In a flash, Marine in spotlight

Marine Lance Cpl. Marcco Ware carries a wounded Iraqi soldier, who was shot three times during an attack on a convoy of the 3rd Battalion, Fifth Regiment. One Marine was killed, as were about 35 Iraqis.
Marine Lance Cpl. Marcco Ware carries a wounded Iraqi soldier, who was shot three times during an attack on a convoy of the 3rd Battalion, Fifth Regiment. One Marine was killed, as were about 35 Iraqis. (Sun photo by John Makely)
Marine Lance Cpl. Marcco Ware was on guard duty last night, gazing across a dark Iraqi landscape of palm trees, irrigated fields and deserted houses, when he heard that President Bush was praising him.

Bush, who was thousands of miles away at the Marine base in Camp Lejeune, N.C., was talking about a photograph of Ware carrying a wounded Iraqi soldier from the battlefield. The photograph was made March 25 by Sun photographer John Makely and was published in newspapers around the world.

"Many Americans have seen the picture of Marine Lance Corporal Marcco Ware carrying a wounded Iraqi soldier on his shoulders to safety for medical treatment," Bush said to cheers from the 12,000 Marines in his audience.

"That's a picture of the strength and goodness of the U.S. Marines. That is the picture of America. People of the United States are proud of the honorable conduct of our military, and I'm proud to lead such brave and decent Americans."

Ware is 20 years old. That day, he had come under fire for the first time. The battle had lasted about 30 minutes. One Marine was killed, another seriously wounded.

And when it was over, he and the other members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines went to the aid of the Iraqi soldiers who had just been trying to kill them.

"I just wanted to get the man out of there," Ware said yesterday. "I just did what I was trained to do. We might be there to kick your behind, but if you're surrendering, we're there to pick you up and give you some water and help you out."

Ware, who is from Los Angeles, was told about the president's comments last night by Makely and Sun correspondent John Murphy, who have been traveling with the Marines since they left Kuwait for Iraq.

He was released from guard duty for a few minutes to talk about it.

Earlier yesterday, in the town of Azizyah, these Marines had been in their third significant fight. That first one had been an ambush, and they fought without air support.

They had been near Diwaniyah when Iraqis fired Kalashnikovs, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at them from behind a sand berm.

"The next thing I knew I was running out of the back of the AAV [amphibious assault vehicle.] They were firing at us," Ware recalled. "I always pictured it as being far away. But we were really close, about 80 meters. We weren't far at all."

Ware fired his rifle; his gunner had a small rocket launcher. And then it was over.

"We had 13 or 14 EPOW's in the ditch," he said. "The injured ones weren't able to walk. So one guy boosted him up, and I grabbed hold of his hands. Then I carried him the rest of the way. It was about 400 or 500 meters.

"The doc walked behind for security, because I had a knife in my pack and I didn't want him to get it and slit my throat.

"He was in a lot of pain. He was screaming in pain. He was trying to talk to us in his language, but I couldn't understand him. I tried to be as gentle as I could."

Ware is 6 feet tall. The Iraqi was about 6 inches shorter.

"I carried him to the casualty collection point," Ware said. "The doc treated him. He had three wounds, in the leg and thigh and rear. His kneecap was blown out. Then they med-evaced him."

Ware never knew the name of the man he helped, but he thinks he must have recovered.

Makely said the picture was taken right after the Iraqis had ambushed the Marines' convoy.

Makely saw a figure carrying another person, perhaps 50 yards away. "You could barely make out that somebody was carrying somebody else," he said. "It just strikes me that he was carrying a guy who was just trying to kill him."

Ware, said Makely, couldn't believe it later when he heard that his face had been seen all over the world. Neither could Ware's wife, Caroline, back at home in Los Angeles.

"I just totally flipped out," said Caroline Ware, also 20, remembering the excited phone call from her father telling her that her husband's photograph was in the Los Angeles Times. They had seen it first on the Web site, then in the newspaper.

(Bush aides said they noticed it on the Christian Science Monitor Web site.)

"I couldn't believe it - my baby is a hero," Caroline said. She wanted to tell him, "Baby, you're a star!"

And now, the president agrees.

"That's his boss, and he knows who Marcco is," Caroline Ware marveled yesterday from Los Angeles, where she is a receptionist at the church they both attend.

"It's an honor to be his wife and have the president mention him. I know the president doesn't say things arbitrarily, and he knows who my husband is."

On Monday, Caroline Ware leaves for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. She, too, is joining the military, and she would have been happier if Marcco could have been there to see her off.

"I'm a little scared, and I wrote him the other day," she said, adding that her husband motivated her to sign up. "My dream is that he'll be home to see me graduate."

Both are from South Central Los Angeles and have known each other since they were 9 years old. They married a year and two months ago.

Though they dated in high school, where Marcco Ware played football and ran track, they became seriously involved only after he joined the Marines.

Marcco, the oldest of five children, joined the Marines to escape the fate of the friends he saw getting jailed or even killed on the streets.

"He wanted a better life," his wife said. "He saw that in the military."

Back in Iraq, her husband was still somewhat surprised by all the attention. He would have liked to have been there when the president spoke, so he could shake his hand. But Bush isn't his first president.

"I got to meet Bill Clinton," he said. "He came to the 'hood, back on the block once, when I was pretty young."

For now, it's back to duty. Last night, Ware had just eaten his second meal of the day, an MRE of spaghetti and meatballs, crackers and cheese, M&Ms and what he called "a powder-based beverage like Kool-Aid."

His other meal of the day had been beef and mushrooms. "That's one of the nasty ones," he said, and it comes with pound cake, peanut butter and crackers.

For the past two weeks, he said, as supplies have run low, the Marines have been getting only two meals a day. For a couple of days, they only had one meal, and some Marines were sharing even those.

Even though each meal has 1,500 calories, it hasn't seemed plentiful for men who are fighting a war. Ware, however, refused to complain.

"I'm just pretty proud," he said. "This is what Marines do. That's what it's all about."

The photo, his wife said, perfectly captures him - his strength, and another side.

"That's exactly who he is," she said, "the sweetest guy."