Days can be light or dark

 
U.S. Marine Corporal Richard Cope, 23, of Michigan enjoys the scent of a rose plucked from the gardens of Baghdad College where the Fox Company, Second Tank Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, are camped in the north of Baghdad on April 11, 2003. After weeks of being in the desert, bountiful and colorful Iraqi gardens greeted the Marines.

U.S. Marine Corporal Richard Cope, 23, of Michigan enjoys the scent of a rose plucked from the gardens of Baghdad College where the Fox Company, Second Tank Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, are camped in the north of Baghdad on April 11, 2003. After weeks of being in the desert, bountiful and colorful Iraqi gardens greeted the Marines.

 

One early morning, as the 2nd Tank Battalion was on the road to Baghdad, I saw a young grunt with rosy cheeks resting on the ground on his elbows holding a rose to his nose, inhaling its delicate scent. I grabbed my camera and quietly began shooting pictures of him.

Cpl. Richard Cope, 23, was not a boy and not yet a man. With green knit gloves, fingertips cut off, one pinky high in the air, grime embedded in every crevice of his hands, he raised the rose, and into my frame appeared another Marine who bent down to share a deep breath of the flower's perfume. I snapped several more frames and smiled to myself, happy to witness this moment of gentleness.

His comrades saw me and began to make fun of him, telling him that his reputation would be ruined. Or, another said, perhaps women would see the photo and fall in love with his feminine side.

 
You’ll be known as the Sentimental Soldier.
— Fellow Marine
 

Later, it was revealed that the same Marine was involved in the deaths of several Iraqi civilians when a bus tried to run a checkpoint and barrel into the intersection near our encampment by the town of Al Aziziyah.

I had photographed the aftermath of that horrendous night. The bodies of a woman, man and two children lay in a pool of blood on the floor of a minibus. Stunned survivors wept in a nearby structure and awaited help from Navy medics.

The bus that the young infantryman and his comrades shot up was sandwiched between two ammunition trucks, both of which had tried to run the checkpoint.

That was also the same night that three 122 mm rockets hit just 20 feet away from our encampment. And it was the night after the battalion had fought through a daylong ambush, with three Marines lost and seven others injured.

I know that I am supposed to be objective, but this war got personal for me that night. Near-death experiences can do that. After three rockets exploded near us, a refrain kept repeating in my head: Please make it stop. Just please, make it stop.

And this young man did. The infantryman, not yet a man, had to make a man's decision. Had he not, I may not be alive today. I was overwhelmed to hear his story.

For me and for the rest of the battalion, he will carry the burden of that night's decision. He must live with the memories of his actions and their results. In war, nothing is black and white.