The going rate for an Iraqi life is $2,500.
In his weekly trip to the Civil-Military Operations Center in downtown Fallujah, the battalion's judge advocate hands out cash to Iraqis. A few hundred dollars for a car scraped by a Marine vehicle in a tight alley. A thousand for a collapsed wall.
And the maximum payout -- $2,500 in hundred dollar bills -- for an Iraqi death involving Marines.
In Fallujah, it's a Marine's job to take certain lives, and it's a Marine's job to pay for others. Marines are here to build a government and they are here to destroy an insurgency, so each one in this downtown base is both a highly trained killer and a street-level diplomat.
There's no shortage of work for either, and the roles can flip in an instant.
The 1st Battalion, 25th Marines -- called ``New England's Own'' and including Plainville-based Charlie Company -- is the authority in and around Fallujah. In the ``Tigris Room'' of the city's equivalent to a town hall, Capt. Jeff King, the battalion's judge advocate, sits across a desk from one city resident after another. Next to him is a sergeant with a backpack holding about $35,000 in U.S. currency.
A man sits down. He says Marines who detained him for questioning stole $6,000 from a vase in his home. Though highly unlikely, it's a claim King hears regularly. This time, he believes money was stolen, but not by Marines.
``We couldn't find any evidence that Marines took the money,'' he tells the man. But King assures him, ``If there's an allegation that someone took money, we take that very seriously.''
Even though Marines didn't do it, King says he'll try to compensate the man for some of it, anyway. The sympathetic young captain from Dallas doesn't like to turn people away. Maybe by giving out a little money, he figures, he will make a friend for the Marines in a hostile city.
Out in the lobby, people read newspapers and fan themselves in the heat, waiting to see King or the other captain, Joseph Androski from Ansonia. The room smells of sweat and stale patience. A stereo pumps out Arabic music.
A desperate father occupies one of the seats, holding his limp boy in his lap. He didn't come for bureaucracy, but for help in the most basic way. He brought his badly burned son -- the skin seared from his legs in an accident while playing with matches -- to find medical help that he knows he can't get at the rundown hospital in Fallujah. Navy corpsmen, the medics who work with Marines, agree to treat the boy's burns in a back room. The boy's small cries can be heard under the music in the lobby.
King keeps working on claims, many of them brought by Iraqi lawyers in stacks of four or five. King maintains a fast pace, trying to verify the truth of the claims, asking for pictures and documents, sometimes giving the benefit of the doubt. The money is put in Iraqi palms by the sergeant.
The death claims are sometimes from military convoys firing warning shots at cars that edge too close or at drivers who seem a threat. Other times, it's crossfire from a firefight with insurgents. If King can find records of a Marine clash that even loosely match the details of the claim, he'll pay out, even though the fatal shots more likely come from insurgent rounds than the more accurate Marines.
Today, he pays a woman for her child and a man for his father. Condolence money, he says, not compensation.
In the first week in the city for Charlie Company, when Iraqis shot at 20-year-old James Lauber from Waterbury, when his buddies scrambled to fire back, when he found himself in the stretched seconds of a real gun battle, Lauber was living up to his name.
He's the third James Lauber of his Connecticut family, the third generation to bear that name and to enlist in the Marines. As he dodged bullets in those first days in Fallujah, it might as well have been North Korean gunfire, echoing through the generations.
His grandfather, James V. Lauber, of Cheshire, fought in Korea, living in bunkers and trenches, staring out across a front line. The war ended for him in 1953 when a close sniper bullet shattered, driving pieces of metal into him.
The next generation, Lance Cpl. James A. Lauber of Waterbury, joined in 1974, at the tail end of the Vietnam War. He joined the military police, wanting to be a Connecticut state trooper when he finished his four years, though an injury prevented it. His Marine years were spent working at a military jail.
James R. Lauber, known as ``J.R.,'' wanted to be his grandfather's kind of Marine, going toe to toe with enemies in a straightforward fight. In that first Fallujah firefight, he thought he got his wish. But two months later, his duties are something different, probably more familiar to his father than his grandfather.
He stands at a post at the city's western checkpoint, baking in the heat and watching Iraqis pass in overcrowded minivans, on self-decorated bicycles and in junk-heaped donkey carts. The Marines mix all day with people, face to face, picking up the language and customs, dealing with bureaucratic identification problems, getting to know the regulars.
Right now, Lauber is more ambassador than combatant. ``We all feel like cops,'' he says. ``The cop in the bad neighborhood.''
Like most of the other guys at the checkpoint, he is eager to get rotated back downtown, where the action is heavier.
He stands in a wooden box, where a machine gun is aimed at vehicles leaving the city. Traffic is light today, and running this exiting side of the checkpoint is easy. Check some identifications to see if they have expired. See if any cars match descriptions from incidents in the city. Though a few shots are fired toward the checkpoint during the shift, it's just another day.
``It doesn't feel like combat,'' Lauber says. He hasn't fired the machine gun since he started working here. ``I'd rather be doing what my grandfather did.''
There are other reasons Marines reject the duties that put them close to the people and farther away from the glory of Iwo Jima. Several of the Marines just don't like Iraqis. They don't trust them. They don't understand the way the people of Fallujah live, and a few use the word ``savages'' freely.
In Lauber's view, though, ``It looks like these people are trying. The majority of the people in this city aren't bad people. With all the stuff going on, it's just very hard. There's a bunch of different things pulling at these people.''
There are as many things pulling at the Marines, until their job sometimes seems as much Peace Corps as Marine Corps. As Lauber points out, it's a mission jammed with decision-making and it calls for instant switches between helping and hurting people. He would choose a front line any day. With that, ``You've got your mind on one thing, and that's it.''
Given the choice, a lot of Marines in Charlie Company would rather kill an insurgent than change a Fallujah resident's mind.
Maj. Vaughn Ward, the leader of Charlie Company, and his command staff watch Iraqi soldiers filling the table with trays of vegetables and sausages and heaps of flat bread.
The simple feast is set up in the master bedroom of a former vacation home for one of Saddam Hussein's generals, the edge of its large bed used now as a bench seat for an Iraqi lieutenant and a translator. The house on the Euphrates River is a military barracks for soldiers of the new Iraqi Army, and they are hosting the Marines tonight.
Ward has sat at such tables before. His diplomatic skills were honed by a stint with the U.S. State Department in Afghanistan. He was a liaison between the ambassador's office and the military there. He is in another war now, accepting goat-meat hospitality and hoping the men serving it can help turn their country around.
They talk about the things people talk about: family, jobs, hometowns. But they also talk about the Iraqi soldier who was shot through the chest a week ago, killed a few dozen yards from this house.
An Iraqi lieutenant, the senior man in the handful of soldiers who work at the neighboring checkpoint, gripes about losing seniority from his position in the former Iraqi Army, to which the major says, ``Hopefully, you'll have many more years of service now,'' and Iraq will ``need good officers like him to rise up and make his country strong.''
The lieutenant says there are many differences between Iraqis and Americans, but he likes the Americans' ``manners and respect.'' He says, ``I wish all the Iraqi people to learn.''
The soldiers serve trays of watermelon. Though the Marines around the table can't be sure the food won't make them sick, they eat it anyway. For the same reason, they take cigarettes when they are offered, and those not used to smoking puff at them awkwardly.
Ward gets to an important point. He asks if the soldiers here know those who will replace them in the rotation, which is happening soon. They say they don't. So he asks if they will have another dinner with him when the new soldiers arrive, all of them together.
Ward's motive: He wants the new guys to see how well he and his people get along with the old guys.
The lieutenant agrees and says he wants to make sure these new soldiers understand the dangers they will face. He hands a digital camera around the table, showing a photo on its tiny screen. That's the soldier who was killed right out there on the road, he says.
The next day, another Iraqi soldier will be hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on the nearby bridge.
Sometimes, the Marines' efforts to sway public opinion against the insurgency are less subtle than paying claims and showing up to dinner. They also practice some sledgehammer diplomacy, such as loudspeaker propaganda, shows of strength and anti-insurgent leaflets given to children.
Convoys roll through narrow streets, armed with bullhorns spouting prerecorded Arabic, insulting the insurgents, calling them out.
In other dealings, they might emphasize Marine muscle. As Ward explains, the Sunni Muslims who dominate this area had, until recently, run the entire country for generations. ``The Sunnis are used to being in charge.'' So they have to be reminded that their rule is over.
Another tactic is handing out anti-insurgent leaflets in the streets. Often, that propaganda will be loaded into toy and candy bags to be given to children. The inevitable result, though, is happy children leaving a trail of discarded leaflets strewn on the ground.
These measures are meant to aid the fight against the insurgency. But there are other brands of diplomacy that can get in the way of the fight.
Iraqi women can't be searched by men, and female Marines aren't usually available. Most of the women wear burqas, often covering them from the tops of their heads to the ground, allowing them to conceal anything underneath. Worse, men could dress as women, with face coverings, and slip through checkpoints untouched.
The Marines have the same problem with the mosques. In Fallujah, the City of Mosques, Marines raid and search any building they want to except for those many places of worship. The buildings are scattered, big and small, everywhere in the city, and the insurgents are well aware that the Marines do not set foot in them.
The mosques are used against them. Snipers routinely shoot at Marines from the big, twin-towered mosque across the street from the main entrance to the Civil-Military Operations Center. Charlie Company's leaders would love to search such places and are sure they would find stashes of weapons. But politics prevent it.
They have to respect Islam, even if the insurgents won't.
The Fallujah city council chairman, Najm Abdullah Suwad al-Isawi, calls a meeting to order, wishing everybody the traditional peace and blessings under Allah.
Instead of addressing the people of the city, the council more often directs its speech-making at the Marines, who attend each week. The council is not yet an independent group, and defers to those who carry rifles into the room, the overseers of Fallujah's martial law.
The chairman talks through a translator about the security situation, how the dealings between the people, police and soldiers are ``very good right now.'' All the tribes,'' he says, ``have been cooperating with the police.''
``There's cooperation from the citizens with them to find out the names of all the insurgents and terrorists,'' al-Isawi says.
Next up is Salah Khalil Hamad al Ani, chief of police, with more of the same. ``The truth is, lately the situation in Fallujah has improved a lot.''
Maybe neither man has heard about last night, the tense news that rolled through the building next door, Charlie Company's base, like a blast wave: Marines have been hit in the south part of town and need help.
Those Marines were from another company in the battalion, overseeing headquarters and support. They had just been here, running a security convoy for the trucks that picked up Charlie Company's garbage and emptied its outdoor toilets. They were going down to a checkpoint on the south edge of town. The blast that stopped them was big.
Charlie Company was called to respond, and the Marines were in a grim hurry. ``Get the ... down here!'' somebody shouted up the central stairwell. ``We've got men bleeding on the road!''
When they arrived, four Marines were in serious shape. They had been in the lead Humvee when it was hit from below with a bomb or a mine buried in the road, an explosion that heaved the floor and the contents of the vehicle up toward its roof. There were burns, shrapnel and protruding bones. The legs of one Marine were barely attached. All the Marines had to be rushed to the surgical hospital at Camp Fallujah.
When the Marines of Charlie Company returned to their building late that night, they didn't have diplomacy on their minds.
Reporter Jesse Hamilton and photographer Tom Brown are embedded with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, in Fallujah.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun