Marine Lance Cpl. Ben Sanbeck is home from Iraq for the holidays, although not in a way he and his friends and family might have hoped.
The 19-year-old arrived back in Tacoma on Saturday for a month or so of convalescent leave. He needs time to heal from the seven surgeries he's had since Nov. 16, when a hand grenade exploded right behind him and splattered his lower legs with burning shards of steel.
The Wilson High School graduate is just starting to walk again, and he faces a long regimen of physical therapy if he is to regain strength in his muscles, tendons and ankles.
But he suffered other wounds that day as well. Five Marines were killed in the firefight at that farmhouse in Ubaydi, near the Syrian border - some of them trying to rescue him and other wounded men.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"He'd been putting up a brave front, but lately now he's been showing some emotion, which is good, " said Sanbeck's father, Dave. "It's a lot for a young guy to carry."
The 19-year-old lost his team leader, a young corporal from Oklahoma he emulated and admired.
"It's a gut check, " the younger Sanbeck said from his hospital bed last week at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.
"I have my moments from time to time."
He and his family flew home Saturday. His dad; his mom, Sheri; and his girlfriend, Jenny Allen, have been with him at the hospital.
Sanbeck's unit was attached to the II Marine Expeditionary Force, which has sustained heavy casualties trying to secure the restive region west of Baghdad.
In the nearly three years since the war began, 147 Marines from II MEF have died in combat.
Ten more Marines with the expeditionary force were killed in an ambush in Fallujah on Friday - the deadliest single attack against U.S. troops since August.
Sanbeck said he is mourning the loss and talking to people about his feelings.
More than anything, he said, he longs to get back to his unit, and he wants everyone to know who the heroes were that day.
"I was just laying there, I was bleeding out and everything, " he said. "It was the guys who gave their lives trying to save mine.
"They're the heroes."
A mentor among those lost
Those Marines were Sanbeck's team leader, Cpl. Joshua J. Ware, 20, of Apache, Okla.; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Deeds, 24, of Biloxi, Miss.; Lance Cpl. John A. Lucente, 19, of Grass Valley, Calif.; Cpl. Jeffry A. Rogers, 21, of Oklahoma City; and 2nd Lt. Donald R. McGlothlin, 26, of Lebanon, Va.
They and Sanbeck served in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Sanbeck looked up to Ware, who was on his second trip to Iraq.
"Corporal Ware taught me so much. He was always calling me the prodigy, " Sanbeck said.
"He was an outstanding Marine, and I was following in his footsteps.
"If I could be half of what he was, that would be an outstanding accomplishment for me."
Sanbeck graduated from Wilson in 2004. He'd participated in the Marine Corps JROTC program there and had planned all along to apply for a spot at the U.S. Naval Academy.
But his senior year, he had a change of heart and decided to enlist in the Corps.
"I wanted to be a grunt, " he said. "I figured to go through what they go through would make me a better officer."
After boot camp and advanced infantry training, he joined his unit at Camp Pendleton last February and set off aboard the USS Cleveland in July.
The unit spent time training in Hawaii, Australia and Egypt before going to Kuwait and then overland to Iraq.
He said he can't remember how long the troops had been in the country when they embarked on Operation Steel Curtain, an offensive against insurgents along the Syrian border.
They'd been up and down through the villages in the area for 10 days or so. They'd call out over a loudspeaker to tell the Iraqis to leave their homes and vehicles unlocked so the Marines wouldn't have to break open the doors.
Sanbeck and the others anticipated trouble at that farmhouse 2 1/2 weeks ago.
They threw a flash-bang grenade into the building to stun any fighters inside, then went in.
Sanbeck said he was first through the door into a long hallway. As the smoke cleared, he saw an enemy grenade bounce off his chest, off the wall to his left and then toward the floor behind him.
"I didn't even get the full 'Grenade!' out of my mouth by the time it went off, " he recalled.
He went down, the explosion pushing him another 10 feet or so into the house. Ware took the brunt of the blast, he said.
Shrapnel hit Lance Cpl. Antonio Mendez in the shoulder and leg. Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Portillo had a bullet thump off his Kevlar helmet.
"Everybody was down on our team, " Sanbeck said. "They were trying to locate me. The firefight was occurring right there."
A second team of Marines was hit as they moved to the house to try to rescue Sanbeck and his teammates.
The Marines killed 16 enemy fighters in the engagement, according to news reports.
Now, the healing
U.S. military officials said they killed 139 enemy fighters and captured another 256 in the 17-day Steel Curtain offensive through the Euphrates River valley, which concluded Nov. 22. The operation teamed 2,000 U.S. troops with 1,000 Iraqi soldiers.
Commanders said their goal was to clear insurgents from the area, establish an Iraqi military presence and get the area ready for Iraq's parliamentary elections later this month.
For Sanbeck, the operation concluded in that grenade blast. He said he was told later that he lost two pints of blood before medics could get him to an aid station and then on to a sequence of field hospitals.
He was later flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then to San Diego.
The blast scattered metal fragments from his ankles to his lower back, with most of the damage from the knees down.
Surgeons made two vertical slits along each calf to provide relief for the swelling and shock from all the shrapnel. They stitched up the last of the slits Monday.
He said his doctors told him they've done all they can. Now it's up to him to push hard in rehab. The muscles are tight under the scars, and it will be painful, and time-consuming, to stretch them.
"I'm pretty determined to get up on my feet, " Sanbeck said.
Physical therapists from Madigan Army Medical Center will come see him at his father's house in North Tacoma.
As for those other wounds, the young Marine said he'll keep talking to his dad, and to others who understand.
A lot of veterans make the rounds at the hospital, checking in on the current generation of Marines.
"They take good care of us, you know, tell you, 'If you ever need somebody to talk to, ' " Sanbeck said.
"I talk to them. Those guys have been there. I've had a tiny taste of what they've seen. . . . Unless somebody's been there, experienced it first hand, it's hard for them to understand."
It will take time, he knows.
"I'm still in the mourning stage. It's a huge chunk out of me, " he said. "Just losing one of those guys would be a huge chunk. We were all pretty tight.
". . . I'm trying to honor the guys that have passed on. I'm not the hero of the situation. The guys who died trying to save me are."