By Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
I didn't see the explosion that killed Pfc. Mark Barbret.
I was inside an armored personnel carrier that had already crossed the bridge, near where the roadside bomb was triggered by an unseen insurgent.
The attack happened Oct. 14, 2004, in Ramadi, a city in Iraq's western desert that was growing more dangerous by the day.
The humvee burst into flames, killing Barbret and another soldier instantly. A third soldier was burned badly and died some months later.
A medic and friend of Mark's, Joy Chang, was riding in the vehicle behind Mark's. She saw the explosion, the flames and heard the machine gun ammunition inside the vehicle "cooking off" because of the intense heat.
Her first reaction was, "This is not real," Chang, 27, recalled. Time seemed to slow down and she silently prayed it was not Mark in that vehicle.
Her second impulse was: "Open the door, get out and do something."
Her sergeant held her back. There was nothing to be done.
"I wanted so bad to go there and do what I needed to do, what I was taught to do," said Chang, who has since left the Army and is continuing her education.
"The only thing I could do was hope it was quick and hope it was painless." By all accounts it was.
I was making frequent trips to Iraq at the time, spending a fair amount of time with soldiers and Marines. They had developed an intimate relationship with war, death and loss in a way most civilians would have difficulty understanding.
The night before the roadside bomb attack, the 44th Engineers held a memorial service for a soldier who had been killed days earlier. There were tears and hugging.
I saw some of the same soldiers in the still predawn darkness hours later, as they prepared for the patrol to the cemetery. Focus had replaced the grief, as they prepared their vehicles and readied their weapons.
An e-mail seeking information
I once visited a unit in northern Iraq where soldiers would unabashedly say, "I love you" to each other as they climbed into their vehicles in case it was the last words they heard.
In Ramadi, I was riding in a vehicle near the head of the column that day. I learned of the roadside bomb only when we arrived safely back at Camp Ramadi. Much of the unit remained behind to evacuate the wounded and secure the site.
The story I filed that day was routine. I described a mission to search for a weapons cache in a cemetery. The search only turned up an AK-47, a mortar bipod and a single mortar round.
The story mentioned the roadside bomb and that soldiers detained a handful of Iraqis, but they were quickly released. Whoever detonated the roadside bomb was gone.
I had been back in the United States only a few days when I received an e-mail from a relative of Mark's.
"I was just trying to get a hold of a little more information on this tragic event just to get a feel of what Mark's final day was like," the e-mail said
I had nothing to offer and said so. I saved the e-mail.
More than 6,400 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of their stories, like that of Mark's, remain untold.
Mark Barbret grew up in Michigan, the oldest of three siblings. He was athletic and popular.
Mark was probably too restless for college. He had toyed with joining the military, particularly in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. "That hit him hard," said Mark's mother, Angie Barbret.
In high school his girlfriend became pregnant.
"It was time to grow up fast," Angie said.
He did. Mark announced he was going to join the Army and left for basic training January 2003.
'He wanted his son to be proud'
His parents barely recognized him when he graduated from basic training. "He was self confident," Angie Barbret said. "He was looking strong."
"He realized, for the first time in his life, how much he could accomplish and endure," she said.
Initially, his unit was deployed to Korea, where he earned a reputation as a great soldier on duty and a fun companion after-hours.
"He made every situation a funny situation," said Chang, who was part of a group of friends who would frequent bars and restaurants together after duty hours in Korea.
Those who knew Mark, realized his young son, Christian, was often on his mind. "His son was his world," Chang said.
"He wanted his son to be proud of him," Angie Barbret said.
He took to Army life, thriving on the discipline and camaraderie. "He was a great soldier," said Col. Tommy Mize, who commanded the 44th Engineers battalion in Iraq in 2004. "His fellow soldiers loved and respected him."
Mark spent a year in Korea before his unit was ordered to Iraq. In June 2004, he returned home for his last leave before combat. His younger sister was having a graduation party and Angie Barbret insisted he wear his uniform.
His mother was beaming. "He was leaving for war the next day and he showed no fear, just youthful energy, happiness, pride, a handsome smiling face, and love for his family, his friends, and his country," his mother later wrote.
His parents took him to the airport the next day and waved as he disappeared through security. Angie tried to hold back the tears and avoid a dramatic goodbye. Mark was trained as a mechanic and would be out of harm's way, she told herself.
Volunteering for dangerous missions
They spoke regularly by e-mail and Skype. Mark's mother told him to stay positive and hang around people who exuded the same attitude.
"You are strong and so well trained," she told him "You are going to be fine."
Mark's father, Kim, researched Ramadi on the Internet, discovering his son's unit had been assigned to one of Iraq's most dangerous cities, smack in the middle of Iraq's growing Sunni insurgency.
"Oh my God, he's in the worst spot," Kim told his wife.
Then, when Angie was speaking to her son on the phone, he mentioned that he had volunteered for the quick-reaction force. He wasn't satisfied staying in the relative safety of the motor pool when his colleagues were patrolling Ramadi's dangerous streets.
Angie began to cry, imploring her son not to volunteer for anything.
Mark urged his mother to stop crying. "I'm fine," he insisted.
He was enthusiastic about soldiering. At one point the medics had to order him to take a 24-hour rest because of the number of missions he had gone on, said Darlene Beckett, 36, Mark's company commander in Ramadi. It was hard to keep him inside the wire.
"He wanted to do every single mission," said Beckett, whose maiden name was Dalton.
Several weeks before the attack, Mark sent his family an e-mail with some simple and direct instructions:
"Mom, these convoys get many attacks, so can you do something for me? If something happens over here, and I should die, put 'FOR MY COUNTRY' above my name on my tombstone, and fly the American Flag in front of the house all day and night, no matter what the weather is like, and give my Army ring to Christian."
His parents printed out the e-mail and placed it in a safe.
Today, an American and Army flag flies round the clock from a pole in front of Barbret's home in Shelby Township, Mich. It's lit at night.
People drive up the cul de sac, sometimes veterans with their sons, and park their car next to the yard. They stare at the tall flagpole. They know why it's there.
Mark Barbret is buried in Romeo Cemetery, near his home. His headstone is flanked by American flags.
Looking back, Angie said they tried to figure where Mark's patriotism had come from. They remember as a toddler Mark dancing around to Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and when he was older driving around the block with a flag streaming from the T-top of his red Firebird.
In the end, patriotism may be as mysterious as faith.
"We want him to be remembered as an American hero," Angie said. "Honorable and loyal." Angie and Kim plan on visiting Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.
Mark's parents plan on giving his 10-year-old son Christian the Army ring when he's older.
Inside the ring is an inscription: "All for Christian."