Author’s Note: In previous commentaries, I’ve never considered the need to fudge the facts, stretch the truth, or resort to any other means of manipulation to capture the interest of an audience. And so it is with this offering. However, as you read along, I’m sure you will agree that the subject material is extremely sensitive and requires a certain level of discretion to protect the privacy of all concerned. Hence, the names have been altered, with this purpose in mind. – E. A. Scum
“And when they get to heaven, they will know each other with the nod of the head. The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac will greet each other as kindred brothers in arms . . . The veterans of the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and all fighting men who came before and have come since will occupy a special place of honor reserved exclusively for the brotherhood of the warrior.” – Captain Ron Drez, U.S.M.C. (Ret.), London, England, May 31, 2004.
He went to war fifteen months ago. He returned a week before Thanksgiving to a subdued, yet poignant family reunion on a chilly night in Ontario, California. Those of us who watched him grow up were astonished by the change. It was more than simply watching a boy become a man. That process was finalized when he completed Ranger training in advance of his deployment to Iraq. No, there was more to this transformation than the passage from childhood to the adult world. There was something much more profound at work.
Sgt. Sean Andrew Christopher stiffly greeted his father, tentatively embraced his mother, and quietly reached out to his younger siblings, astonished at how they had grown in his absence. As it was for those of us who walked a similar path coming home from past wars, he was, for an instant, overwhelmed by the surreal nature of the moment.
A Ranger’s homecoming 2008.
Sgt. Christopher’s father has always been a powerful, magnetic presence. An enormously successful businessman, he is the type of alpha male who draws the attention of everyone when he enters a room. He has been my friend for many years, and it never fails to amaze me how the conversation will quiet down and heads will turn at offices parties, conventions, family gatherings, or any other get-together where large groups of people congregate. He’s just that kind of man; supremely confident, highly compelling, and undeniably self-assured. On this night, he looked tired, old, and intimidated.
His mother is a striking woman, even in her late 40s. A former cheerleader at Auburn University, she can still garner glances, attract wolf whistles, and cause traffic jams in the local mall parking lot. On this night, she looked her age and then some. The streaks of gray hair were all too visible among her long, chestnut tresses. The worry lines were prominently displayed on her features. The tension permeating her persona was strained to the point of contorting her normally lovely face into an angst-ridden caricature. The release of a burden carried far too long, and the limits of a mother’s endurance were clearly visible in how she carried herself on this momentous evening. When she embraced her son, she became what she was – a middle-aged matron whose child had come home safe from distant battlefields.
I invited myself along to the airport. It may have been an intrusion, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be there to see it. And I would have been content to stay where I was – off to one side and behind the family, content to be an observer. Except Sgt. Christopher noticed me standing there alone, disengaged himself from the frenetic embrace of his mother and sisters, and approached me with his hand out.
“Good to see you, sir. Glad you could come,” he told me, shaking my hand. His grip was like iron, and the eight-year-old boy I remembered from years gone by is now a 23-year-old combat veteran who stands an inch taller than I do.
Like the prodigal warrior, I too was a sergeant. And like him (I’m sure) I hated being called “sir.” But, the returning veteran has a lot of latitude in my book. So I accepted the designation in dignified, albeit uncomfortable silence.
Normally, I have a generic greeting for returning servicemen – “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.” It’s a popular salutation, expressing the proper sentiment simply, and with appropriate pathos. It’s a greeting that many of us who served in Vietnam would have given our hearts and souls to hear just once. And so, it has become something of a battle cry, especially from those of us who came before and returned only to fight a different war at home – a conflict of hostility, apathy and scorn.
On this night, I couldn’t bring myself to say it. This man . . . this soldier . . . somehow deserved something more, something significant. Before I could think better of it, the words were out of my mouth:
“Welcome to the brotherhood,” I said in return.
Sgt. Sean Andrew Christopher and I are joined. We’re connected. And we both know it. His hard, intense blue eyes, met my tired, old brown ones and we understood each other. We are brother paratroopers, brother infantrymen, brother combat veterans. We’re the same. We know each other, with the nod of a head. As a child, young Sean was a quiet, awkward boy who grew into an introverted, teenage slacker. As a man, he keeps his own counsel, which is good. But we both realize we now walk common ground, without so much as a word passing between us.
For all his stoicism, the young man is remarkably perceptive. In his silence, he notices things. He knows that his service puts him in a select group of men who have been tested in ways most of us are not. But I wonder if he realizes that many of his civilian compatriots will look upon him with envy as the years go by. Combat veterans often take a certain level of satisfaction in their service as they grow older. They’ve stood the test of fire, and survived, after all. Those who didn’t often look back and wish they had. For both groups, they’ve each crossed their own Rubicon, and once traversed, there is no going back.
The due bill for such confidence comes high. I don’t know if Sgt. Christopher will be overwhelmed by the horror of what he saw during his tour. It may take time to surface, but if there are any demons lurking within, more than likely they will gain expression in the fullness of years. He survived when others didn’t. That does something to a man. It’s called survivor’s guilt. How he processes that will come in time. He may have blood on his hands. And if so, that burden has a way of coming home to roost no matter how he may want to push it away.
Or he may have come home without a scratch. Psyche intact. There’s nothing written anywhere that mandates all combat vets must be scarred for life. But they will be different men, going forward.
While he is connected to that elite corps of men who’ve trod the killing ground of distant war zones, Sgt. Christopher is also separated from the remainder of his countrymen who did not. And that includes family, friends and even his closest loved ones. How he chooses to bridge this gap, if he so chooses, also remains to be seen. What he saw, what he did, what he experienced, are questions I would never presume to ask him. But I would be at his disposal if he chose to confide them.
How does he view his country, coming home, I wonder? It’s the one question I would want to pose to him. Does he see it as a great nation? Does he view his service as defending a cherished way of life against a determined enemy? Does he expect a nobler America, a country of promise, whose young people value what came before, are committed to what comes ahead, and a generation of leaders who share the vision, the promise and the hope of the last, best nation of fallen man? Is he disappointed with what he sees? Do the Christmas lights comfort him, or alienate him? Is he connected to the country he went so far from home to serve, or does he walk its streets a different kind of soldier on just a different variety of combat tour?
It’s unlikely I’ll ever get an answer to any of these questions. I have a simple policy when it comes to the treatment of returning servicemen – the veteran gets whatever he wants. Period. That includes the comfort of solitude if he so desires.
But for the moment, it is a joyous holiday season indeed. At least for one family. The prodigal warrior has returned. A very thankful Thanksgiving ensued, and a very Merry Christmas is in the offing. But it may be a short celebration for this family after all. Sgt. Christopher’s younger brother reports for induction into the Marine Corps in San Diego the day after Christmas.
I did not share in their celebration. About the time of the joyous homecoming, I got an email from one of the Marines who came to saving faith in Jesus Christ when I spoke at Camp Pendleton a few years ago. In the interest of brevity – something I’ve been accused of, but deny with all the fervency of an evangelist – I won’t go into the specifics of that speech or how it came into being. Those who are interested can peruse Saving Private Weinmann which Joanie may still have floating around in the archives, for more details.
To put it succinctly, I spoke to a large group of Marines a little over two years ago, after which some one hundred fifty accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Now, the message was not evangelistic. Yet it carried an intrinsically powerful Gospel message. I didn’t do an altar call – because the speech was more historical and cultural than faith-based. Yet faith was a huge part of it. Finally, I may not be shy about getting up in front of a crowd, but that does not a great speaker make. The Holy Spirit was moving mountains that day. And of course, the message would (and did) resonate with a group of combat veterans, of which virtually all the Marines in attendance were on that day.
So Gunnery Sgt. Eric Fiore, U.S.M.C., came up to me with tears in his eyes and thanked me for my presentation. Unlike Sgt. Christopher, Gunny Fiore was a career Marine, with ten years service behind him. He had one tour in Iraq under his belt, and another one ahead of him in the not too distant future. He was a hard man, but also a man of great compassion, and deep commitment.
He emailed me shortly after the presentation to tell me he had found God. We exchanged something of a correspondence for a few weeks after that, and then the emails just stopped coming. But Gunny Fiore was a man anyone would remember. And when I saw his email address listed in my inbox before Thanksgiving, I anticipated getting an update on what was going on in his life, and with his walk with God during the last two years.
The email was not from Gunny Fiore. It was sent on his account, by his wife Kimberly, to inform me that he had been killed in action in Afghanistan. She went on to tell me how much it meant to her – a committed Christian all her life – to see the dramatic change in her husband’s life after he came to Christ. And she thanked me for my part in that process.
I liked how she put it. No one of us brings anyone to the Lord. The Holy Spirit does that. But we can be His instruments. I’ll accept that role in the process. I’m not an evangelist. Never have been.
She concluded the email by informing me that this was her family’s first holiday season without Eric, and would I like to join them for Thanksgiving?
That’s where I went for the holiday. And that’s why I didn’t join in the joyous celebration of a Ranger homecoming. When we play a part in leading people to Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility to stand by their loved ones in times of tragedy. Besides which, there’s a simple rule of thumb when it comes to such requests.
1. Never turn down a Marine (or a Marine’s widow).
2. Any questions? See rule 1.
They live in a suburb of San Diego about equal distance from M.C.R.D. and Camp Pendleton. When I finally met her, Kimberly Fiore looked like she sounded over the phone. Usually, my mental image based on a telephone conversation is not even close. This one was dead on. She was tall, blonde, in her late twenties. But the years had taken their toll. In the prematurely old woman she had become, I could see the high school homecoming queen who fell in love with the tall, dynamic Marine not that long ago.
But Marine wives have steel in the spines. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s there. This woman was no exception. In her grief, there was strength. It came at great cost, but there was no mistaking it. She was burdened, but coping. And in the midst of a loss so devastating, she gave strength and comfort to all around her – her children, her family coming from Texas, even yours truly.
I handled things pretty well on Thanksgiving Day. If the 24-lb. turkey fried in peanut oil is typical of the holiday in the Lone Star state, I’m moving to Dallas on the next available flight. For a taste sensation, there’s nothing like it.
Watching the children was something else again. I almost lost it watching nine-year-old Michelle alternating between moods of animated fun and deep grieving that sprung from the cellar of her soul. Five-year-old Jeffrey didn’t quite get it. He couldn’t quite digest that his daddy wasn’t coming home. And eighteen-month-old Danielle will grow up never knowing her father at all. Watching this heart-rending scene sent me into a tailspin that has lasted to this day.
After dinner, Kimberly asked me to teach from the Bible. Now, I could have used a little advance warning to prepare something, particularly in a room full of Southern Baptists who knew The Word better than I did. But, there was no turning them down.
So I came up with Chapter 6 of John’s gospel – the bread of life sermon. It’s not typically offered at funerals, or memorial gatherings. But I’ve always liked it, because it cuts to the heart of the matter of who we are and how we define ourselves. And considering the state of the nation, and the profound nature of the loss this family was enduring, it seemed an appropriate offering at the time.
I’ll leave it to all of you to review the text. Basically, Jesus was preaching to a Jewish congregation in the synagogue about how He (Jesus) was the bread of life, and if they ate His flesh and drank His blood, they would never hunger or thirst. He managed to lose the entire room.
Now, I’ve laid a few eggs during my abortive speaking career. But I’ve never cleared the entire gallery. Jesus managed to do this. Then he turned to the twelve and addressed them, with the crucial question. And it was for this reason that I chose the passage:
- 67 Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” 68 But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – John 6:67-69
A loss as overwhelming as the one that befell the Fiore family is often a time when faith puts down deep roots. Except she already has that faith. It served her well in the months since her husband’s death. But it will not ease the pain in her heart, the longing in the night for the way things used to be, or provide the loving father for three children who will grow up without him.
So the question of “Do you want to go away?” was moot for the extended Fiore family. They know who they are. And they know their fallen Marine is at home with the Lord because he took Christ into his heart on a gray day in a drafty auditorium after hearing how one Jewish veteran of the Second World War found absolution after sixty years of torment in the very same way.
But for the rest of us, the question stands – “Do we want to go away?” Now that America is practically an afterthought, what do we hold on to, if not God’s only begotten Son? And if our commitment to Him is tenuous, then we better decide right now just who we are and where our priorities lie.
Maybe, for the consummation of God’s plan for human history, America must be swept away. Not in some dramatic fashion involving fire, thunder, weapons and death. But simply by the erosion of America’s identity that by now is all but complete. In fact, there’s no maybe about it. Count it as a virtual certainty. I can think of no person better suited to complete the fait accompli of delivering this nation’s coup de grace than America’s first global president, who now stands poised to assume office next year.
However we choose to define ourselves in this global realignment that is currently underway, we better be quick about it. Because good men, committed men, strong men like Gunnery Sgt. Eric Fiore, U.S.M.C. won’t be here to lead us. They will have paid for their commitment in blood and passed on to something better that awaits all of us if we have the good sense to claim it while there is still time to do so.
And so it goes. A tale of two cities, if you will. Certainly a tale of two families. One celebrates the return of a beloved son. One mourns the loss of a loving husband and father. In what passes for a once great nation, we forge into the Christmas season, blissfully unaware of the Ranger who came home and the Marine who didn’t.
And that’s not merely a tragedy. It’s contemptible.
- 15 “And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:15