Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Enduring Freedom - a tribute to the selflessness of the Stewart Family

I don't need to canonize my friend as a Saint to demonstrate his extraordinary worth as a human being. He had his faults, as we all do, but he owned them and faced them in a way that very few do. His contributions to his country, to his family, to his Marine brothers, and to me are what I would like to tell you about. 

Dave was an expert at living in the moment and a formidable prankster. His unrelenting positivity was undeniably infectious and he never turned away from a challenge, opportunity, or order because it was hard or scary. He was courageous without being reckless, funny without being mean, caring without being dramatic, tough without being a bully, and intelligent without being condescending. He was honorable, courageous, and committed to all that which he loved. He was a United States Marine. For me, he was THE United States Marine. He was my friend. And yes, along with so many others, SSgt. David Stewart is my hero.

I first met Lance Corporal Stewart early one Saturday morning in 2003 in the basement dungeon of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion headquarters in Baltimore, MD. He was a surveyor in both the civilian world and as a Marine Reservist. I was fresh out of combat engineer training; cocky, naive, and overly motivated. I pretty much rubbed everyone the wrong way from the start. To his credit, Dave had the most patience with me and through his gruff sense of humor, helped point out the errors in my ways. My first impression of him was simple admiration for how comfortable he was in his own skin. Calm, cool, and collected, he confronted tasks with a commanding confidence from very early on. As the months went by, I watched as he fully immersed himself in whatever training or task we were ordered, leading again, this time by example. When we were training, he was all in. When we had down time, he knew exactly how he wanted to unwind. Either way, he was very clearly enjoying every moment of life. 

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drew on, the news that our unit was going to be activated reached us. The Marines weren't sure what they were going to do with the surveyors, so they provided an opportunity to go be trained in a second specialty as combat engineers. Stewie jumped at this prospect and returned with a better handle on engineer knowledge than most of us did. He did this just to make sure that he could go to Iraq with his brothers. Truth be told, he could have probably found a way to sit it out, but the thought would never have crossed his mind. This was real. This was going to be dangerous. He was real, he was honest. Dave stared this in the face and didn't bat an eye. 

I was with Stewie in his first tour in Iraq. We were two of a team of 9 engineers and 1 communications Marine selected to augment and support an artillery unit who would be running convoys all over the country. The pre-deployment training under then Sgt. Mazanec was honest, tough, and direct; expertly designed with mindfulness to prepare us best for whatever we might be up against and for the highest chance that Maz might return his brothers home unscathed to our loved ones. Through every pull up, martial arts training, late night land navigation, or urban combat exercise, the determination on Stewie's face never faltered. Once we were in Iraq, Corporal Stewart rolled right into his new duty as a non-commissioned officer by leading by example, the thing that came so naturally to him. He wouldn't ask anything of you he wouldn't do or hadn't already done himself. He was in command of his own vehicle and acted with wisdom, safeguarding the lives of those inside when it accidentally caught fire and he ordered them to abandon it, as it was loaded with explosives. He went door to door with our unit in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury. This was a dangerous, harrowing experience for all of us, but his stalwart resolve in the toughest of times helped bring out all of our best. He was constantly vigilant. In our time there, we ran countless convoys, patrolled Fallujah on foot, took mortars at our base every day, escorted high value assets into Bagdad, and participated in humanitarian outreach missions. Stewie was a rock. We always knew what kind of excellence in service he was going to confront these missions with (as long as he had some coffee and his smokes). His prankster nature kept things as light as they could be when we were in between missions and training on base. Once he found out I had never touched a cigarette in my life, it was his mission in life to get a picture of me with one. He insisted that it didn't even have to be lit. Why? Why the hell not, that's why! He and his best friend, then Corporal Steve Freshour were inseparable. These two guys! They would always push each other to do better, to be better, whether it was at marksmanship, martial arts training, physical training, or the level of dedication to a joke or prank. Their friendship in particular embodied what Marine brotherhood truly was to me. Stewie and I passed our time talking about all manner of things. He was a naturally curious person and really wanted to know who I was and what made me tick. Having to articulate these things to him made me really think about what I was saying as he challenged me. We also spent hours talking about our marriages and it was always clear to me how absolutely elated he was to have found his amazing, intrepidly supportive partner, Krissy. It was clear that the relationship they had crafted was one of purpose and one of intentional and practiced love. This enduring bond brought out the absolute best in them as each one truly saw and cherished the other, without reservation.  

We made it through our deployment in one piece and we all felt disbelievingly fortunate. For most of us, we were grateful for the opportunity to serve the country we love, but were ready to get back to our lives in the civilian world. Something had changed inside of Stewie, however, and it was clear he had found his found his calling, his personal legend. He wanted to join the active duty ranks of the Marines and make selfless service his career. This next part, not many will have thought about. I'm sure there were many heartfelt conversations between Dave and Krissy, but in the end, they both decided to put each of their well-being and that of their future family on the line in service their country. This selfless act exemplifies this family. I remember admiring them so much for the decision to join the ranks of our active duty brothers. The only response I could manage was to sincerely thank him for his sacrifice to protect my family's future and that I would honor it the best I could. After that, Dave and I lost touch as he immersed himself fully into his true calling. I heard reports from Freshour or Krissy through social media as he went back to Iraq and Afghanistan. I heard how he became a Marine Drill Instructor to use his experiences and leadership to train young Marines. I still picture him screaming at some recruit to better himself so that he might become worthy of the title Marine. I laugh as I think about how tough it must have been for my friend, the prankster, to not crack up at his own hilarious jokes. Certainly, it tests the boundaries of ones bearing. I can't think of anyone better for that job. A few months ago, I found out he was going to be deployed again to Afghanistan. As a father, I knew that these deployments, even for my positive, mindful friend who lived to serve his family and country were getting more difficult. As Krissy and Dave continued to honor their family's commitment to our country, I could sense them becoming pillars of the military community, rocks on which others could count on and lean on in times of trouble. . 

I was driving from northern Virginia down to Williamsburg to sell a mountain bike to a nice guy from the Outer Banks. I checked by facebook while stuck in traffic and saw Krissy's post. I read the news about my friend in words carefully and intentionally written by his loving wife. My heart pounded, my stomach lurched, and a cold sweat broke out over my body. No. No, not Stewie. He was untouchable, his family too wonderful, not him! He was one of us, one of the untouchables. The invisible, protective barrier that my fellow Marine A.J. Vertino described, that ensured all of the original engineers returned home safely suddenly burst. I felt an old, familiar vulnerability as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took on a new face; that of SSgt. David Stewart. I read the words over and over and teared up because of my friend's ultimate sacrifice. I teared up because of the poise and courage Krissy demonstrated in her communication, even going so far as to forgo flowers as tokens of all of our affection in favor of donations to the Wounded Warrior Project.

I teared up thinking about those beautiful young souls, Mackenzie and Marshall, who won't get to discover the greatness of Dave through experience. I drove in silence, thinking about that family and listening for his soul and how I might be of service to him. I continue to listen. 

I thought of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is about connection, about doing your best to put yourself in another's shoes, no matter how unpleasant, so that one might know the best way in which they can help, even if it's leaving the situation alone. Sympathy is about disconnection and focused on trying to find silver linings in an effort to avoid mindful connection. I think of these things and wonder what I can do to demonstrate and not just say that their family's selflessness will never be forgotten? No one grand gesture could ever make this worth it. Perhaps by honoring them every single day, living my life and using the freedom they afford me to make mindful, intentional choices and not just "go through the motions," I can show them that the freedom they paid for is being put to good use. I hope to take a lesson from Dave and really enjoy being in the moment, wherever it takes me. I want my daughter to know what that family did for us, meet them and thank them and share her joy with them. We owe them our best effort at a life well-lived, like Dave. This is the most honest and courageous human experience I can think of and that which exemplifies the way that the Stewart family teaches us to live. Stewie is a soul that was having a human experience, but now that experience has ended in the most selfless of ways. He endures and is home. Semper Fidelis, Marine. Words can never express the depths of the gratitude I have for what you have done or what your family continues to do. Rest peacefully and know that your children will know who you were, all those whose lives you touched swear this.