WITH THE U.S. MARINES, Central Iraq - The war stopped briefly yesterday for members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.
In a simple ceremony held along the muddy route of an unfinished road about 100 miles south of Baghdad, the Marines crawled from their fighting holes, removed their helmets and hung their heads in prayer to say goodbye to two Marines who were killed during the past week.
Corpsman Michael Johnson Jr., 25, of Little Rock, Ark., was killed Tuesday when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee during an ambush on his convoy by the Iraqi Army.
Maj. Kevin G. Nave, 36, the executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., was killed Wednesday night when he was accidentally run over by an earthmover as the Marines made a fuel stop on their 200-mile push from Kuwait.
"He died doing what he loved most: being a Marine. I know he would want us to move on," Lt. Col. Carl Mundy, commander of the battalion, to whom Nave served as a supporting officer, told a crowd of about 100 Marines gathered together on a bright morning.
"When we lose somebody, it makes us stronger. He was a brother to us," Corpsman Paul Brian Elder of San Diego, Calif., said of Johnson.
Chaplain Mark Tannis stood before a hastily assembled altar made of metal supply boxes topped with a cross and an American flag. In front were two M-16s capped with battle helmets, one for Nave, one for Johnson.
Dressed in chemical suits and body armor, Marines formed a ring around the altar. Some cradled rocket launchers or rifles in their hands as they knelt in prayer.
Addressing them through a loudspeaker, Tannis said that they might not understand why their two fellow Marines were killed, but they must not lose faith.
"There aren't any simple answers to these why questions - at least on this side of heaven," said Tannis, who wore camouflage vestments for the service.
"What can we do now? We can pick up the pieces. We can move on - because move on we must."
Then Tannis passed out laminated music sheets titled "Songs for the Desert."
He asked them to sing "Amazing Grace." Their voices lifted briefly over the sounds of passing tanks and revving armored vehicle engines.
Then one by one the Marines stepped forward to rest a hand on the helmets of Johnson and Nave.
Some wept openly and hugged one another. Tannis said a closing prayer.
The ceremony was over. The war was not.
All Marines were ordered back to their stations to continue to fight.