Every day the Marines burned what they found. Every day they dug out more, leaving them feeling sick and nervous.
In a video, Matthew Dillon marches back and forth in front of the cave. You can hear him. He's singing God Bless America .
It was so Matt, his parents say with pride for a child who never ceases to amaze them even though he died nearly four years ago.
Marine Cpl. Matthew V. Dillon was 25 -- in his second deployment to Iraq -- when his Humvee struck an improvised explosive device Dec. 11, 2006, while providing security to soldiers defusing bombs. Two other Marines died that day under an overpass in Iraq's Anbar province.
Neal Dillon says he believes his son somehow knew he was going to die young. Maybe that's why he lived so fully, embracing every moment. Matt lived more in 25 years than most people do in lives spanning several more decades, Lucy Dillon said of their youngest son.
He was like that even as a kid, the Dillons said.
When he was 12, he and a friend were skateboarding when they held onto the back of a UPS truck. They were sure that when the truck stopped at the bottom of the hill that they could just jump backward to stop, too. He came home bloody and bruised with hands and wrists so torn up that Lucy had to accompany him to school for the next month to do his writing.
THAT MATT WANTED to serve in the military didn't surprise his family.
His father and brothers all served, as did his mother's father and Neal's surrogate father, John Samuel Honeycutt, who flew combat missions in World War II before his plane was shot down over Denmark. He was held captive in Stalag 17B for 16 months.
Honeycutt was Neal's hero, and all three of his sons grew up hearing tales of Honeycutt's bravery.
Matt and brother Mike also grew up idolizing their older sibling Robert, who went from ROTC to a career in the Army, where he is a colonel. The younger boys' favorite Christmas presents were the MREs Robert, who is 14 years older than Matt, would send home. Mike, four years older than Matt, served four years in the Marine Corps.
Matt joined the South Carolina National Guard 122nd Engineer Battalion, which shipped out to Iraq in April 2003. Four months later, shrapnel from an IED pierced his right arm and leg. He was one of nine Purple Heart recipients in a 24-soldier platoon.
"Matthew joked that he always had a piece of Iraq in him," his father said.
Matt came home in March 2004. He worked at the motorcycle shop in Aiken and attended Augusta State University. He was working on a bachelor's degree in business and also took computer classes online at home.
One year later, he decided he wanted to be a Marine, though it meant going through basic training all over again.
His family says Matt wanted to follow in brother Michael's footsteps by joining the Marines. He was also considering a career with Michael at the police department after he finished his duty, Lucy Dillon said.
"When Matt was in Iraq in 2003-04, he was stationed with a Marine unit for a short time and he was impressed with their belief in their motto -- Duty, Honor, Commitment," his father wrote in an e-mail. "He wanted to be one of the few and the proud -- a United States Marine."
MATT JOINED FIRST and told his parents afterward. As they brooded and worried, his father -- an engineer-- calculated that Matt had a 1 in 140,000 chance of being killed. That didn't seem so bad. It was a comforting thought.
His parents later learned that their son never told anyone at Parris Island that he had already been to Iraq or had a Purple Heart. Other Marines would later tell them they only made it through basic because of Matt's help.
He did advanced combat training for three months and was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for military police training. Lucy Dillon took her parents and little sister out for the graduation ceremony. At dinner the night before, Matt outlined what they would see.
The next day, they couldn't find him in the crowd of marching Marines where he was supposed to be. Surely, Lucy thought, she should be able to recognize her son's face even in a crowd of men dressed exactly the same marching in lockstep. Then the Marines arrived at a spot in front of the audience and the platoon leader turned to face the crowd. And there he was, flashing the mischievous grin for the joke he had pulled on her.
Matt hadn't told her about being selected the class leader, a platoon leader, or his promotion to lance corporal because of his outstanding leadership.
Matt was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, Calif. In his spare time, he took a six-month EMT class. He explained that after he was wounded in Iraq in 2003, it took a long time to get medical help. He wanted to be able to help himself and anyone else if it happened again, Neal said.
IN SEPTEMBER 2006, Matt was sent to Iraq. He went on 36 combat patrols as the fire team leader and Humvee turret gunner. His team served as security for soldiers who dismantled bombs.
Two months later, he was selected as the Battalion Marine of the Quarter and later promoted to corporal. He learned that when he finished his tour in March 2007, he would go to Washington and serve on the president's advanced security team.
He was proud to be a Marine. The obsessively neat child who grew up to be a military neat freak finally found his kindred spirit, his mother joked. He couldn't abide winkled clothing and once insisted on ironing another Marine's uniform himself, as he lectured about pride and dignity.
Fellow Marines would later tell the Dillons how in tense situations Matt would tell them funny stories and anecdotes about his family and growing up in Aiken. His commanding officer told them how one afternoon, when the unit was off duty, he found Matt teaching other Marines the EMT skills he learned.
This wasn't unusual as Matt always looked out for the members of his unit. On Dec. 8, three days before he was killed, he called home and asked to be sent cookies and fruitcakes for Christmas to share with his buddies. He was shocked to learn that some of them had never had fruitcake. Lucy and Neal immediately headed to the store, and Lucy stayed up all night baking.
The Christmas package hit the post office first thing in the morning. It was very close to Christmas, and they wanted to ensure Matt got the sweets for the holiday.
He called again Dec. 9. He wanted to know whether they had sent his Christmas box, the one with the presents he'd asked his parents to buy for his buddies. They assured him it was on the way.
He called again the next day, just before leaving on the mission.
"I think Matthew had a premonition," Neal said.
Because of the time difference, the Dillons didn't know until the next evening that their son had been killed. Neal thought it was the UPS man when he heard the doorbell ring. It was two Marines. They knew what that meant.
IT HAD BEEN HIS 37th combat patrol. Dillon could have been at a resort that week because he had been named the Outstanding Marine of the Quarter, but he delayed the trip because his unit was short-handed.
The Army had been guarding an underpass in Anbar, but the soldiers pulled out the week before because there had been no action. Al-Qaida from Syria were waiting for them and started shooting. Underneath the Humvee was an IED powerful enough to blow up a tank.
Matt shot two of the insurgents before the device exploded, killing him and two other Marines, one his best friend, C.J. Miller. His parents learned the details later from the Marine Corps.
Matt had asked them for three things if he died: to be buried in his dress blues, for a bagpipe to play Amazing Grace, and for Rudyard Kipling's poem If to be read. They honored his wishes.
About 800 to 900 people came to Matt's funeral at Millbrook Baptist Church. Suspecting they all couldn't have known Matt personally, Lucy made it a point to ask visitors how they knew him. Every person had a story about Matt's kindness, she said.
Speaking at the funeral, brother Mike told a story from their childhood. They had been out with another neighborhood kid shooting BB guns when one of them shot a hole in a neighbor's windshield. Matt, then about 5 or 6, came up with a plan.
"When we talk to Dad, I'll take the blame 'cause he won't be as hard on me," Mike recalled his little brother telling him.
Matt was built small -- 5-foot-8 and never topping 150 pounds --- and he wasn't super intelligent, his father said. But he used his talents to the maximum.
He came into his own as a man when he joined the Marines, his father said.
"(Matt) realized in the Corps that there is something greater than self," he said. "He saw the bigger picture -- that it's not just about you."
In 2007, Sid Busch, a retired Navy senior chief, contacted the Dillons. He wanted their permission to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Matt's honor.
"I wanted to dedicate it to a fallen hero, and I checked with a site that listed fallen Marines," Busch wrote in an e-mail from his home in Charleston, S.C.
"I read about him, and he is the type person this world needs so badly, and he died at such a young age. I have now run 168 marathons, and running that one for Matthew still is the most meaningful, and I still think of him when I run a marathon.
"I wish I could have run the marathon with Matthew instead of for him. ... He and all these fine young men and women who have been lost to us should -- no, must not -- be forgotten."