Chad and Noah Griffith, 10 and 9

Marines Maj. Sam M. Griffith, 36

Died Dec. 14, 2011

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The guns were strewn across the playroom floor, a Nerf arsenal prepped for mayhem. The children at Noah Griffith’s birthday party — eager to begin the battle for backyard supremacy — picked through 17 weapons.

One of Noah’s friends reached for a worn toy revolver, its blue and yellow paint chipping on the edges. His brother and frequent adversary, Chad, 10, stopped her.

“She needs a gun,” said Noah, a day from turning 9. But that gun, Chad told him, belonged to Dad. He snatched it away. The boys gave her a different weapon, and soon nearly a dozen heavily armed prepubescents ventured into a cold Virginia Beach afternoon.

From his fortification of lawn chairs, towels and a Superman umbrella, Noah announced the rules. No destroying bases. Get shot five times, and you’re out.

With that, he held up his hand and counted down.

“Three, two, one — Nerrrrrrf!”

Noah sprinted toward his brother’s stronghold, shielded by a collapsible mini soccer goal. Chad had hidden the revolver beneath a wheelbarrow behind him. On another day, he might have let someone else use it. But on this one — when his brother’s birthday party was being held on the third anniversary of their dad’s death — Chad couldn’t bear it.

He had begged his father, Marine Maj. Sam Griffith, not to deploy to Afghanistan.

“I do not want you to go to war,” Chad wrote in jagged print letters. “If you die I will cry for a long time.”

The family learned that a Taliban sniper had killed him on Dec. 14, 2011, one day before Noah’s sixth birthday. The distraught kindergartner asked his grandfather to help him remove every photo of Griffith from their walls. Chad, then 7, simply refused to believe it.

Six months after the funeral, the brothers watched other children leap into their fathers’ arms at a homecoming for Griffith’s comrades. Chad turned to his mom, Casey, and asked, “Did he get off the bus?”

Almost three years later, the birthday combatants paused mid-battle to debate a winner. It was hard to tell. Foam orange darts littered the grass.

“You guys are all dead,” Noah decided. “We killed you.”

“We’re friends,” Noah said. “And then we’re enemies,” Chad interjected.

Gun drawn, Chad appeared from behind the shed. “I’m not dead yet, punks,” he shouted. At that moment, perhaps the only thing that could precipitate a cease-fire arrived at the front door: pizza.

Chad took his slice to the living-room couch, away from the other kids. He resented that his brother got more attention on birthdays than he did. “People always overcompensate with Noah,” Casey explained.

Both boys said they got along better when their dad was alive. When each evening he would hug them and read “You Will Go to the Moon” and then hug them once more.

“We go half and half,” Noah said before the party. “We’re friends . . . ”

“And then we’re enemies,” Chad interjected.

Noah, plagued by night terrors after his dad’s death, refused to sleep alone, so the brothers shared a room. That annoyed Chad. He would tell Noah to grow up.

The day before the party, they fought over who would lay a wreath on Griffith’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Chad, at one point, wouldn’t walk away from the headstone. “When I leave the grave,” he said, “I feel like I leave my dad all over again.” That evening, Noah had another night terror.

Casey, her life as a single mom further complicated by a newborn daughter, understood that her boys had to mourn in their own ways.

After the pizza, she brought out a mint-chocolate-chip ice-cream cake. Chad said he didn’t want any. As Noah opened gifts, his older brother slumped onto the kitchen floor.

Noah always got more presents, he told his mom a bit later. That wasn’t fair. He went to the playroom and shut the door. This was about more than a birthday, Casey knew. Chad was entitled to these moments. He loved his brother. He’d come back out.

Chad soon emerged, lugging a trash can packed with the Nerf guns. Noah and the others gathered around, making their selections. Chad reached down to the bottom and pulled out his dad’s revolver.

Grinning, Noah counted down.

“Three, two, one.”

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.