His stomach jumped into his throat when he heard the news. It was the worst feeling he ever had. He wished it was him instead of his friend the day the suicide bomber attacked. He thought he could have been faster and missed the explosion. But it wasn't him. That day, James Reilly lost a friend; a wife, her husband; two kids, their dad.
"It should have been me," was all Reilly could muster.
Like father, like son
When James Reilly was 17, it was no surprise that he announced he wanted to join the United States Marine Corps. His father was a Marine, his mother worked at a military hospital and his older brother was an Army veteran. His mother wanted a different life for him, but he had already made up his mind. He was going. And his dad, with whom he never had a close relationship, was proud. On his 18th birthday, he enlisted.
Then Sept. 11 happened. He received his orders to report to duty in spring 2002, when he was a student at Penn State Altoona. Reilly had a good feeling about his deployment, even though he was told he would be going to a "bad" place. Following this excitement, he decided to marry his girlfriend.
"That's the problem with going off to war," he said. "You try to live your entire life in three days. I got married thinking, 'What if I die?' I lived. Go figure."
He checked into his reserve unit and received his training. He was set to be a Humvee driver, transporting other Marines to various locations and leaving himself prone to gunfire and daily ambushes.
His reserve unit was activated on Jan. 14, 2003 -- he was going to Kuwait. As he packed his bags, he turned to his father. Throughout his childhood, Reilly was taught that boys don't cry. As he walked out the door, he saw the tears run down his father's face as he quickly wiped them away.
On March 20, 2003, the same day the War in Iraq was announced, Reilly was on its outskirts. His unit was moving munition and equipment into Baghdad, where enemy combatants had fortified themselves. In the four days it took to enter the country, he only had four hours of sleep. To keep awake, he stared at the red brake lights of the Humvee in front of him as he drove.
His unit ran out of water and food. Typically, Marines eat three Ready-to-Eat meals during combat, which provides them with about 1,200 calories each. During this time, Reilly was splitting one meal with another Marine. The rest of his deployment was spent retrieving weapons like AK-47s and road tanks out of schools and hospitals.
He received a hero's welcome as he returned on Sept. 11, 2003, seeing his family for the first time in nine months. His father, who had never talked about his experience in Vietnam, began telling stories. Reilly and his dad began getting closer, but his friends noticed a difference. They said he was mean and they called him unkind. He shrugged off their comments -- his friends had no idea what he had been through.
He went back to school at Penn State. Two weeks before the end of the spring 2004 semester, Reilly received his warning orders. He would be deployed to Ramadi, Iraq. He quit going to classes and focused on what awaited him: full-out war.
"You'll be dealt with"
October and November were spent repairing a damaged Ramadi. The trucks he drove barely held together. He was given one tour around the town -- that was his only chance to memorize the area. A couple hours later, he was attacked.
Insurgents took artillery shells, loaded them with dynamite, encased them in cement and ran a detonator to them. When Reilly's truck turned the corner, they let it go. Boulders flew everywhere, smashing into the side of his vehicle. He had to give them credit -- they were creative.
People were dying to the left and right of him. That was when his friend, a "model Marine," was killed. The suicide bomb that ended his life and left his family without a father wasn't the Marine's first brush with death. Before that, he had been hit by a roadside bomb that burned parts of his face. The man's death stuck with Reilly, even after he left the service.
The Marines had to strengthen their stance. Residents had 48 hours to vacate, or they would be considered terrorists. The troops showed no mercy.
"If you are a terrorist, stick around -- you'll be dealt with," he said.
As the number of deaths escalated, his unit was asked to write letters to be sent to their families in the event of their death. Reilly couldn't do it. He cried for an hour as he imagined never seeing his wife, parents and siblings ever again. His letter to his dad came easy: "Hey dad, sorry ... they got me," he wrote. The courage for the other letters took longer. But he pulled himself together. It was time to go on his mission and prepare for imminent death, he said.
"It's like Russian roulette," he said. "After your first time not dying, you know your chances are limited."
On his last day, Reilly and his unit were ambushed. Most trucks have armor -- his didn't. The bullets kept flying overhead and Reilly had had enough. He moved to one side of the truck, peered out from a tiny opening and began shooting. His unit couldn't believe it. "Reilly, stop! You are going to get yourself killed!" But he didn't care.
Writing letters to his family in anticipation of his death brought Reilly to terms with his own mortality. He handled events one day at a time. In his mind, he was a machine, almost invincible. Nothing mattered. He didn't care about the future because he didn't see one. He lived his entire life for the guy on his right and the guy on his left. He refused to leave wishing there was more he could have done.
Trying to cope
Reilly's transition to civilian life was hard. He didn't have a job and was strapped for cash, so he began delivering pizza in order to keep the bills paid. His wife was a 911 dispatcher. Money was always a problem for them. His wife urged him to stay home at night, but he wanted to celebrate making it out alive.
He drank excessively to cope with his memories. After nights out, he would drive home inebriated. He still wasn't afraid of death. But this time, he realized it wouldn't only be his life on the line.
"I know, I know it was a stupid, immature thing to do," he said. "I can't believe I was so dumb. I regret every minute of it."
His wife complained and he became more frustrated. He had a low-paying job, no prospects for the future and a crumbling marriage. He separated from his wife in the summer of 2007. Two months later, they got a divorce.
At 26, Reilly is a now a Penn State student, war veteran, divorcee and future engineer. In December, he will graduate with degrees in chemical engineering and energy engineering. He often sleeps in the HUB-Robeson Center, if at all, because of his course work.
Even though he is happy to not be fighting right now, he misses the military routine and the mutual respect everyone had for each other. Here, it isn't the same.
"There are punks trying to look tough around here," he said. "But they aren't impressing me. And when I tell them something, and they reply, 'I don't have to listen to you,' I realize they are absolutely right -- they don't. But it would be in their benefit to. It's also nice."