By Ravi Nessman, AP
As his new bride, Amanda, and her friends chuckle at stories over dinner, Jack Self stares in silence. He doesn't laugh much anymore.
Jack has spent half of the last two years patrolling the cities of Iraq, dodging sniper fire and roadside bombs, and watching friends die. The 26-year-old Marine corporal no longer sees the humor in everyday life.
His first deployment Self now calls "Disneyland.' His second stint in Iraq, fighting the deadly, amorphous Sunni insurgency, that was "Vietnam.' The first was a mission of liberation. The second was an apocalyptic nightmare.
Self knows he's changed, but it is hard to tell how. He only really sees himself reflected in the mirror of Amanda's eyes. She tells him he is more serious than he used to be, perhaps more aggressive.
He sees it too, in comrades from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Some can't sleep. Some use alcohol to numb themselves. Others try counseling.
The deaths of civilians gnawed at Self's conscience.
On April 9, 2003, the day Baghdad fell, as the Marines waved civilian cars off the road, one car did not stop. The Marines screamed for it to stop. Now dangerously close, it flashed its headlights and continued.
Self, perched behind his gun on top of the Humvee, squeezed the trigger. Seven grenades tore through the car's windshield, and the vehicle exploded in flames.
The Marines watched in silence, waiting for the fire to detonate any explosives or ammunition inside the car. Nothing, not even the sound of bullets cooking off, interrupted the faint notes of Johnny Cash's "Live From Folsom Prison' playing on the speakers in Self's turret.
The three people in the car were almost definitely civilians, and they were dead.
Still behind the gun, Self looked down at me, standing in the road, and let out an angry, defensive yell: "Yeah, I'm a monster!'
He is still haunted by the image of the burning sedan, and the thought of the other victims of his gun. Dozens, scores, maybe more, he's not really sure.
"That's something I think about: If I'll see the faces of every person I killed.'
He even worries he'll be haunted by those whose faces he never saw.
He saw nine comrades killed. Many others were badly injured.
"I don't know what's worse, a guy that's dead or a guy with his arm and half his face blown off. He's only got one eye and he's crying out of his one eye and he's patting his arm looking for it,' he said.
At first, Self was reluctant to talk of his friends' deaths. In time, the stories poured out.
One Marine was laying concertina wire when he suddenly fell over dead. A single sniper's bullet had pierced his heart. Another jumped on a grenade and covered it with his helmet, sacrificing his life to save his friends.
Once, a Marine was shot and vomiting. The medic couldn't bring himself to do CPR, so Self did. The Marine died anyway. "I can still smell it. I can still see his eyes and know he's dead,' he said.
On a mission searching for bombs, Self's vehicle cruised past an elaborate explosive device: two rockets hidden in a roadside pile of garbage. As the next Humvee passed, the rockets were remotely launched into it, tearing through a group of Marines sitting in the back.
Self and a medic sprinted to help and found the vehicle, which had been filled with their friends, soaked with blood and carnage. Three Marines died.
"That was the worst thing I've ever seen,' Self said.
Some Marines reacted to their buddies' deaths by wanting to kill everybody, Self said. Others froze up.
Back home now, the Marines of the 3/7 carry the scars of war.
One terrified his wife when he swerved across lanes of highway traffic to avoid a bag of garbage, fearing it was a roadside bomb.
Another told of grabbing his girlfriend and running for cover at the crackle of fireworks after a college football game and of checking the rooms of her house for guerrillas when he woke to use the bathroom in the night.
Self, in a sleepy daze, leapt out of bed when he mistook the red light on a hotel smoke detector for a tracer round. Amanda told him he coordinates troop movements and calls out grid positions in his sleep.
The first time he returned to an American shopping mall, he was unnerved by the wide open spaces and by the numerous places snipers could hide. He wanted to back into a corner. "You don't have security to your rear, to your flanks,' he said. He turned and hurried out.
Now Self has Amanda and his dreams of their future together. He has already sent out applications to fire departments in Texas, looking for a job for after he leaves the Marines early next year.
He just has one more nightmare to confront first. The 3/7 is scheduled to return to Iraq in September.