War Story 

A Marine dies on West Peachtree

What's important to remember, Cara Snook says now, is that on their final night together, before they came to that stoplight in Midtown Atlanta, she and Jack were happy again. They were out celebrating, in fact. Celebrating their reconciliation.

click to enlarge Jack Snook's official Marine portrait - THE SNOOK FAMILY
  • The Snook family
  • Jack Snook's official Marine portrait

The months before that April night had been hard on both of them. Part of it was the war. Part of it was her. She had been sick -- very sick. So Jack had to watch as his fellow Marines went back to Iraq for a second tour, while he stayed behind to tend to his wife. He worried they'd think he was afraid. None of them thought that, though. Jack Snook was a lot of things, but he was never afraid.

Back in 2003, he and his platoon had been among the first Marines to cross into Iraq from Kuwait. He must have made a tempting target. Six feet and all of it lean muscle, Jack manned the .50-caliber machine gun mounted atop a Humvee speeding toward Baghdad. The company's job was to draw out the enemy and protect the convoy. They were called the Suicide Squad.

But back home was different. Or maybe it was Jack who was different. Crowded restaurants unnerved him. He looked strangers up and down. At home, he'd sit for hours playing video games. He'd turn off the game and look at Cara and say, "I'm so sorry. I don't mean to do this to you. I just don't know what else to do."

He didn't talk about Iraq, except sometimes at night. Then his eyes would tear up, and he'd ask her, "Do you know what it's like to watch somebody die?"

"I can't begin to understand that," Cara would say. "I wasn't there and I didn't see it, but help me get to where you are."

EARLY LAST JANUARY, Jack's four-year stint in the Marines ended. Jack and Cara moved into an apartment in North Carolina. But though he had left the Marines, the Marines had not left him. One night he watched every episode of the 10-part miniseries "Band of Brothers," which follows a group of World War II soldiers from basic training through D-Day and into the Battle of the Bulge.

The next day, he left. Packed up his things while she was at the bank, wrote her a note and took off for his parents' house in Cumming. Divorce seemed inevitable.

It wasn't a clean break, though. Like old friends, they talked on the phone. They e-mailed. The ambiguity became too much for Cara, who one day told him, "You need to make up your mind. I'm not doing this back and forth."

Then, in early April, she drove to Cumming from North Carolina. She was planning to sign a lease to move in with a girlfriend. But Jack called. He asked to see her. She told him to meet her and some friends at Fajita's, a Mexican restaurant in Cumming.

It was Saturday, April 2. He walked up to her, flashed the killer smile that had always made women melt, and said, "There's my wife."

Cara just grinned and shook her head. He told her not to sign the lease.

"Are you sure?" she asked him. "Don't let this be a momentary thing."

"No," he said. "I've thought about it."

And just like that, they were back together. They called friends to celebrate. They drank some beers. They went dancing at a country bar in Gwinnett County. And late that night, in the hours just before dawn of the next day, five of them decided to get a hotel room in Atlanta instead of driving back to Cumming.

But as they came to a stoplight on Linden Avenue, right near the Renaissance Atlanta Hotel in Midtown, they heard the blare of a horn behind them. The next moments are, even now, six months later, frozen in Cara's brain. She sees the truck. She sees her husband, falling to the ground. And she sees the blood.

Sometimes she wonders if she'll ever see anything else.

A MARINE CORPS FLAG flies outside the Snook home, a white-shingled ranch set halfway down a hill in a quiet Cumming subdivision. Gunny Snook and his wife, Pat, moved here in 1996, when Jack was 16 and their other son, Jason, was 14. Gunny had just retired from the Marines after a 20-year career that had taken him and his family to posts in Hawaii, Virginia, North Carolina, Malaysia, Austria and California.

Settling in Cumming was an easy choice. Both Gunny and Pat -- who'd met in high school in New Jersey in 1976 -- have relatives in the Atlanta area, and North Forsyth High School had offered Gunny a job teaching ROTC.

Gunny's first name is actually Jack, just like his oldest son, but Gunny is what almost everyone calls him. During the 1991 Gulf War, the elder Snook was gunnery sergeant, a kind of logistics chief for his company of 200 -- making sure his soldiers had ammunition, food and supplies.

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