He prayed that every Marine entrusted to his care would make it out of Iraq alive. But a roadside bomb claimed one of his men, then two more fell in Fallujah. Now, almost a year after Capt. Michael Pretus returned from the war, he said, "There's not a day, not an hour that goes by that I don't think of them."
So, on a Sunday afternoon last month, he walked into a Fredericksburg tattoo parlor and had their names etched into his right shoulder in precise lettering fit for a plaque. Above each is the symbol of a fallen warrior: a pair of empty boots and an erect rifle, adorned with a helmet. In the background, silhouettes of 20 other Marines represent the surviving members of Pretus's platoon.
Behind them is the orange-red glow of a sunset -- or a sunrise. Pretus, a 30-year-old from Fredericksburg with a Marine's muscular build, a sniper's intense gaze and a scholar's sense of history, hasn't decided which.
"This is my tribute to them," he said, as the artist's buzzing tattoo machine injected ink into his arm. "They are my heroes. . . . As a platoon commander, these parents look at you and say, 'Take care of my son.' It eats at you. I wish I could have brought them all home alive."
Commemorating combat experience with a tattoo is a warrior ritual that stretches back centuries, a practice "as old as war itself," said C.W. Eldridge, a historian for the National Tattoo Association and owner of the Tattoo Archive, a Berkeley, Calif., tattoo studio.
Like their counterparts in past wars, Iraq veterans are choosing traditional patriotic symbols -- U.S. flags, eagles, names of units -- for their tattoos. But some images are strikingly personal. Aided by improved pigments and more sophisticated equipment, they reveal in graphic detail the pain and permanence of war.
Mike Ergo, 22, a former Marine, had specific instructions for his tattoo artist. The enemy's hair had to be curly and dark, the beard thick. This was part of a face etched into his memory, that of the first insurgent he killed during the battle of Fallujah last November.
Ergo wanted it to come out just right.
In the tattoo, inked onto the inside of his left forearm in April, the enemy fighter is being slain by Saint Michael, the archangel, who stands, sword drawn, with his foot on the back of the man's head. The image is a reminder, Ergo said, that he survived one of the deadliest, bloodiest battles of the war -- and the other guy didn't.
"The tattoo kind of just helps me to see that this guy got what was coming to him," said Ergo, who lives near San Francisco.
His unit was going house to house when it came across a group of insurgents hiding in a small room underneath a stairwell. As soon as the Marines opened the door, the enemy fighters slammed it shut and started firing. "Bullets were everywhere," Ergo recalled. "I couldn't believe they missed us."
The Marines unloaded scores of rounds into the door, Ergo said, and just when they thought all the insurgents were dead, one popped out and threw a grenade at them. After it went off, Ergo charged.
"Thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to die,' doesn't help the situation," he said. But he "was definitely scared that I'm going to get shot in the face."
He kicked open the door and found himself standing just a few feet from a man who raised his gun and yelled "Allahu Akbar!" -- God is the greatest! Ergo fired eight to 10 shots into his chest, he said.
"It's one of those things you can't really forget, you know?" Ergo said. "I see his face every day anyway. It just flashes through my mind when I go to sleep."
Matthew Brown's tattoo begins with a bluish-green N just below his knee, followed by the letters O-V-E-M-B-E, descending to the R inked above his ankle. Instead of numerals, the 11 is spelled out by a pair of bullets.
It's the day Brown was shot by a sniper in Fallujah. So much blood spilled from his sliced femoral vein he turned a ghostly white, and a chaplain read him his last rites as he lay in a morphine daze.
" 'God be with you, son,' " he remembers the chaplain saying.
"I'll never forget it," said Brown, 21.
That's why he decided to have the date tattooed on the side of his right calf. He and several other Marines were holed up in a former convenience store when he was hit in the upper thigh. Medics quickly put a tourniquet on his leg and evacuated him to a field hospital, where the priest blessed him.
When the doctors sedated him, he said, he went into a coma and didn't wake up until almost a week later and thousands of miles away at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Brown, who was a lance corporal, has since received a medical discharge from the Marine Corps and has returned to his home outside Carlisle, Pa.
Not long after Carmine Castelli returned from Iraq, he turned his back into a shrine for his fallen friends. In ornate script between his shoulder blades, the 20-year-old Marine Corps lance corporal carries the words, "Rest In Peace U.S. Marines." The names of five of his buddies flank the empty boots of the fallen warrior.
Remembering the dead was not enough for Castelli, who is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; he wanted to make them part of him. So in May he decided to have their names inscribed into his skin. "They were my best friends," he said. "I'll never regret it. These are guys I'll always have in my heart. . . . They should have their names shown off. They earned that right."
At the bottom of the tattoo, near his waist, are the words, "Burn Down Fallujah." That was, he said, a Marine mantra as they went block by bloody block, rooting out insurgents during intense urban combat.
Last year, when members of the 101st Airborne Division were first coming back from the war, many of them stopped by Donna Vinge's tattoo parlor, not far from the front gates of Fort Campbell, Ky., to get tattoos commemorating the war.
But as the 101st headed back to Iraq for another tour recently, the soldiers wanted talismans, symbols to give them strength and protection in battle. Vinge's artists have been busy inking angels fighting off demons with swords, names of loved ones, horseshoes and centaurs, she said.
One soldier, shipping out the next day, said he wanted a four-leaf clover.
"I better get something that'll give me good luck."