Full-scale offensives like Fallujah inevitably exact a psychic toll. Yet the punishing strain of fighting a hydra-headed insurgency afflicts U.S. troops even on what passes for a normal day in Iraq. Sergeant Justin Harding of the Ramadi-based 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, can't get one of those October days out of his head. His squad, Reaper 2 of Whiskey Company, was heading back to base along one of Iraq's most dangerous roads. The squad's convoy, towing a vehicle disabled by a roadside bomb, was running at slow speed, making it vulnerable to ambush. Sure enough, an insurgent with a rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) launcher, Harding recalls, "suddenly appeared, whirled around and pointed the RPG. And all hell broke loose." The grenade pierced the window of the armored humvee on the driver's side, engulfing the occupants in smoke, blood and shrapnel. Harding yelled at the driver, Lance Corporal Andrew Halverson, one day shy of his 20th birthday, to control the spinning vehicle. Then Harding looked over at him. "I saw his body. It wasn't normal. I instantly knew he was dead." The gunner, protected by a turret, was hit below the waist but still alive. The Marine in the seat behind Halverson was dazed, his legs on fire. But he managed to smother the flames and grab the steering wheel, bringing the battered vehicle to rest. "He was shaking and crying, just in shock," Harding says. "Bullets were flying everywhere." Harding quickly thrust the dead Marine into a body bag. "I didn't want the other Marines to see him because it would really freak everybody out," he says. "At the time, none of it fazed me. I was just doing what I had to do."
Yet once Harding returned to base, he had trouble sleeping. His mind replayed the gruesome scene over and over. He suffered changes of mood and was beset by anxiety about why the incident had happened. He went out on patrol the next day carrying with him classic symptoms of combat stress: the emotional, physical and psychological fallout from living through--or under the extended threat of--traumatic events. Said company commander Captain Patrick Rapicault, "You have to get over your feelings and keep on pushing, just for the simple reason that you have another 170 Marines to take care of and make sure they come back."
These days, stress is a given in Iraq for locals and foreigners working in just about any capacity. Combat troops no doubt feel it most acutely. Day after day in the hit-and-run, chase-and-hide rhythm that has defined most of the fighting over the past 20 months, front-line forces are confronting the bulk of the horrors. So far, more than 1,200 have died and at least 8,400 have sustained physical injuries. That does not count the 1 in 5 who, according to a recent study, are suffering what the military calls "stress injury."