On the night before 2nd Lieutenant JP Blecksmith shipped out to Iraq, after his family took him out for dinner in Newport Beach, California, his older brother, Alex, picked up a pair of clippers and shaved JP’s head. When that was done and JP looked ready for combat, Alex gave his brother a hug. Then Alex climbed into JP’s green Ford Expedition and drove it north, back to the family’s house in San Marino, weeping part of the way. He had a feeling. So did his parents. A premonition. They didn’t talk about it much, but two months later, in November 2004, when JP joined a wave of U.S. Marines roaring into the city of Fallujah as part of Operation Phantom Fury, the feeling intensified.

On the night of November 10, Blecksmith and his closest friend in Iraq, Lieutenant Sven Jensen, slept on a rooftop in Fallujah. It was, miraculously, a quiet night, and chilly. They got a decent night’s sleep. They awoke just before sunrise and were amused to find a small pet bird with green wings and a yellow belly perched a couple of feet away from their faces. Jensen took a picture of the bird. There were other ones like it all over Iraq, because when U.S. troops were searching abandoned houses, they often found cages that had been left behind. The soldiers let the birds go free so they wouldn’t starve to death.

Hours before, JP had sent a letter to his girlfriend, addressing it formally, as always, to “Ms. Emily M. Tait.” In it he wrote, “By the time you receive this, you will know we have gone into the city. We’ve been preparing for it the last few days, and my guys are ready for the fight, and I’m ready to lead them. It’ll be hectic, and there will be some things out of my control, but the promise of you waiting at home for me is inspiring and a relief.” Now he was in the thick of it. Blecksmith and Jensen came down from the roof, ate their MREs for breakfast, and got their orders. Before the invasion the battalion commander, Colonel Patrick Malay, had given his men an analogy: “‘Imagine a dirty, filthy windowpane that has not been cleaned in hundreds of years,’” he recalls saying. “That’s how we looked at the city of Fallujah. Our job was to scrub the heck out of that city, and then take a squeegee and wipe it off so that it was clean and pure.” Most of Fallujah was empty, and anyone left in the city was presumed to be an insurgent.

Blecksmith and the other members of the India Company of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines Regiment, moved south through the city, with their blood types scrawled in indelible marker on the sleeves of their uniforms. The streets smelled terrible—a stubborn aroma of rotting food and bodies. Late in the day on November 11, things started to go wrong. A marine in Blecksmith’s platoon, Klayton South, was shot in the mouth by an insurgent when he kicked open the door of a house. Blood gushed from his mangled teeth and tongue. The medics cut into South’s throat to give him an emergency tracheotomy. (He survived. He’s since had more than 40 operations to repair the damage.) “It shook the platoon up,” Jensen says now, “and JP was the most in-control person I saw. He had a sector to clear, so he rallied his guys and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to continue clearing.’” Blecksmith’s and Jensen’s platoons moved off in different directions, and the two friends shot each other a glance. “I’ll never forget looking at his eyes the last time I saw him,” Jensen says. “He turned and he gave me almost an apprehensive look, like, Oh, shit, we’ve got some shit going on. I wanted to say ‘Hey, I’ll see you later.’ But I didn’t say anything to him.”