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Growing up on the front lines

By Art Harris

From left to right: Adam Thornton, Ricardo Vieira and Pablo Garzon, all of the U.S. 2nd Marine Division.

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CNN's Art Harris is accompanying Task Force Tarawa, a reconnaissance unit with the U.S. 2nd Marine Division, and filed this report.

NASIRIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- The troops from the 2nd Marine Division out of Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, saw a lot of fighting, a lot of dying Sunday.

It was the day an Iraqi T-55 tank was spotted. Cpl. Adam Thornton, 20, from Wasilla, Alaska, organized his three-man missile team.

"[The Iraqi tank] was about 350 yards away," he said. He set his missile for "top attack," looked through the hand-held sight. Cross-hairs flashed like some surreal video game, then stopped. He was locked on.

He fired.

The missile plopped out of the tube, dropped, then swooshed off as the rocket motor kicked in. Then came a puff of smoke. "Kill, kill," the chant went up.

Thornton had destroyed the tank with a Javelin missile. "I was pretty excited," he said, a Marine who had earlier considered becoming a fireman or a police officer.

Then he learned that friends with Charlie Company had been ambushed driving into Nasiriya on the six-mile stretch later named "Ambush Alley."

In an instant of hell, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, machine guns opened up on troop carriers full of Marines. One vehicle caught fire.

Another was hit. Friendly fire from a possible A-10 fighter is under investigation as well. At least nine Marines died; several others were wounded; some are still reported missing. (Marines recover bodies of comrades)

It was a telling time: The young, the few, the proud around this still-embattled town are becoming the tough, the sad and the determined.

They are also somewhat confused. "How do you fight an enemy that wears civilian clothes by day, and shoots at you by night?" mused a senior Marine commander.

Along the Euphrates River here, where the lifestyle appears to have changed little since Biblical times, conventional warfare has gone out the window. Marines are finding stashes of mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in fighting holes in the fields.

Locals are patted down for weapons, their identification thoroughly checked. The U.S. troops don't know who to trust, and certainly didn't think the first fight would be so bloody, the aftermath so emotionally brutal.

"We caught one Republican Guard colonel masquerading as an accident victim in an ambulance driven by soldiers disguised as paramedics," said Lt. Col. Rickey Grabowski, commander of the ambushed Marine battalion.

"Our mission was to open and hold two bridges here," said Col. Ron Bailey, commander of Regimental Combat Team 2. The Marines did that in seven hours, but at a price.

"They [Iraqi forces] had everything zeroed in on us," said Ricardo Vieira 22, from West Lafayette, Indiana, who helped pull out bodies of comrades from an armored personnel carrier. "No one made it out of that one track," he said.

His track, what the Marines call the APCs, was also ambushed, but escaped unharmed.

"No one knew what to expect. None of us had seen combat. It was the first time we'd seen anything like that. Bullets were going by. People in civilian clothes were coming out with their hands up, then they'd start shooting at you. And you don't shoot civilians," he said, describing the scene.

Sgt. Deron Taylor, 27, of Bainbridge, Georgia, talked of how training kicked in when the bullets started flying. "We didn't know where it was coming from," he said. "But we're trained to do this and ducked down."

He said morale has survived and that "we'll get the job done. I just think we'll be stuck here awhile."

The youngest of four children born to Montez Battle of Bainbridge, Taylor found little to keep him at home in the small Georgia town and joined the Marines. "There was nothing in Bainbridge for me. I wanted something different," he said.

Taylor's closest call came beyond "Ambush Alley," when the building he was sleeping in got raked with friendly fire from a .50-caliber machine gun.

It was 4:30 a.m. when "someone opened fire on us from the front gate. The next thing we know, .50-caliber rounds are tearing everything up. I sat up, heard the rounds flying, grabbed my gear and saw a hole in the wall where I could have been."

He started praying. "I didn't go to church much growing up, but that's gonna change when I get home."

It's a sentiment echoed by Nick Villegas, 25, of Salinas, California. "It was the most scared I've ever been," he said. "It was totally unexpected. We'd been told the Army had cleared it out the day before, that the town would be secure. It happened so fast."

It was 10:30 a.m. when the Marine unit was ambushed. "Bullets were whizzing by everyone's heads. You could hear them hitting the vehicles," said Villegas.

He jumped off his vehicle and saw "people in the windows firing at us about 100 yards away. I was just hoping I'd do the right thing. I was scared, really scared, and reality kicked in, that this is for real."

While some vehicles were taking hits, Villegas' APC and some others got stuck and spent the day waiting to be towed. "It was like 'Black Hawk Down,'" he said, as locals came out after the firing stopped and milled around.

He wondered if he'd see his daughter again. "She's a year and almost two months. I feel there's a lot of things I'm going to do different when I go back. I got an angry temper, but I'm going to just try to kick it into neutral.

"Anything I've ever said to my family or anyone that hurt them, I'm going to apologize. I'm going to appreciate the little things I've taken for granted. I miss the littlest things," he said.

But he stressed that he felt he was doing the right thing in Iraq.

"The civilians who are really civilians have nothing to do with it and you can see how bad they are hurting," he said. As for the Marines, they keep on keeping on. "We always tell each other 24-7 everyone will be all right, that we've made it this far."

He nodded at the small U.S. flag flying over his temporary quarters outside town. "Just to see it waving up there, I just wish those people we lost could see it, too. They were the good people, who always looked out for the other Marines."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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