I wrote this last fall and sent it off to Proceedings. Got my first real rejection letter yesterday! I’m told I’d best get used to them in the future.
I hadn’t published this until my fate with the magazine was determined, but since I’m not going to submit it elsewhere I didn’t want to delay any further on posting it on the blog.
Every day one of our brothers falls overseas. It was just 25 years ago this week that Ranger 12 crashed and I lost two classmates. For those of you who haven’t been in the military it’s hard to describe the feelings that brings out. My friends still choke up talking about it all these years later. The whole crew of that aircraft were lost, including Pat Price and Craig Rudolph. Both fine men. Both my comrades. Pat has a gymnasium named after him at the Defense Language Institute. It’s a nice gesture, but I’d rather see his post on Facebook about his new grandchildren. Craig doesn’t have a memorial yet. Except in our hearts.
Nicholas Spehar was one of the S.E.A.L. operators that died in Afghanistan last fall. I didn’t know him, but he’s my brother. We both wore Crackerjacks. This article is in tribute to him and the men that died in that CH-47 crash. It’s a tribute to all the fallen in every war and the peacetime incidents that train us to be ready for war.
A STATE FUNERAL
Joseph R. Courtemanche
Friday was a long day. Work ended for me at 0700, 10 hours on the midnight shift behind me. But rest was a ways off. I had a promise to fulfill, and the journey I would take spanned three decades and thousands of miles.
I had promised myself that I would attend the funeral of one of our fallen when the opportunity presented itself. I didn’t have to know the person, but I wanted to honor their sacrifice and service to our nation. I made the promise a few years back, but one thing or another prevented me from attending the funerals. Either the funeral was too far away, or it was past my bedtime. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go. It was that I thought I couldn’t.
That changed when the CH-47 went down in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011. Two of those men were from the Twin Cities, and I’d happened across one of the obituaries while scanning the paper earlier in the week. I saw that Special Operator Second Class Nicholas Spehar was to be honored at the Cathedral in Saint Paul on Friday morning at 1100. I could stay up for that funeral. I needed to stay up for that service. I had delayed my promise too long, and I was without an excuse. The Cathedral is less than 2 miles from my house.
My wife and I don’t believe in coincidences. God puts things in front of us for a reason; it’s not random, capricious, or inelegant. He knows what He’s doing, and He wants to teach us through these events we were destined to experience.
I went home from work and put on a clean set of dress clothes, grabbed my American Legion cap from the closet and headed off to the church. I wanted to be there early so that I could pray quietly before the service. I figured that getting there an hour and a half early would give me plenty of time to be alone in the church before the family and Nicholas arrived for the ceremony.
I was wrong. When I drove up the hill to the Cathedral, I saw a mass of American flags lining the street in front of the building. There were fire units from the area where Nicholas grew up arrayed as a crimson honor guard for a man who gave his all for the nation. One truck, probably the only one with such a huge boom in his home county, was on the approach with its boom fully extended and a giant American flag hanging from the operator’s bucket. And there was a fire-fighter in the bucket standing a silent vigil in the muggy morning sunlight for this brave young man.
I parked in the lot and walked across the street. The Patriot Guard was arrayed up and down the sidewalk, silently standing watch. I rendered a salute and thanked them for their presence. Moving from the sidewalk into the church, I was amazed to see at least 200 people who had gotten there ahead of me. Hundreds more came over the next hour. Lots of people were there to honor Nicholas. I can only hope that every military funeral is like that around the nation. These warriors deserve the honor and love I was about to witness in person.
I sat there in the back of the church completely in awe at the quiet, reverent people slowly filling the church. I recognized “the look” of Special Warfare people around me. They are different and recognizable when you know what to look for. The heads on a swivel, the bearing, and the shape. Many of them were no longer on active duty… they were men my age and older. Members of the tribe come to honor the fallen. Gray hair, civilian suits, chiseled jaws, still there under liver-spotted skin.
There were others I recognized. I think all vets can spot another vet when they look. The ramrod bearing, the concise movements, the “Feel of a Warrior.” That service was many years in the past for the ones I saw, but their eyes again gave it away – they were here to honor a brother.
People from all over Minnesota and the surrounding states were there that morning. The plates on the cars near the church silently spoke of their measure of devotion to this young man whom they had never met. They were there to honor an ideal, a concept, a sacrifice that some will never understand. It was a State Funeral held in a setting that would do justice to a President or a Pope. The Governor, a United States Senator, and dozens of other elected officials were there to pay their respects.
Dignitaries filled the pews alongside Nicholas’s neighbors, classmates, and friends. They were people I knew to be famous and yet they sought not the limelight. This day was about Nicholas, and they were not there for the cameras or the “face time” that may have come their way. No, these leaders of business and government were there to honor a 24-year-old sailor who will never be 25.
I was taken to my past as the sailors in their white hats occupied the rows near me. They were there for their brother. I could see the pain in their carriage, the pride in their faces, the loss on their hearts. One of US had died, and we were going to be there to honor him. I was seemingly transported back into a woolen set of “Cracker Jacks” that no longer fit. I was a 26-year-old second class petty officer once again. They were my brothers, even though most were young enough to be my children.
The other military services were there as well. Not a speck of lint, no dull shoes, perfectly turned out. Some came with wives and girlfriends. Some came with other military members. One young Marine impressed me the most: this Lance Corporal was there by himself in his dress blues. I’m sure nobody told him to be there that morning to honor Nicholas. But he was there, immaculately turned out. Regardless of which branch we serve in, we are a family.
I never met Nicholas in life. The day he was born into this world I was over 5,000 miles away, onboard the USS Wainright, somewhere in the Mediterranean. I don’t believe our paths ever crossed in the intervening 24 years. The day he was born into heaven, we again were separated by many miles; about 7,000 to be exact. I had long since left active duty, and the torch had passed to his generation to carry on the battle.
I was, however, in the Cathedral of Saint Paul on that warm Friday morning when his uncle, a Catholic priest, delivered the sermon about Nicholas’s life. I had the good fortune to hear his sister Marie deliver a moving testimony to both Nicholas and her Lord, Jesus Christ. She made me laugh with stories about her brother and his determination and joy in life. I cried when she spoke of how ever since her brother died, all she wanted to do was praise God for having given Nicholas to her for 24 years.
She told the story of a phone call the family got when Nicholas was in B.U.D.S. He was getting ready to embark on “Hell Week” and asked that the family gather around the phone. They put it on speaker, and Nicholas asked them to tell him about every trial, tribulation, and crisis that the family had ever weathered. He told the family that he was “Going to take them to Hell with me and leave them there.” How many young men understand their faith so deeply at such a young age and actually live it through their actions? I would be forced to say that they’re as rare as the men who make it through S.E.A.L. training.
The mass was beautiful. It was clear that Nicholas was well-loved by his team and his family. It was also clear that those two groups were intertwined for eternity by his death. Never will his family want for anything the S.E.A.L.S. could provide. And there isn’t a member of that elite fraternity that couldn’t drop into the home in Chisago, Minnesota, and find a bed and a meal if they needed one.
His deep and abiding faith were spoken of by many. He was like all of the other members of special warfare units with whom I’ve traveled, shared the air of submarines in secret places, and had a beer with in port. He was focused, smart, fit, and loyal. He put his money where his mouth was and loved doing it, by all accounts.
At the end of the funeral, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I went home and went to bed. When I got up four hours later, I headed off to work and sat at my desk before the shift started. I knew I had to commit these events to paper. I turned on the music on my computer and hit play for a random mix of Christmas music. You see, it seemed only right to honor Nicholas with Christmas music. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors. He was the protector of children and the weak. Nicholas Spehar was a protector of our freedoms. And I am Saint Nicholas in a bright red suit during the holidays. I no longer fit in the “Cracker Jacks,” but I look pretty good with my long-white beard and my shiny boots and red suit.
I hope that when my time comes I get a chance to meet with this exceptional young man whom I never met on this Earth. I hope I live the rest of my life honorably and appreciatively, remembering these young men and women who serve us every day.
I’m still a sailor at heart. And it brings me joy and hope for my nation that young men like Nicholas are still standing on the ramparts on my behalf. I pray for them often.