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 other’s 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 other’s 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 other’s family, visiting and calling regularly, giving practical help and emotional support, forging deep and lasting bonds. One night they decided to make it concrete. “If your mom needs to call someone at four in the morning crying, I’m the one she should call,“ Czap said. “Absolutely,“ Halal said. “And if your mom wants me to move to Wisconsin, I’m there.“ 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.’s). Halal was an infantry gunner by training but had recently discovered that he loved to teach and had a real talent for it.
Halal had always wanted to be a marine. But when he finally reached his 17th birthday and went to sign up, the recruiter told him to get his high-school diploma and finish paying restitution to the store owner whose beer he had robbed. It took him a year to complete those tasks, and his father, Ken Halal, a competitive cyclist and software engineer, was amazed that he stuck it out. “It was the first thing I saw Mike do that he didn’t quit. He was angry, headstrong, unfocused, and just extremely rebellious all the way through the teenage years, always in some kind of trouble,“ his father says.
Fighting, underage drinking, smoking pot, grabbing cases of beer from convenience stores and running out the door, hanging around the fringes of the Phoenix gangs, running from the police—none of his crimes were that serious, but Halal had a knack for getting caught. He spent time in juvenile hall, and 30 days in county. His father had been vehemently antiwar since Vietnam, but he desperately hoped the Marines would give Halal the discipline and focus he needed.
He made it through boot camp with only one hiccup. Two weeks before graduation, he was caught stealing food from the chow hall. His punishment was to do the last four weeks again. His mother, father, stepmother, siblings, step-siblings, and girlfriend Kyle all drove out to San Diego in a rented van for Halal’s graduation. They were astounded at the transformation, at his new, hard-won pride, self-control, and maturity. They thanked God, the Marine Corps, and each other. All their work and patience, it seemed, had paid off.
Three months later Halal turned up awol in Phoenix. It was Kyle—sweet, sexy little Kyle. Halal was crazy about her. Even though he had taken a leave of absence to go to her prom, she had dumped him. “He couldn’t face going back to the Marines, because he was ashamed of how torn up he felt,“ remembers his mother, Jacqueline Mikkelson.
He got a job at an auto shop, moved into a house with some friends, and licked his wounds. He warned his parents that the Marine Corps might come looking for him, but it never did. So he drifted, aimless and disconsolate, through June, July, August, and the first 10 days of September 2001.
On the 11th day, Halal watched the planes slam into the towers and the Pentagon and knew what he had to do. He called his mother and told her he was going back to the Marines. A few days later, she drove him down to the Marine Corps office in Phoenix. Halal knew he would be court-martialed and he was, and sent to the brig for 30 days, demoted, and docked pay. According to his mother, after the 30 days he was offered an honorable discharge. He refused.
Back at his base, Camp Lejeune, Halal’s conduct was exemplary. He turned himself into an expert marksman and became involved with a local church, teaching troubled youth. Then came his first tour of Iraq, in 2003. He was excited, impatient, gung-ho. He spent most of that tour on the USS Carter Hall, working with the ship’s computers and stacking supplies. He finally saw some combat as Baghdad was falling. He would later tell his father he had seen things that nobody should ever see, and refuse to say more.
When Halal and Czap first met, at Camp Lejeune in April 2004, they bristled at each other like two alpha dogs. They were both training junior enlisted marines, and both were fiercely competitive.
Halal was five eleven, stocky, and strong, with a big head and a broad, solid jaw. Czap was leaner, faster, more athletic. They never got into a full-blown fight, but they did see who could punch harder. Czap tensed up his abs and Halal swung. Czap felt it in his spine. He choked back the tears and managed to croak, “Is that all you got, bitch?“ Halal wound up for another one and Czap said, “No, asshole. It’s my turn now.“
The night before they left for Iraq on their second tours, they got into an eating contest at Ducks, a wings-and-beer joint near the base. Czap won handsomely, beating his previous record of 50 wings and setting a new one of 86. Naturally, Halal called him a pussy for not making it to 100.
Halal didn’t want to go back to Iraq. He had told his parents he was worried about getting killed and planning to leave the Marine Corps when his enlistment was up, but he found it easy to push all that to the back of his mind when they got on the plane. Czap was sitting next to him. They told each other it was going to be a new kind of war that would bring out the best in them.
A few weeks after their arrival, the battalion was sent to Fallujah and the surrounding area to put on a show of force. They found some weapons and bomb-making facilities, and sustained their first casualty. On July 20, a good friend of Halal’s and Czap’s, Corporal Todd Godwin, was killed when an I.E.D. went off near his Humvee. “Guess what?“ Halal said to Czap, having seen the body come in. “This shit is real.“
The next day the temperature reached 147 degrees in the sun. There was no shade. Halal and Czap, with some other marines and Iraqi Army soldiers, swept the area where Godwin had been killed, looking for I.E.D. triggermen. They were drinking a liter of water an hour, tramping around in irrigated fields with 60-pound packs on their backs, wearing flak jackets and helmets, and carrying rifles and ammunition. Everyone came in for breaks except Halal and Czap, who were engaged in a private endurance contest. After six hours, having drunk all his water, Czap finally came in and sat in the shade of a Humvee. Thirty seconds later Halal appeared, saying “What’s the matter, pussy? Can’t stay out as long as me?“
Their friend Sergeant Lord was next, killed by an I.E.D. not far from the dam. Halal had to clean out the Humvee. Then a lance corporal got his leg blown off. Then Lance Corporal Powers was killed by a sniper while on guard duty. Halal and Czap would talk about it on the pile of dirt, and sometimes a tear would get away from them.
They were bored and frustrated. There were six battalions of marines and Army soldiers waiting to take down Fallujah, and the politicians and generals kept changing their minds and holding them back. Halal had started going out on Combat Train missions at night, partly to see how his trainees were doing, partly because he was restless. On September 13, they had a routine mission to deliver a bulldozer to an ammunition supply post. Halal woke up that morning with a bad feeling about it. He told his sergeant, who assured him it would be fine. He told Czap, who told him to quit complaining and get his head back in the game.
The Combat Train convoy left the dam at 2100 hours, picked up the bulldozer, and delivered it safely. On the way back, traveling with lights out and wearing night-vision goggles, one of the drivers missed a slight turn in the road, overcorrected, and flipped his Humvee over an embankment. Halal was in the passenger seat. He was thrown to the left and died that night of a crushed trachea. Cesar Machado-Olmos, 20, of Spanish Fork, Utah, was also killed, and five other marines injured.
Czap read the eulogy on Haditha Dam. Afterward, marines kept coming up to him and saying “But I thought you guys hated each other.“ No one knew what to say about the way Halal died. After all his training, and everything he had gone through, it seemed so stupid and pointless. It was Czap’s firm opinion that a guy like Halal should have gone out in a blaze of glory, but war doesn’t always work that way. Lance Corporal Michael J. Halal was one of 58 U.S. military personnel killed in noncombat vehicle accidents in 2004, and one of 206 in the war as of early October last year.
Ben Czap came home after Fallujah. Sixteen more marines he knew were killed there. He’d volunteered to sort through the blood-soaked, bullet-ridden gear of the dead and wounded as it came back. He returned to Wisconsin with his wife and four-month-old daughter and got a job at a manufacturing company. The transition to civilian life was overwhelming. He had nightmares and found it hard to be in public without losing his temper and starting a fight.
When he first got home, he would have long telephone conversations with Mike Halal’s mother three or four nights a week, honoring the pact, helping her through her grief and dealing with his own. He still calls her once a week and is in close communication with Halal’s sister Jessica, too. He has visited Phoenix and plans to return so that the three of them can visit Halal’s grave together.