.
"My mission," Jack said, "was to keep my guys alive, and kill them before they got us."
Jack knows he's changed, but it is hard to tell how. Amanda tells him he is more serious than he used to be, perhaps more aggressive.
He has tried to shield her from details of his experience, but now another trial looms.
The 3/7 Marines are heading back to Iraq.
When I first climbed into his Humvee in the Iraqi desert two years ago, a few days into the invasion, Jack adopted his most intimidating pose. The 6-foot-2-inch former college linebacker reveled in the image of the tough-guy Marine.
As a gunner in 3/7's Weapons Company, he prided himself on his restraint in shooting, but once he decided to pull the trigger he wouldn't let go until his target was obliterated.
But Jack was far more complex than his image. He showed himself a sensitive and complex man, who, while never wavering from his mission, was deeply reflective about the violence around him.
As the Marine column moved north toward Baghdad (search), he quickly warmed to the Iraqis he met. Many were farmers and reminded the self-described "farm boy" of the people he knew back home in Arkansas.
His empathy and his sense of mission collided on April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell.
As the Marines lined up on the side of a major road preparing for a final push into the city, they waved civilian cars off the road. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby, and the Marines were on alert.
One car did not stop.
The Marines frantically waved it back, but it glided past a line of civilian cars that had already heeded the warning. The Marines screamed. Now dangerously close, the car flashed its headlights and continued.
Jack, perched behind his gun on top of the Humvee, squeezed the trigger. Seven grenades tore through its windshield, and the car exploded in flames.
The Marines watched in silence, waiting in vain for the fire to detonate any explosives or ammunition inside the car.
The three people in the car were almost definitely civilians, and they were dead.
Still behind the gun, Jack looked down at me, and let out an angry, defensive yell: "Yeah, I'm a monster!"
That night, after the Marines took up positions in Baghdad, Jack was faced with another driver racing toward him — a motorcyclist approaching a makeshift Marine checkpoint.
The rider stopped just a few feet away when the Marines raised their rifles. They yelled at him to turn around. But he was paralyzed in fear and confusion. An instant before the Marines seemed ready to shoot, Jack pulled out his pistol and fired into the pavement in front of the bike. The man yelped, spun around and drove off.
"I knew if I didn't get rid of him, he was going to get killed," Jack later said.
An hour later, a ramshackle truck rolled up, not stopping fast enough. A Marine lifted his rifle and took aim. Jack looked at the Marine and at the frightened driver and yelled: "He's pumping his brakes." Again, no shot was fired.
"If I don't have to kill another man, that's fine with me," Jack said later.
But he did kill again. And he is still haunted by the image of the burning sedan, and the thought of the other victims of his gun.
"That's something I think about: If I'll see the faces of every person I killed," he said.
Back home now, Jack is trying to cope with the scars of war.
In a sleepy daze, he leapt out of bed when he mistook the red light on a hotel smoke detector for a tracer round. Amanda told him he coordinates troop movements and calls out grid positions in his sleep.
The first time he returned to an American shopping mall, he was unnerved by the wide open spaces and by the numerous places snipers could hide. "You don't have security to your rear, to your flanks," he said.
He turned and hurried out.
Jack speaks fondly of his first Iraq deployment in the spring of 2003, after I left his unit and before the insurgency exploded.
The Marines first policed the placid streets of the Shiite holy city of Karbala. When the 3/7 moved to Mahmoudiya, they encountered their first makeshift roadside bomb, but the level of violence remained relatively low through September 2003, when they went home.
Jack was especially excited to return to the States. He had met Amanda in a sort of blind phone date arranged by a fellow Marine. Soon after he got home, they began seriously dating.
In February 2004, he returned to Iraq.
The Marines of the 3/7 talk of their two deployments as if they were two different wars.
The first was a mission of liberation.
The second was an apocalyptic nightmare.
On the Marines' first patrol in Anbar Province (search), the heart of the Sunni insurgency, a roadside bomb intended for the troops killed two Iraqi children instead, Jack said.
"Every single day this time we encountered something," he said.
The bombs quickly grew more elaborate and deadly. Soon, the bombers were joined by snipers. The violence could come from anywhere. Jack's unit began praying before each patrol.
Killing had become far less of a concern for Jack than being killed.
He saw nine comrades killed. Many others were badly injured.
"I don't know what's worse, a guy that's dead or a guy with his arm and half his face blown off. He's only got one eye and he's crying out of his one eye and he's patting his arm looking for it," he said.
One Marine he knew was laying concertina wire when he suddenly fell over dead. A single sniper's bullet had pierced his heart.
Once, a Marine was shot and vomiting. The medic couldn't bring himself to do CPR, so Jack did. The Marine died anyway. "I can still smell it. I can still see his eyes and know he's dead," he said.
One morning Jack and his radio operator were playing cards. Hours later his spades partner was dead.
On a mission searching for bombs, Jack's vehicle cruised past an elaborate explosive device that ripped through the next Humvee. Jack and a medic found the vehicle soaked with blood and carnage. Three Marines died.
"That was the worst thing I've ever seen," Jack said.
As a leader in his platoon, Jack felt he had to remain calm for his men. One day when a friend was killed, he went behind his Humvee and let himself lose control for a moment.
Then, he said, "I dried my eyes, wiped my nose and went back to work."
At a shooting range in the Mojave Desert at the Twentynine Palms Marine base in California, Jack found himself navigating the parallel paths of his future — planning his new life with Amanda and preparing for a third deployment in Iraq.
He gruffly led new recruits through live-fire drills, teaching them how to clear buildings in urban areas, shoot insurgents and fire heavy machine guns.
In stolen moments, Jack made last-minute preparations for his April 23 wedding, sneaking behind a Humvee when Amanda called on his cell phone.
He was a little nervous about the merger of his two worlds and was concerned about life after the war, the effects the violence has already had on him and the hidden scars.
But he and the Marines were also focused on their next assignment and wondered what new dangers await them in Iraq.
During the invasion, Jack was cavalier about his mortality. He even talked about getting killed.
"I have a father and brother back home and a mother and sister in heaven. It doesn't matter to me who I see," he said with a bravado I didn't really believe.
Now Jack has Amanda and his dreams of their future together. He has already sent out applications to fire departments in Texas, looking for a job for after he leaves the Marines early next year.
He just has one more nightmare to confront first. The 3/7 is scheduled to return to Iraq in September.