For young Marines on the verge of war, a puzzling suicide

First Sgt. Miguel Pares ended the spoken part of the ceremony by calling the roll of some of the men in Dillon's platoon. When he came to the dead man's name, he shouted three times: "Pfc. Dillon! Pfc. Dillon! Pfc. Dillon!" There was no answer; only the mournful music of taps sifting through the hot tent along with the wind-blown brown sand.

CAMP RIPPER, KUWAIT-Pfc. James R. Dillon, Jr., of Grove City, Pa., gave his Marine buddies his usual warm smile as he excused himself to enter one of the portable toilets that dot this dusty desert encampment some 30 miles from Iraq's southern border. He then locked the door, put the muzzle of his M-16 rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Dillon ended his young life on March 13, four days after laughingly celebrating his 19th birthday with his buddies in B Company's headquarters platoon within the 3rd Battalion of the Light Armor Reconnaissance outfit here. Officers here say he is the first suicide among the 20,000 or so Marines who started spreading themselves out on the Kuwaiti desert in January, but records here are too minimal to be certain of that.

Everyone on this desolate brown springboard for U.S. military power knows how Dillon became an early casualty in what may soon be Gulf War II. What is unknown is why.

"Why such a young life would come to such a tragic end, I don't know," said 3rd Battalion Chaplain Adolph Smith at a touching ceremony in a rectangular yellow tent whose peak is held up by eight poles snaked with fluorescent tubes of light. "What could I have done? What could each of us have done?" asked the chaplain and several others who stood before Dillon's helmet and boots set on a table behind the eulogizers.

"I'm kind of mad at him for not coming to us and telling us what was going on," said Sgt. Brian Ragland, 21, who was among those in the company who regarded Dillon as a little brother who often messed up-such as when he failed to return on time from Christmas leave-but who was trying hard to improve.

1st Lt. Michael Holcomb, 25, executive officer of Dillon's company, had tears streaming down his face as he read most of Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The Parting of the Column." One verse sounded particularly apt for this dustbowl, where Marines sleep on their tents' plywood floors, not even on cots, much less beds:

"Together for a year and more around this stinkin' land.
Now you are going home again, but we must see it through.
We needn't tell we liked you well.
Goodbye. Good luck to you."

The Marines knew the ceremony was over, that they had given their buddy the traditional military goodbye. But they lingered in the tent, still trying to puzzle out how something like this could happen to invincible teenagers like themselves. Chaplain Smith invited them to write something to Dillon's mother, of whom the dead Marine spoke often. One young Marine after another kneeled to write messages on plain white sheets of paper put on the table besides Dillon's boots and helmet.

"Your son, my brother in the Marine Corps, lives on in a better place," wrote one. "I feel like I failed him and failed his family," wrote another. Then they filed out of the tent, M-16 rifles in hand, ready to risk their own lives in another "stinkin' land."