Articles > People & Politics
“How Many People Did You Kill?”
Now that he’s home from his second tour as a Marine in Iraq—back to being a GW student—people who hardly know Todd Bowers ask him that. He’d rather they asked about those he helped, and all he’d still like to do.
Staff writer Cindy Rich can be reached at email@example.com. The name of Todd Bowers's Iraqi interpreter has been changed to protect his identity.
Todd Bowers wishes he knew more about the man who tried to kill him. The Iraqi sniper who squeezed the trigger and probably assumed he was dead. The man whose bullet left shrapnel in Bowers's face. Who was he? What was his family like? Did he enjoy shooting, or did he have to do it? Sometimes when Bowers walks around George Washington University—often listening to the same songs on his iPod that played in his military Humvee—he wonders about things that happened in Fallujah.
He thinks about the day last fall when his Marine civil-affairs team shuttled refugees out of the city and an Iraqi man, huddled in the back of a truck, gave him an angry look. Bowers had given the refugees food and water, then broken the rules by handing each of them $20. This man hadn't thanked him. Was he an insurgent sneaking out? Or a guy who had just had his house blown up and couldn't bring himself to thank a US Marine?
Bowers doesn't tell people about the memories stuck in his head. He's worried they'll think he has a stress disorder. They won't understand how the Todd Bowers they know—the one who hangs out at Lindy's Red Lion on GW's campus—could have done what he did and seen what he saw.
Since he's returned from his second tour in Iraq, back to college life at GW, Bowers is regaining the weight he lost from military ready-to-eat meals. He's dating and deciding what classes to sign up for.
But this second tour—seven months in Fallujah—was harder than his first. This time he had to fire his M-16. He knew Marines who were killed.
His team was attached to a Marine infantry battalion that pushed into Fallujah to battle insurgents. It was Bowers's job to assist the civilians. He helped Iraqis start their own aid programs. He ate lunch with them and told them about college. He helped them recover dead Iraqis so they could be properly buried.
The homecoming was fun for a while: Friends toasted him. Strangers thanked him. Bartenders wouldn't let him pay. Friends at Kinkead's restaurant, near GW, treated him to a six-course meal.
But he grew tired of being the guy who'd just gotten back from Fallujah. At 26, he already felt he stood out in GW classes—he didn't want to fit in even less. And he couldn't understand how people he barely knew could ask: "So how many people did you kill?"
Bowers had started thinking about the military during his senior year at Fairfax's W.T. Woodson High School. He liked school and had lots of friends, but he didn't have good grades. Classmates were talking about college, but he wasn't.
After a Marine Corps recruiter visited, Bowers told his parents he wanted to sign up. At 17, he needed their permission.
"That's ridiculous," his mother, Carol, said. "There's no way in the world you're going into the military."
His father, John, had been a Marine before going to law school at GW, but Bowers didn't grow up talking about joining the military. His parents weren't expecting this.
He put his plans on hold. He enrolled in community college in Tucson, where his parents had moved to retire, and became an emergency medical technician. But he still felt he needed more direction.
In 1998, he signed up for an eight-year enlistment as a Marine Reservist.
The guys in boot camp called him Superbowers. He'd earned the nickname during a hygiene inspection; that's when a drill instructor—or DI—checks for injuries. The recruits were supposed to tuck their T-shirts into the back of their underwear, like a tail. Bowers wrapped his around him like a cape and stood at attention.
"What are you doing?" the DI screamed. "Who do you think you are—Superbowers?"
"This recruit believes he is a superhero, sir!"
That night Bowers had to pretend to fly around the barracks while singing the Superman theme song.
Boot camp was a game: 30 seconds to go to the bathroom, pushups without moving your fingers. We're supposed to fail, he'd think. They want to see how we handle it.
Bowers impressed instructors at the rifle range when he shot ten bull's-eyes in a row from 500 yards. The first time he'd fired a gun was in sixth grade—his father took him to an indoor pistol range in Annandale.
At boot-camp graduation, Bowers's mother introduced herself to her son's DI. He told her that Todd almost made him laugh. Drill instructors aren't allowed to smile.
"Ms. Bowers," he told her, "in all my years of being a drill instructor—no offense, ma'am—I've never been so glad to get rid of one kid in my life."
It's a Friday in March 2005, and a crowd is waiting for the 4th Civil Affairs Group to arrive back at DC's Bolling Air Force Base. The icing on a cake reads WELCOME HOME 4TH CAG. A Christmas tree is decorated with yellow ribbons, one for each Marine who missed the holidays. Kids sit making signs for their parents.
It's been seven months since Carol Bowers has seen her son—not knowing where he was or what he was doing—so she's ignoring the Marine who keeps telling her to move back. She wants to get as close as she can to Todd's bus.
Carol sees him first. His sister, Heather, screams and points as Todd walks by. He tries to hide his smile, then blends in again among a sea of uniforms.
When he finally reaches them, he hugs Carol and says, "How ya doing, Mama?" He's thinner. His hand is shaking. She can tell how tired he is.
"Hey, buddy," his father, John, says.
When John, Carol, and Heather came to Bolling for a reunion a year and a half earlier, after Todd's first tour, they thought it would be the last time. "You're not supposed to cry," Todd told his mother that day. "I'm home."
He chats with Leila, a friend he met when he was working for a congressman on Capitol Hill. She's the only friend he invited to his homecoming. They weren't dating before he left, but they e-mailed a lot while he was in Iraq. He wants to figure out where things stand between them.
Heather and Carol touch the shrapnel embedded under Todd's eye. "Longest seven months of my life," Heather says with a laugh.
"Oh, man," Todd says, looking around. "It's kind of surreal."
He tells his family how hard it was doing civil affairs when he walked around with a grenade launcher, pistol, and M-16 and told civilians he wanted to be their friend.
After he turns in his guns, Todd says, "You guys want to see how lucky I am?" He shows his family the bullet hole in the scope that once sat on top of his M-16 rifle, and the blood inside his helmet.
Todd Bowers was promoted to corporal in April 2000, the same night 19 Marines died when their Osprey aircraft crashed in the Arizona desert.
He'd spent the previous year and a half as a reservist training to be a combat engineer and taking classes at Tucson's Pima Community College. His parents had moved there in 1997 from Falls Church, where Carol had run a Montessori school and John had worked for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The night of his promotion, Bowers fell asleep on the couch and awoke to news of the Osprey crash. He called Marine friends and asked if they wanted to help. They said it wasn't their role.
Bowers went alone, in uniform. He drove past the checkpoints and introduced himself. They needed someone to set up a security perimeter.
When he pulled up, the Osprey was still smoldering. This is for real, he thought.
He spent a week at the site and called in other reservists to help. He wanted to follow tradition: Never leave a body unguarded. Never leave a body behind. Always take care of the dead.
Newspapers wrote about him. Before the memorial service, he received his first Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. He felt his actions had been blown out of proportion—until the families started thanking him. They'd heard he hadn't left their sons alone that day.
Bowers's friends at Lindy's Red Lion—a bar and grill on DC's I Street—kept a countdown clock that reached all zeros when he walked in, several hours after his arrival from Iraq at Bolling Air Force Base.
The countdown had started in August 2004, when Bowers left for his second tour. His friends had promised to keep it running until he came home. On the wall near the bar were a welcome sign, a picture of Bowers, and two American flags.
"I know exactly what I'm getting," Bowers says. "Steak and cheese with the hots. And cheese fries."
A friend asks about his plans. "I'm staying at the Watergate, living the high life," Bowers says. "Strange transition."
Bowers had always wanted to stay at the Watergate, so his parents booked rooms for his homecoming in March.
Conversation at Lindy's goes from college to Fallujah and back. Bowers wants to know if they've finished building the new dorms. He can't believe GW is playing in the NCAA basketball tournament. He wants to meet up with his Iraqi interpreter, Ali, in Jordan so he can help get him a visa. He has to retake an Arabic exam from last semester before school starts. He says he was amazed Iraqis always showed up to work even if they'd lost a child the day before. The shrapnel in his face feels like a lead pimple.
After the Osprey crash in 2000, Bowers was volunteering at a Veterans Day parade in Tucson when a stranger walked toward him. "That's Congressman Jim Kolbe," a friend told him.
Kolbe, a Vietnam veteran, shook Bowers's hand and asked what he was doing. "I'm majoring in political science at Pima," Bowers said.
"You're the guy from the Osprey crash—I remember reading about that," Kolbe said. "We need to get you an internship."
"That sounds great," Bowers said. He'd enjoyed learning about the legislative process in school.
A few weeks later, he interviewed in Kolbe's Tucson office and was offered an internship. He packed his truck and left for Washington. He would put school on hold.
Bowers went to thrift stores to buy suits for his Capitol Hill job. On his first day, he wore a pinstripe suit, his dad's Jerry Garcia tie, and—to look smarter—his glasses.
He was awed by being in a congressman's office but got along well with the staff. He handled phone calls and answered letters. Kolbe would walk by and say, "How's my Marine doing?" Bowers started telling friends he was going to be a congressman.
After four months in Washington, he moved back to Tucson for a job in Kolbe's district office. He returned to DC in spring 2002 when Kolbe made him a staff assistant.
He moved into an apartment near GW and started to wonder if he could enroll there. Maybe his Hill experience would make up for his 2.8 grade-point average at community college. Maybe they'd realize he was a work in progress. Friends encouraged him to give it a shot.
Bowers was still a reservist. He didn't want to drive to Baltimore every month to drill with the combat engineers, so he looked for another unit.
His Marine friends in Tucson had told him civil-affairs guys were the "tree-huggers" of the Marine Corps—they rebuilt cities and made friends.
For the first few days at the Watergate, Bowers ordered room service and spent time with his family and his friend Leila. He went to Porter's, a favorite bar, but didn't like how crowded it was. He couldn't stand not having a door nearby. He went to Kolbe's office, and the shrapnel in his face set off a metal detector in the Cannon Building.
Bowers wasn't sure what to do next. He had trouble making decisions. For months he'd been told where to go and when; now he was on his own. He thought about summer classes at GW—he'd been enrolled there since January 2004, majoring in Middle Eastern studies.
One night at the Watergate, he showed his sister, Heather, pictures from his second tour. He'd organized them into folders on his computer; the firefight photos were in the "Holy S—-" folder.
Before he left for Fallujah, he and Heather had talked every few weeks. She lives in Los Angeles, so she picked him up on weekends while he was stationed a few hours away at Camp Pendleton. She'd cried when she found out he was going back.
That night, Heather told Todd she was glad he was home. "Thank God you're never going back," she said. He told her maybe one day he would, as a contractor or student.
Heather got upset. She said it had been hard looking out for their parents while he was away—she'd put her life on hold. She wanted to know why he hadn't asked the family how they felt about his going back for the second tour.
He couldn't explain why his work mattered. He knew how hard it must have been for his parents. He had thought about what would happen if he were seriously wounded, how if he died he'd never get to tell them he was sorry.
Heather was planning to stay in Washington a few days after their parents went back to Tucson. He told her: "Go home with Mom and Dad."
Later that night, his father, who had never been in combat, put his hand on Todd's back. "We have no idea what you've gone through," he said. "And we never will."
"I woke up this morning, and I remember looking out the window and thinking, 'This is so bizarre,' " Bowers says, sitting in the Watergate in March of this year. "I wanted to take a picture and e-mail it to Ali and be like 'Dude, look how weird the world is—I just went from there to here in a matter of days.' "
He had pointed out the Watergate to Ali, his Iraqi interpreter, while they watched Forrest Gump—Bowers's favorite movie—at their house at Camp Baharia, near Fallujah. Bowers's unit moved around a lot, but Baharia was home base.
"That's where I'll be staying," he said during the scene when Forrest Gump observes the 1972 Watergate break-in. Bowers relates to Forrest—he wasn't the smartest guy, but he took as much out of life as he could.
Bowers met Ali on his second day in Fallujah. His team would push into the city, and Ali would be with them, taking the same risks. Bowers started playing his Arabic CDs.
"You don't listen to hip-hop?" Ali asked.
"I listen to all kinds of stuff," Bowers said. He told Ali he'd taken an Arabic class.
Ali was curious about America. He was amazed when Bowers told him some homeless people slept near the Capitol. Ali thought every American was rich. Bowers explained that some people were born into situations they couldn't get out of. He showed Ali pictures of his apartment. He took out his iPod expecting to impress him.
"How many gigs?" Ali asked.
Troops handed down movies, so Bowers had lots of DVDs. He liked the old Thin Man movies, about an ex-private eye and his wife, because he thought the characters had a great relationship. When he wanted to escape, he turned on Garden State, a movie about a twentysomething who goes back to his hometown. He played Norah Jones on his iPod.
Carol was sure her son would never go to war. He called her from Washington in January 2003 and said he was leaving in six days.
"Holy s—-, Todd," she said. He hadn't heard his mother curse like that before. She asked him what good it did to work for a congressman if he couldn't get out of going to war.
He didn't want to get out of it. He'd watched everything unfold on the Hill. He told his parents he'd be fine. Civil-affairs guys wouldn't be near the fighting.
His girlfriend at the time, Margaret, had just moved to DC from Tucson. He assured her their relationship would be strong when he returned. Later he wrote and told her to look at the brightest star on a certain date, and he'd look there at the same time.
He took a picture with his father in front of the flag at Bolling Air Force Base. "Don't do anything stupid," his dad told him. Heather got upset when she saw Todd holding his rifle because it hit her that he was going to a place with real bullets.
Carol told him not to be a hero. "Run, Forrest, run," she said, echoing the line from his favorite movie. She didn't let go of his hand until he reached the second step on the bus.
Carol and John were quiet on the drive back. Everywhere they stopped, Carol walked up to strangers and said her son had just been sent to Iraq.
HIS first time in Iraq, Bowers couldn't believe what he was seeing. Tanks were on fire. Mortars were coming in. This is like Vietnam, he thought.
About a week into the fighting in March 2003, Bowers pulled into a gas station and opened the door to find women and children packed inside. They looked at Bowers with wide eyes. This was his chance to do civil affairs. He went to his truck for MREs—meals ready to eat.
He told Marine friends that the Iraqis who shot at them probably hadn't always been bad. At one time, he said, they were kids who didn't have a care in the world.
"Bowers thinks too much," his friends said.
His first week in Nasiriyah, Bowers carved TODD WAS HERE into a wall at one of Saddam Hussein's compounds. The next day, he saw a group of Marines crowded around a woman who was wailing. "We're giving this woman some time to mourn," a lieutenant told him. "Then we're going to bury her daughter." A stray bullet had hit the girl while she was sleeping.
Marines wrapped the girl in a poncho liner, and Bowers helped carry her away. He watched as the Marines buried her in a shallow grave facing Mecca. He thought about how he would handle it if he had fired that bullet. He later told his teammates the story so they'd remember the girl when they were shooting.
Bowers considered civilian casualties a civil-affairs failure. When he saw a man in a business suit who'd been shot in the face, he started to bandage the man's head. The man grabbed his hand and said, "Thank you, thank you." Bowers knew a US Marine had fired the bullet. He thought: We just shot this guy up, and he's thanking us?
He saw his first dead Marines early in the war, after their vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Iraqis showed Bowers where they had buried the Americans. Bowers didn't know what to expect underneath the dirt—he hadn't seen anything like this since the Osprey crash.
He picked up a shirt riddled with bullet holes and asked: "Are we keeping stuff that has names on it?"
"I keep trying to picture what it looked like," Bowers says today, his eye on the lens of a Dragonov sniper scope. "Me. Up there. From his perspective."
The scope is similar to the one Bowers used in the firefight. He'd asked his father to buy him a scope—an advanced combat optical gunsight, or ACOG—before he left for Iraq the second time. A scope makes the enemy easier to see, and he knew that a civil-affairs team wouldn't be given ACOGs. He wanted the extra gear to help ensure he didn't shoot at the wrong target. From a distance, an Iraqi housewife holding a broom could look like an insurgent holding an AK-47. His father found one in a gun shop.
The day the enemy bullet got lodged in his scope, Bowers and his friend Sergeant Yoo were supposed to assess buildings on the outskirts of Fallujah. It was a hot morning last October. Nobody was allowed in or out of the city.
Bowers heard that rocket-propelled grenades were being fired. Then he heard gunshots. He was ordered to drive an air controller, who advises military jets about ground targets, toward the firefight.
Tanks sat on the side of the road. Everyone was shooting. Bowers looked through his scope and started scanning. He saw someone jut out of a building. The guy had a gun, big hair, gray pants, and a green duffel bag, which reminded Bowers of his dad's shooting bag. Okay, okay, he thought. This is real.
He fired twice, and the man fell. Bowers saw him near a tree and fired again. When the man came back, crawling on all fours, Bowers kept shooting. He hit him twice in the gut, but his dark clothing hid the blood. Then the building that the guy was crawling near blew up.
Someone covered Bowers's position, and he went behind his Humvee to smoke a cigarette. At least he'd found a target. He didn't like to "spray and pray." That was how babies got hit.
He didn't shoot for what felt like an hour. A Marine standing nearby took a bullet through the thigh. A captain told everyone to get down—only guys with ACOGs, like Bowers, should engage.
Bowers spotted two men on a rooftop. He fired three or four rounds, and a guy in gray, carrying a machine gun, dropped.
The gunfire was getting heavier. The impact of the bullets looked like heavy rain hitting dust. Bowers dropped to his knees and fired.
Then he spun around, rolled down a small hill, and saw blood on the dirt.
His rifle flew out of his hands. He thought his weapon had exploded. I just got shot, Bowers thought. I can't believe that just happened.
He couldn't see out of his left eye. The metal felt hot. His glasses weren't there. His head hurt, but he told himself a bullet through the skull had to hurt more.
Someone yelled for a medic. Sergeant Yoo jumped out of a moving truck when he saw Bowers get hit. As insurgents lobbed mortars, the corpsman moved Bowers down a hill. He pulled out a piece of metal that had been stuck in Bowers's face and helmet strap, wrapped it in gauze, and said, "You keep this. You're the luckiest son of a bitch ever."
Bowers wouldn't leave. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he kept saying. Someone gave him his rifle back, and he worked with a translator to get civilians away from a car caught in the crossfire.
The civilians came out waving bloody T-shirts. A boy about 12 had been shot through the wrist. His father had been hit in the stomach. Bowers's head ached as sweat dripped into his wound. He rubbed the boy's back and poured water on his arm. "Everything's okay, everything's okay," he said in Arabic. The boy kept crying; another person in the car had died.
"Wait, buddy," someone said to Bowers when he arrived at the hospital with the civilians. He'd forgotten about his own bandage and dried blood. Nurses looked at his rifle.
That almost blew my face off, he thought later. It would have been a closed casket.
He wrote friends from an Internet cafe at Camp Baharia:
Hello from Fallujah. You may have seen in the news that things in this part of the world have gotten pretty wild… . Unfortunately, I was hit by a well-aimed (or lucky) shot… . I think my big old Mr. Spock ears give the bad guys a real easy target. My safety glasses, helmet, and scope saved my life… . I wanted to let you all know directly from me that I am all right… . I still have the same goofy smile.
In April of this year, a few weeks after coming home from his second tour, Bowers cut across the GW campus and slowed down to watch a group of preschoolers playing in the grass. He laughed as a boy wouldn't let go of a toy dinosaur.
Bowers had always been good with kids. In Fallujah, he'd kick soccer balls around with them. When kids were acting up, Marines called in Bowers. He was on kid detail.
He stood in GW's quad watching parents pick up their children. Would those parents want a guy like him—a guy who'd been in combat—babysitting their kids? Maybe they'd see him as a murderer.
He knows war is different. He knows he had to shoot back. But he doesn't know if other people understand that. Some people just categorize, he says: "You're a Marine. You're a killer."
He'd been home a few days when a friend asked if he had killed anybody. "I'm not sure," he said. Some people don't realize this isn't a movie, he thought.
The only people he felt comfortable telling were his closest friends, the ones who seemed to feel uncomfortable asking.
"I'd like to vent to them," Bowers says. "I'd like to be able to say, 'This is what I did—don't think wrong of me.' "
After the firefight, other Marines he ran into asked him how many "confirmed kills" he had.
"I have no idea," he told them. "I know I shot three people. I know two of them I never saw again—they didn't get back up."
"Just say they're dead," one said.
Bowers couldn't. He hadn't checked their pulses, and even though it was good to kill the enemy, he didn't get his kicks from it. His civil-affairs team's motto was "Be polite. Be professional. Be prepared to kill." But he never thought he'd reach that last step.
He thinks about the firefight every day.
"What freaked me out was how instinctively it came," he says. "It just happened. It was weird to put a bad guy in the reticle on my scope and squeeze—and then squeeze again and squeeze again and not be like 'I'm about to shoot someone' and take it all in. It was just like, 'There's a bad guy'—bam."
He doesn't want to go shooting with his dad anymore.
After his first tour, in 2003, Margaret didn't seem interested in hearing his stories or seeing his pictures. Before Iraq, he'd talked about having a big house and lots of babies. Now he wanted to travel to places his friends wouldn't want to go. He and Margaret, who had dated off and on for four years, started to grow apart.
Bowers worked for a lobbying firm before enrolling at GW in January 2004. The firm represented nonprofits, so he told himself that was okay.
Friends on Capitol Hill would tell him about legislation they were working on.
"That's not feeding people," he'd say. "If you're working on the Hill, you have to do stuff that's going to help."
He'd applied to GW and couldn't believe he was accepted. He felt strange introducing himself to students in class: He'd transferred from an Arizona community college. He was 24, just back from war. There he was in freshman economics. He decided that after college he wanted to work for a disaster team of the US Agency for International Development.
Bowers couldn't stop thinking about Iraq. He had to know everything. He didn't want anyone to ask a question he couldn't answer. In the middle of his first semester, he saw on the news that some American contractors had been burned and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. That wasn't how he thought he'd left things. He knew his family would be angry if he went back. But he no longer had a girlfriend to stay in the States for, and civilians were cheering while bodies were hanging. Now he knew he had to go back.
He took summer classes before leaving last August. He could tell Iraq was affecting his grades. He was packing his gear, trying to make it to class, and saying goodbye.
When he came home from his second tour in March of this year, he didn't have much to talk about with GW friends. They talked about parties and classes and dating. In Iraq, he'd tried to keep up with the news, but all he'd known for seven months was war. Who wants to sit in a bar and hear about that, he thought. He had fun when he went out with them, but they had less in common than before.
Before Iraq, Bowers liked to hang out alone doing nothing. Now he had to be busy. He looked into group houses. His friends were studying and working, so Bowers started thinking about fall classes. He had earned a Purple Heart, so he could go to some state schools for free. He loved GW but couldn't justify paying the tuition.
He met up with a group at Porter's, and when the Outkast song "B.O.B." (Bombs Over Baghdad) came on, a friend yelled, "Bowers—it's your theme song!" He walked into Lindy's, and someone said, "Bowers is back from killing Iraqis!"
One night at McFadden's, a DC pub, Bowers noticed a group of uniformed Marines standing near the door. A Marine was shaking people's hands and saying, "I just got back from Iraq and I didn't get killed!" Bowers took the guy's hand and said, "I just got back from Iraq and a bunch of my buddies did get killed."
His days didn't feel as fulfilling: "I won't be walking the streets of DC and have some guy run up to me and say, 'I haven't seen my brother in three months. I think he got killed in the fighting. Can you help me find him?' "
He'd spent months with the same Iraqi contractors—setting up humanitarian-assistance sites, refurbishing schools. At home, Bowers is good about keeping in touch: He'll tell old friends he'd like to have lunch sometime and then actually call. But he wonders about his Iraqi friends—he can't just look them up.
"When I'm here, I want to be in Iraq," he says. "When I'm in Iraq, I want to be here."
The first few weeks Bowers was back from his second tour, he watched himself for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Damn, I'm going out a lot, he thought. Is this "heavy drinking"?
When he went to a barbecue and a friend opened a confetti-filled party snapper near his face, he lurched out of the way.
He's had a few flashbacks and one "sketchy dream" involving a hard day in Fallujah, where he was trying to reach into his cargo pocket to give candy to Iraqi kids. Servers from Lindy's were in the dream, too. He woke up sweating.
"I'm not going to go jump in a clock tower with a sniper rifle," Bowers says. "It was just a bad dream."
He's never known anyone who's had post-traumatic stress disorder, he's never been to a therapist, and he never wants to be the guy who can't handle things. But it's freaking him out that he hasn't cried yet. He's tried to, even in the shower, but nothing happens.
His Aunt Elaine, Carol's sister, is dying of cancer, and he's unable to get upset about it. He told his dad he's "emotionally numb." He's trying to make his parents understand why he hasn't gone to visit his aunt. He doesn't want them to think he doesn't care.
He's hoping tears come at the funeral. "I'm trying to imagine myself watching the whole family crying, and me still being totally numb. Then I'm going to be like 'All right, something's not clicking.' "
Bowers hopes to see Ali sitting in the Watergate lobby someday. He slept across from him for months. He trusts him. He gave Ali a certificate inviting him to come to America and "visit his brothers."
Friendships were intense in Fallujah. Bowers was with the same guys every day but never saw them in civilian clothes. Sometimes they couldn't shower for weeks and used bottles of water to rinse themselves.
For the first few months, until the push in November, Bowers felt as though anything could happen at any time. He worried about roadside bombs. The guys were trained to take bullets for one another, but if a bomb went off, his friends couldn't shoot the guy who'd killed him—they wouldn't know who'd set the trap.
After long days, they barbecued over a 55-gallon drum—Bowers titled one e-mail home "Fuddruckers in Fallujah"—and shared stories. They didn't talk about politics. He talked to them about e-mails from Leila. He told Ali, who called Bowers his "favorite infidel," about his spring-break trip to Jerusalem.
"When you go on a deployment like this, your life stops and you have to live vicariously through your past," Bowers says. "That's all you have."
During a barbecue, the colonel of the 4th CAG asked everyone to get into formation. This is weird, Bowers thought.
"Corporal Bowers—front and center," the colonel said. He surprised Bowers with a promotion warrant. Bowers had always wanted to leave the corps as a sergeant, just as his dad had.
Before the push into Fallujah, Bowers and his friends would toss a Frisbee at Camp Baharia, duck when they heard the hissing of a mortar, and keep playing. Bowers heard that Marines had died when a mortar landed between them while they were playing football. That was a one-in-a-million chance, he told himself. If he worried about things like that, he'd go crazy.
To help fit in, Bowers and his teammates grew mustaches, a sign of manhood in Iraq. They sat on a rooftop one night smoking a hookah while bombs went off in the distance, listening to Arab music and laughing at the guys who couldn't stop coughing.
The night before they left Fallujah, all the guys sat in a circle and went around saying their goodbyes to Ali. The unit staff sergeant stood up and saluted him.
When it was Bowers's turn, he said, "I'm not really going to say goodbye because it's not goodbye. It's see ya later." It was the same thing he'd said to his family before he left. Ali cried.
Marines paraded Bowers around after he was shot in the scope last fall. He got to see the colonel. After a Marine Corps newspaper article mentioned that his dad had given him the scope, Bowers says he was criticized by high-ranking Marines for using nonissued gear. Doing so made the corps look bad, they said, as if troops didn't have the protection they needed. Bowers said he was glad he'd had it on, otherwise he'd probably be dead. He tells his dad about his frustrations with the military.
Bowers wishes his Marine friends remembered the civilians he helped that day, not just the four-hour firefight. He has better times to remember from Fallujah, times he would sum up in e-mails by saying, "Building good relationships."
One of those times was at a school where Bowers was staying with refugees during the evacuation.
"I walked into a room with all my gear on, and all the women started bawling," he says. "The men looked at me, horrified, not knowing what was going on. I walked back out and took all my gear off, all the way down to my uniform. I took my pistol off. I walked back with Ali, and he and I sat down and started talking to these people: 'Why is everyone so upset? We're here to help you.' They said, 'How can you say you're here to help?' "
He and Ali spent three hours explaining why Marines took them from their homes. "Insurgents look just like you," he said. "So everyone has to be treated like a bad guy until they're cleared. Insurgents are so dirty that they'd hide in with a family and say, 'If you don't get me out of the city, I'll kill your kids.' "
By the end of the night, the children were playing with Bowers. The refugees told him their names, which Bowers wrote on the chalkboard in Arabic. They couldn't believe he'd studied Arabic. They hugged and kissed him.
Before he came home from his second tour, Bowers promised himself he'd talk about what he'd been through. At least that way someone else would know.
He could tell people about the animals he'd found in bombed-out parts of Fallujah—how he'd caught geese and set them free on the lake at Camp Baharia and how there was a puppy he would see once a week who would nuzzle between his feet.
He could tell friends about pushing Iraqi children around in a small, beat-up Ferris wheel in Jolan Park. And how an American television crew following his unit didn't want to videotape those kids and he couldn't understand why.
But it was the bloody stories he needed to share—like the one about the time he walked over a dead body without realizing it. He thought he'd talk to Leila, but their relationship wasn't working out.
He worries about finding the right girl—someone who won't mind his military background or that he's comfortable in the Middle East or is behind in school.
His parents thought they'd hear more about Iraq when Bowers visited Tucson in April. But he didn't say much. He had nicknamed his parents' house Rancho Relaxo, but he couldn't get comfortable. They wanted to know if he was okay.
"I can't tell my mom about killing someone or shooting at someone. I can't tell her about the little kids scared out of their minds crying," Bowers says. "She won't get that, and in a lot of ways, I don't want her to get that. I've already put them through enough."
Bowers walked laps around campus before his meeting with GW president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. He went by Lindy's and had a Coke but couldn't eat.
Outside Trachtenberg's office, Bowers met a student who needed funding for student activities. "What are you here for?" the student asked.
"I just got back from from my second deployment in Iraq," Bowers said, "and I'm trying to find out if I can get some money for school because I can go to state colleges now for next to nothing."
The student's face sank. "You're not going before me, are you?" he asked. Bowers laughed.
In the meeting, he told Trachtenberg how unreal it had been when he was accepted to GW. He didn't want to have to leave. He said that he wasn't just a "trigger puller," that he'd taken part in the Iraqi elections and the work he did would enhance his studies.
Trachtenberg asked how much money he needed. Bowers explained how his loans were divided and what he'd need to afford living expenses. He never wanted to ask his parents for money.
Trachtenberg offered $15,000 a year, about half of Bowers's tuition. The money would come from an alumni fund. He asked only that Bowers send the alumnus who donated the money a thank-you note and tell him stories about Iraq.
"Would that do?" Trachtenberg asked. "You going to stay with us?"
"Of course," Bowers said. "That's amazing."
Bowers finally reached Ali after e-mailing for months. "Thanks, my friend, for caring and thinking of me," Ali wrote. "I did get my passport, and I can't wait to leave this place."
When his Aunt Elaine died in June, Bowers didn't cry at the funeral—partly because he wanted to comfort his mom and Heather, partly because he couldn't. His parents understood. His mother told him that those emotions would come back over time. Bowers believes that. He felt knots in his throat at the church, so he knows they're in there.
Bowers spent part of the summer hanging out with his sister and a high-school friend in Los Angeles. Now he's applying for foreign-policy internships and working on an association for Iraq veterans.
This fall, for the first time in a while, he'll be just a GW student. He signed up to spend the 2006 spring semester in Jordan. He doesn't know what he'll do after graduation in a few years—maybe try to work for the State Department or go back to the Hill.
He can get out of the Marines in December. When he came home, he said he was finished with the military. He didn't want to tempt fate with a third tour. "I'm starting to think, more and more, that's going to change," he says.
If he does go back to Iraq, he says, "maybe someday I can walk the streets and be like, 'Does anyone remember a Sergeant Todd Bowers?' "
The haunting thoughts are still there—a dead animal makes Bowers think about the bodies—but he tries not to let those images in. He hopes they fade.
He wonders about civilians he didn't help, people who needed things he couldn't give them.
"There were times where I was like 'I'm done, I can't listen to anybody else—no more begging.' You kind of feel bad about that, and you remember their face. I think back and I can't remember the date, I can't remember what we were doing, but I can remember what that guy looked like."
Sometimes music takes him back. Frank Sinatra songs remind him of driving in Fallujah. But thinking about Iraq can be a good thing. He keeps his trinkets in a plastic bag—bullets he found on the ground, a lollipop a little girl gave him.
He has a photo of three Iraqi children, which he got from their father. Bowers couldn't give the man a photo of himself—it's a security risk—so he handed him a picture of his parents. This guy may keep this, he thought, and it'll be part of stories he passes on to his kids.
Ali translated the message on the back of the kids' picture: "To my friend, Todd," it reads. "You will always be my friend. I will never forget you. Allah will shine light upon you."
Bowers doesn't touch the shrapnel in his face as often, but he thinks about how close he came to dying. He's never visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but he wonders if he'd recognize anyone there from Camp Baharia.
After he came home, someone told him she'd read about the firefight: "The Lord was on your side that day," she said.
No, he thought. The wind just blew the right way or the guy's finger twitched.
Bowers is working on a photo presentation he calls "Iraqi Graffiti." He got the idea from his uncle, who did something similar after Vietnam. Bowers carried a notebook in Fallujah and wrote down his thoughts and things he heard from other Marines.
Maybe when he's 60, he says, he'll sit on the front porch of his beach house and tell his future wife everything. But for now there are things he keeps inside, and this is the best he can do. He hopes the photos, each followed by a quote, capture the war from a Marine's perspective. He hopes they illustrate the confusion he can't explain. How being there could be so good and so bad.
The song "I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You" plays in the background while "The Faces of Fallujah" fade in and out:
A picture of a crumpled road sign.
How the hell did I get here?
A young insurgent in a pool of blood.
I didn't know evil could have such a normal face.
An Iraqi boy looking up.
Mister, Mister, are you my friend?
Dead Marines' guns, helmets, and boots.
I have got to make it home.
A dead insurgent lying in rubble.
How will I tell anyone about days like this?
A happy child.
The smiles make this all worthwhile.
The refugee who gave Bowers an angry look.
Sorry we destroyed your city. Here, have a bag lunch and 20 bucks.
A pink rose.
I am going to miss this place and the people.
Bowers alone on a rooftop in Fallujah, wearing his safety glasses and holding his rifle.
I am not sure where home is anymore.