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The Girl Who Tried to Save The World

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The first time I met Marla – like a lot of people, I never knew her last name until after she died – was in Baghdad in April 2004. It was a warm night, and I was having drinks with some friends on the patio of the Hamra, when all of a sudden a pretty girl dressed in hip-huggers and a gauzy shirt bopped up and started massaging the shoulders of one of the men at my table.

"Hellooo," she said, in a slow California drawl.

A few men rolled their eyes discreetly. "That's Marla," one of them said in my ear, a hint of condescension in his voice.

Just five-foot-three and weighing no more than 100 pounds, Marla looked only a few years out of college and completely out of place in a war zone. But she also seemed thoroughly comfortable in the Hamra scene, as if it were her home, which it had been for the better part of two years. While we drank, Marla pounded the shoulders of a British reporter with tiny little fists, gradually making her way around the table until she'd given shoulder rubs to every guy in the room. "OK, bye!" she said, and flitted away.

She talked in surf-girl lingo – she called everyone, even the most austere U.S. officials, "dude." She giggled. "When she was happy, she clapped and did a little jump," recalls her best friend, Catherine Philp, a reporter for the London Times. She was girlish – she used to dot her i's with little hearts – and a little outlandish: She stood up in the middle of one press conference and told the stern U.S. general giving the briefing that he looked as if he "needed a hug." Quil Lawrence, a reporter for BBC Radio, once described her as a "love bomb."

In the days and weeks after Ruzicka's and her colleague Faiz Ali Salim's death, virtually every reporter who'd met Ruzicka wrote a story about her – making her death headline news on four continents. In Washington, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a key ally, honored her on the floor of the U.S. Senate, calling her "as close to a living saint as they come." Six hundred people attended her funeral at the St. Mary's Catholic Church in the tiny community of Lakeport, California, about three hours north of San Francisco. There were memorial services in New York, Washington, Baghdad, Kabul, San Francisco and cities across the country.

Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past ten or twenty years. Though a novice in life – she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience – her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq. And yet trying to understand her is complicated by the fact that so much of her complex, and often deeply compartmentalized life remains a mystery to even those who knew her best. "It was almost like trying to get to know somebody at a performance," notes Chris Hondros, a Getty Images photographer who knew Ruzicka in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "She always seemed to be playing the role of Marla."

There is a certain banality to being killed in a suicide bombing; it's like being blind-sided. But there is nothing banal about choosing, against the advice of virtually everyone, to work in one of the most dangerous places in the world. It's a risk. It's also heroic. And, it's an escape.

About two weeks after Marla's death, I am at a waterfront cafe in Ruzicka's home-town of Lakeport, having lunch with her parents, Cliff and Nancy. A quiet resort town located in between the vineyards of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Lakeport has only 5,000 people and the "best air quality in California," according to the local chamber of commerce.

"This is Marla's favorite restaurant," says Nancy Ruzicka, a middle-aged woman with a chin-length black bob. She still talks of her daughter in the present tense, while her husband stares off at the lake. A quiet, balding, bespectacled man, he is a few years older than his wife and dressed in a tweed sport coat and blue shirt. Marla was the youngest of Cliff's six children – he has four kids from a previous marriage and two with Nancy. "I'd always tell her, 'Marla, exercise good judgment,'" he says. "I would always tell her that, up until the day she died when she was in Iraq. But that's about all I could tell her."

For the past week or two, Nancy, a former flight attendant, has been jetting back and forth between California and the East Coast, where she's attended a variety of memorial services for Marla. "We had 500 people at our house," she tells me brightly, referring to Marla's funeral, April 23rd. Despite her crushing grief, Nancy is relentlessly cheerful. Cliff, by contrast, has the demeanor of a man in total shock. "I was worried about her safety in Iraq, but I didn't expect her to die," he says. "I thought she was invincible. She thought she was invincible."

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