BARNWELL, S.C. --- When Staff Sgt. George E. Buggs III became the first South Carolinian to die in the Iraq war, the picture of him seen across the country showed a slender 18-year-old in a red graduation cap and gown, grinning and clutching a diploma scroll.
But Buggs didn't look like that anymore.
When he was swept up in battle, part of a convoy that took several wrong turns into a city crawling with Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen loyalists, he was a beefy, 31-year-old career Army man with 11 years in. He had a 12-year-old son back home and was struggling with his separation from his wife.
Pfc. Jessica Lynch remembers him sitting next to her in the back of a Humvee, clutching a rifle and returning fire during their doomed run through the ambush in Nasiriyah. He and his truck mate, Spc. Edward Anguiano, had jumped into the vehicle with her, bullets whizzing by, because their 10-ton wrecker pulling Lynch's disabled supply truck got stuck in sand during the battle.
Lynch said she sat in the center over the transmission hump, between Buggs and Anguiano, each with a weapon aimed out a window. Contrary to early media reports, Lynch's rifle jammed, and it was Buggs and other soldiers doing the shooting.
"It was chaos," she said by telephone from West Virginia.
Lynch would be the only survivor from the Humvee, which slammed into the back of a jackknifed tractor-trailer just before Iraqis surrounded and captured the remaining Americans.
Nine days later, joint forces rescued Lynch in a nighttime raid, and Army Rangers dug Buggs' body out of a shallow grave with 11 other Americans. The Army never released Buggs' official cause of death, and Lynch said she doesn't know what happened.
"Unfortunately, I was knocked unconscious," she said. "He was alive when I was alert."
The image of Buggs as a bright-eyed teenager wouldn't be the last misleading portrayal of the Nasiriyah ambush, which kicked off the single bloodiest day in the war, with 29 American deaths. The national media focused on Lynch after The Washington Post erroneously reported that she fought until wounded by gunfire, killing several Iraqi soldiers before running out of ammunition.
In congressional testimony, Lynch later decried the Pentagon's using her as a "little girl Rambo" propaganda tool.
She told The Augusta Chronicle that it's soldiers such as Buggs who should be honored as heroes.
"I didn't feel like I was any more important than any of the other soldiers who were there at the time," Lynch said. "Definitely, he needs to be remembered as a brave soldier. Definitely, he was fighting, and going down as a true soldier."
THE HIGH SCHOOL senior photo, which his grandparents gave the media, showed Buggs as they remembered him. In a 2005 interview with The Chronicle , George and Florine Buggs recalled the young man who would spend hours at their house getting ready for a night on the town, primping in front of the bathroom mirror with an array of lotions.
Everyone called him by his middle name, Edward. His grandparents raised him from age 8 -- after his parents separated -- with his father, George Buggs Jr., living in a house behind them.
At Barnwell High School, he played tuba in the Warhorses marching band. His senior year, he met a freshman trumpet player named Wanda Carstarphen, his future wife.
In 1990, not long after graduation, he joined the South Carolina Army National Guard's 122nd Engineer Battalion. He did it partly because of his father, a Vietnam veteran who spent decades in the guard, but mostly because the military was his best hope for escaping a small town and seeing the world, Wanda said.
Buggs also took classes at Nielson Electronics Institute in North Charleston, S.C. During a summer break, he got a job as a welder at the Dixie-Narco soft-drink machine factory in Williston, where he worked for less than a year.
"He couldn't see working in a plant forever," Wanda said.
They started dating her sophomore year. She got pregnant the summer before her junior year.
They didn't get married right away. His son, Guy, was a year old when Buggs enlisted in the Army full time and quit the electronics school. He soon got orders for Germany, and after Wanda graduated, they wed, which allowed her and the baby to live with him in family housing.
Germany took a toll on her, and their relationship.
"Being from a small town, I was just missing home a lot," she said.
Buggs was later stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. In the mid-1990s, he went to Bosnia as part of the peacekeeping force, then returned to Germany. She went back overseas with him, but Guy stayed with her parents.
They split up and Wanda returned home without him. Buggs found a German girlfriend, who later attended his funeral, Wanda said. She met someone else, too.
"We just grew apart," she said, "I can't say if we were going to actually go through with the divorce, because we still loved each other."
Buggs eventually landed at Fort Stewart, Ga., with the 3rd Infantry Division, where he spent two years before shipping off to war.
After Buggs and his wife separated, he continued to go back to their Barnwell apartment every weekend from Fort Stewart, sleeping on the couch, so he could maximize his time with his son.
"We still respected each other as parents," she said, "and he was the best father I could ask for for Guy."
He would stay from Thursday to Sunday. Guy said they would play video games and watch slasher films such as Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street .
"To me, he was a real laid-back, funny dude," said Guy, now 19.
He and his father would travel to Augusta and Aiken, where they would visit the malls or eat at Red Lobster. Buggs was into pro football and pro basketball, and Guy persuaded him to shoot hoops.
"Anything that I was into, he would try to get into," he said.
When Buggs was on post, he would call every night to make sure his son was doing his homework, studying and making good grades. Guy said his father told him to stay out of the military. Wanda said both of them wanted Guy to go to college.
"Whatever you want to do," Buggs said, according to Guy, "just follow your heart and just do it."
BUGGS ALSO liked to shoot pool. He liked surreal science fiction movies. In Germany, he bought a telescope and took up astronomy.
He also had a vice: street car racing.
He had a 1988 Ford Mustang 5.0 that he raced at Carolina Dragway in Jackson, but he crashed it on a curve in Barnwell.
What Buggs enjoyed most, though, was meeting up with an Army friend somewhere on a remote, two-lane highway and racing him over a bet.
"He was a daredevil," Wanda said. "He could drive, though."
When he deployed to Kuwait, he was in prime physical shape -- 5 feet 8, 210 pounds, his extra weight mostly muscle. He ran four to five miles daily, they said.
Guy said he last spoke to his father three days before he died, when he called from Kuwait around 5 a.m., soon before the invasion started.
"I think it was about me not doing too good in social studies," he said. "I think he was trying to boost me up."
Wanda said her husband told her that he was about to start moving and that she might not hear from him for several days.
She would never hear from him again.
BAD LUCK PUT Buggs with Lynch. They weren't in the same unit. But because she broke down during the drive into Iraq and he agreed to help, Buggs wound up following her captain into the ambush, riding shotgun in a wrecker towing Lynch's truck.
They were part of a slow-moving convoy that became separated from a larger one, and the captain of the 507th Maintenance Company got lost trying to catch up. At dawn, Buggs, Lynch and 31 other soldiers rode into a city fortified by Fedayeen and Iraqi regulars and militiamen. They made it through unharmed, but the captain turned around and went back through after realizing he'd gone the wrong way, according to an Army report.
The fight lasted more than an hour, with Buggs and his truck partner, Anguiano, switching into Lynch's Humvee during the melee. As the Fort Stewart pair returned fire from the back -- at least one of them armed with a M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon machine gun -- the driver navigated through gunfire, oncoming rocket-propelled grenades, and vehicles and debris being pushed into their path by Iraqis.
A flatbed tractor-trailer ahead of them crashed, and the Humvee slammed into it. The driver was mortally wounded, Lynch was seriously wounded and the front passenger died on impact.
How Buggs and Anguiano died is unclear, said military historian Richard S. Lowry, who spent three years researching the battle and wrote a book about it, Marines in the Garden of Eden. The Army report doesn't say what happened to the two men.
Sgt. James Riley, of the 507th, later said in an interview that, before being captured by Iraqis, he looked into the Humvee and thought everyone was dead, though Lynch and the driver, Pfc. Lori Piestewa, were still alive, Lowry said.
Spc. Shoshana Johnson, who was in the flatbed and became the first black female prisoner of war in American history, said in e-mails to The Chronicle that she is certain Buggs didn't survive the ambush.
"I'm not sure if he died from the crash or gunshot wounds, though," Johnson said.
Lowry said there were unsubstantiated reports from Iraqi tipsters about Buggs' capture, torture and execution, but he didn't include that in his book.
Wanda Buggs said she believes that's what happened, based on information the Army gave the family.
"He died doing something that he loved," his widow said, "because he loved the military."