FORWARD OPERATING BASE ECHO, Iraq -- Not too long ago, in the month of August, a young Marine died in combat in An Najaf, Iraq. His name was Pfc Nicholas M. Skinner, a raw-boned, rough-and-tumble, corn-fed young 20-year-old from the Midwest. His friends' pictures show a cocky infectious smile, a square firmly set jaw and a Clint Eastwood-like squint to his eyes. Despite his youth, however, his friends and fellow Marines all said the same thing about him … he was one tough Marine.
Skinner was one of two Marines from Company A, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), to fall during that month-long battle where the MEU and Iraqi Security Forces fought against Muqtada al-Sadr and his rag-tag militia.
Skinner, as he was known to everyone, no nick names, no fancy stuff, just plain 'Skinner,' died of wounds received in combat sometime in the afternoon of August 26, 2004.
"He was very proud of his name," said Skinner's best friend, Lance Cpl. Stephen T. Vincent, rifleman, 3rd Fireteam, 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon, Alpha Co., BLT 1/4. "Skinner was hard, it was tough, it was what he was … to us he was always just "Skinner.'"
Vincent, a Lake Forest, Calif., native, and a member of Skinner's fireteam, first met his buddy in Recruit Training. Skinner was in Platoon 1023 and he was in 1019.
"We met during competitions between the platoons," said 19-year-old Vincent. "Later on we were rack-mates in the School of Infantry. We were pretty much together all the time for about a year. We even ended up going to the same unit."
As he looks at the ceiling Vincent's eyes gleam as his mind's eye recalls the many hours, days, weeks and months spent with his best friend.
"I knew him better than I know my own brother. I lived with Skinner, everything we did, we did together … from when I woke up in the morning to when I went to sleep at night, he was always right there," Vincent said, his eyes focused again. "Even though I'm close to my brother, we didn't hang out during the day, we didn't go through the same stuff. I trained with (Skinner), I lived with him, and he became a part of my family."
Vincent said that if you knew Skinner, if you talked to him, you'd know all he ever wanted to do was fish and hunt. Fishing and hunting was everything he was about, along with chasing women. He loved it and he'd drag Vincent along every time too, unresisting because he loved to do those things also.
"One time we were driving down the road when he suddenly slams on his brakes, backs his car up over a little bridge and pulls a bow and arrow out of his trunk," dark-haired Vincent recalls, his youthful face relaxing into a smile and losing some of its seriousness. "He shot a dogfish right there from the bridge then he walked around waist-high in the water ruining everything in his pockets, but he didn't care because he was having fun fishing. That's the way he was, he'd drop everything to go fishing or hunting."
Besides fishing and hunting, Skinner loved anything to do with fighting -- boxing, wrestling, martial arts. You name it, Vincent said.
"Skinner was a fighter. He once broke his collar bone wrestling some 300 pound guy on something like the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Iowa," Vincent said, chuckling yet again. "The guy body-slammed him but Skinner kept fighting with one arm for the rest of the fight. He beat the guy pretty bad but since the guy broke (Skinner's) shoulder, he lost."
Skinner's rough and tumble manner wasn't without company though. Another close friend of his was always there to give him some competition, Lance Cpl. Anthony J. Macklin, a 20-year-old Creston, Ohio, native and a rifleman with 3rd Fireteam, 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon.
"We were always wrestling back at the barracks, we were about the same size but he was pretty strong," Macklin said with a grimace, probably recalling a painful tussle with his buddy. "I'm definitely a better grappler now because of Skinner, I'll tell you that."
Skinner loved to fight. That was one of the things that drew him to the Corps.
"He told me he joined because he loved three things -- hunting, killing and fighting. That's what he was best at, that's what he wanted to do and he figured the Marine Corps was the best place to do it," said Vincent. "He was one of the best fighters, he fit the job to a T. He was an infantry Marine through and through, that's why he joined and because he knew the Marines were the best."
According to Vincent, Skinner didn't want to touch a computer or sit behind a desk pushing paper, he just wanted to fight.
"He represented what's best in the Marine Corps. He was always ready to go. As soon as we got the order to go out on a patrol or some sort of mission he was one of the first ones out the door and in the back of the Humvee," said blond-haired young Macklin. "He never got in trouble for not having his gear ready or for having a dirty weapon, he was always ready to do the job at hand. To be infantry that's the way you have to be, always ready for the mission."
Staff Sgt. Simon L. Sandoval, a dark-haired 28-year-old El Paso, Texas, native and platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon, recalls Skinner fondly.
"He never, ever, complained or rolled his eyeballs when I told him to do something. He was always ready to fight," Sandoval said.
"When I first picked up these young Marines I told them three things -- you don't want to be called a thief, a liar or a coward," Sandoval continued. "He was never anywhere close to being one of those. His weapon was always clean, his gear was always ready and he never had any complaints to try to get out of any field evolution or any hike."
Sandoval laughingly recalls an occurrence during workups, while they were training for boat raids, there was only one person who threw up … the platoon sergeant.
"Skinner was the only one with the guts to tease me about it," Sandoval said, still chuckling. "He was the only one with the guts to say to me 'a little weak in the stomach, huh, staff sergeant?'"
Sandoval said Skinner wasn't just brave.
"When I go see his parents I'll tell them their son was heroic, courageous," Sandoval said. "The type of guy who was never going to be put in the back of a formation, he was always going to be up front."
According to Sandoval, everyone could see that Skinner and Vincent were best friends who cared for each other a lot.
"They were inseparable they should have been just attached at the hip," Sandoval said. "Sometimes you could just look at them and say, yeah they're brothers. I liked to confuse their name on purpose sometimes."
Whenever anyone talks about Skinner, however, the conversation always leads back to one thing -- he was one tough Marine.
"My first impression of Skinner was that he looked like a tough kid. Some of the other Marines looked a bit skinny and a bit scared. Skinner always had this 'stone' face. He was a tough guy, he was always a tough guy," recalls HN Ivan G. Krimker, a corpsman for 1st Platoon. "If you didn't know him he could be intimidating. A rough and cut, looked like he took care of himself kind of guy. He didn't look like he was afraid of anything, he was pretty secure."
"I remember one time seeing him at the gym on ship punching a punching bag. He wasn't wearing any gloves or straps on his hands. He punched until his knuckles were raw and bleeding," Sandoval recalls, grimly nodding his head. "I looked at him but I didn't stop him or say anything, you could see his motivation and the intensity of his routine. I remember thinking to myself 'that's a tough kid over there.' I never really realized it until I saw him that day."
According to Sandoval, Skinner never backed down from any fight, from anybody -- not this Marine.
"I remember seeing Skinner in the chow hall and thinking that he's a pretty calm guy, but get him out in any battlefield and he was a raging bull," Sandoval said.
"I could definitely use a whole platoon full of Skinners going out to a fight. I don't have them, the raging bulls, but they're still courageous," Sandoval continued. "They each have their own personalities and I think that's what makes my platoon good."
Sandoval also recalled the young Marines' pride in being members of the Alpha Raiders. Because of that pride and in an effort to get a three-day weekend, Skinner and Vincent decided to go out and get matching Alpha Raider tattoos.
"Those tattoos they got were pretty ugly. But that was pride," Sandoval said laughing. "Those Marines were proud. After that a whole bunch of Marines from the Company went out and got tattoos, including the 1st sergeant, but they were the first ones to say we're Alpha Raiders and we're proud of it."
Vincent and Skinner were proud to be Raiders, but regardless of what unit he belonged to, Vincent said there is no one that he would rather have watching his back than Skinner. "I'm thankful for him," he said.
Eyes downcast, with his gaze far away, Macklin agreed.
"I don't have a brother, but if I did, I'd like him to be like Skinner. With him, like any family member, we'd get (mad) at each other, but the next day we'd be together out in town being stupid again," said Macklin. "I felt really close to him, if anything was wrong, he would help me out with it, anything."
According to Vincent, Skinner wanted to be a fish and game warden or to run a camp where you teach survival skills to people once he got out of the Marine Corps.
Even with all the rough edges, the rough and tumble 'got to win' attitude, and the combative warrior spirit, Skinner would bring a smile to his friends' faces with his laugh.
"I loved his laugh, he had the heartiest laugh. He didn't laugh much but when he laughed it literally shook the room," Vincent recalls. "It was a great laugh. It was more enjoyable to hear his laugh than to hear the joke that caused it."
"He was a breed of his own, my best friend and I'll always think of him as my brother. I love him and I miss him," Vincent said, his face grim but his eyes bright with unshed tears.
"I have no doubt that he's up there in heaven right now guarding the pearly gates next to Saint Peter. He's not gone, he's just detached, we'll see him again," Sandoval said with a wide smile. "When we walk up there, we're going to see Skinner and Arredondo both on each side of heaven's gate wearing their dress blues posted on guard."
"You better keep on PTing," Sandoval said, still smiling, "just because you're in heaven doesn't mean the PT stops."