Very few marines in the battalion knew that Mike Halal and Ben Czap were such close friends. From all the needling and name-calling that went on between them, the general assumption was that they hated each otherís guts. It was only in the evenings, when they sat down together on a bulldozed pile of dirt overlooking the Euphrates River, away from all the other marines, that they stopped yanking each otherís chains and started talking about their wives and families, the friends they had seen killed, their doubts, their fears, and what the road ahead might bring. They were on their second tours of Iraq. Halal was 22; Czap was 24. They were as proud and swaggering as any marine, but neither of them felt invincible anymore.

Sitting there one evening, they decided to make a pact. If one of them was killed, the other would look after the family members who were closest to him. For Czap, that was his mother, father, wife, and unborn child. For Halal, it was his mother and his younger sister Jessica. He was married, but his wife was excluded from the pact. Their quarrelsome, almost two-year-old marriage was already over in his mind, broken by arguments about money and questions of character. He had nothing good to say about her and, according to Czap, wanted an immediate divorce if he ever made it back to Phoenix.

Halal and Czap had never heard of anyone else making a pact like this. It required one to become part of the otherís family, visiting and calling regularly, giving practical help and emotional support, forging deep and lasting bonds. One night they decided to make it concrete. ďIf your mom needs to call someone at four in the morning crying, Iím the one she should call,Ē Czap said. ďAbsolutely,Ē Halal said. ďAnd if your mom wants me to move to Wisconsin, Iím there.Ē They told no one about the pact and continued to insult each other in public as usual.

It was late summer 2004. The 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, the 1/8, was in Anbar Province, fighting the insurgency and waiting for the green light to storm Fallujah. Lance Corporal Halal and Lance Corporal Czap were based at Haditha Dam, an 11-story hydroelectric facility that looked like the lair of a James Bond villain—stairwells and ladders everywhere, and huge concrete halls filled with humming machines.

Czap was with Headquarters and Service Company, doing clerical work and processing detainees. Halal was the security head of Combat Train, the platoon that supplies the forward units with food, ammunition, and equipment. He was teaching infantry skills—how to kill and avoid being killed while running missions through Anbar Province, where insurgents might pop up with mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, or improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.ís). Halal was an infantry gunner by training but had recently discovered that he loved to teach and had a real talent for it.