My concept of grace has, like most things in my life, been shaped by experiences in combat.
In June of 2010, I had the honor of serving as a team leader for a Marine Corps Scout Sniper team in Musah Quelah, Afghanistan. Our company was to clear the town of its Taliban presence, and when things got really hairy, the whole battalion came to join the fight. Cpl Claudio Patino IV was a Marine on my team, and he was the living pulse of it.
My eight man team was a very effective unit, and we got hard results. I’ll leave the details out of it, but we were very good at our jobs. Quite a bit of our actions against the enemy was due to the insane courage and tactical proficiency of this one man.
He was not a “good” man in the sense that most of us see goodness, but he was very good at being a man. He was a rough individual with a sharp tongue, and he had no patience for weakness. His language wasn’t clean. He wasn’t in Afghanistan out of some poster boy sense of duty per se, and I don’t know that he was there because he saw himself fighting for the freedoms of Americans.
Shadow 2 standing in a giant marijuana field after getting bombed by our own guys. Long story.
Most of our country didn’t want us over there, and fewer still had any concept of the men and women sent to fight in that foreign soil. I believe that, like most of us, he was somewhat disgusted with the state of our nation and its citizens who couldn’t care less about a 20-something year old man duking it out with third world insurgents. He was there for the fight. There was a war going on, and he wanted in on it.
His main passion in life was fighting. He was skilled in hand-to-hand combat, so much so that I designated him our team instructor. Every night we had free was spent in the “gym,” which was really a tent with a pull-up bar, a small wrestling mat, and a punching bag made out of bricks or something, learning from him how to punch each other in the face.
He was an excellent marksman, even amongst a team of Scout Snipers. He could engage the enemy with his hands, a blade, a pistol, or with a rifle from 1,000 yards away. Which he did. A lot.
When someone dies, it is custom for us to never say anything negative about him or her. We choose to remember only the good things, and forget any negative aspects of that person. Not so with Claudio
Patino IV. There was no pretending that he was a good Marine, and we weren’t forced to forget bad things about him. All of those good things you say about someone after they’re dead, we would say about him while he was alive. Those that knew him could often react to him just by shaking our heads in wonder. Amongst the Marine Corps infantry, and amongst a group of skilled snipers, he stood out as a paragon of skill, ferocity, strength, speed, and bravery.
Why tell you all of this? I want you to know that this man was the best we had to offer. I want you to get a sense of how we all idolized him, even while he was living. I looked up to him, and I was his TEAM LEADER, and I was about ten years older than him. There were actual times when I would give an order, and the guys in my team would automatically look at him to see what he thought about it. We idolized him in life, and in death.
I remember his death well. Patino had seen some movement on a hilltop in the distance. He wanted to go check it out, and he took three other teammates with him. I remember him getting to that hilltop and collapsing, and I heard the automatic gunfire a half second later. I remember seeing the rest of the team unleash hell in the distance, and the strained voices on the radio. As the rest of us bounded up to their position and I asked for an update, one of the guys calmly said over the radio, “Patino’s dead.” The next two hours was a blur of gunfire and radio traffic, as each of us took turns performing CPR on the body of our brother, while our corpsman attempted every life-saving intervention he could. The mangled bodies of the Taliban fighters who shot him lay crumpled close by. Aircraft flew overhead, bombs were dropped, shots were fired, and more injuries were sustained.
Only a matter of weeks passed before I stood before his parents with two of my brothers, giving an account of the death of their son. I had to stand in front of them with a fellow teammate, and explain to them how this had happened. How do you apologize to a man’s family after he dies while you’re in charge of him?
His family was more than gracious to us. They met the battalion when they came back from Afghanistan, and they did is with pride knowing that these were the men next to their son and brother when he fell in battle.
Scout Sniper Platoon with the Patino family
Most of you will not remember his name after reading this. I wouldn’t expect you to. You didn’t know him. You didn’t fight battles with him.
I have his name carved into the flesh over my heart, and I named my son after him. His death had such a profound impact on me and how I live my life. I look at his parents and siblings and wonder if they would see my life as worthy of his death. I look at my wife and children and wonder if my life will have the same impact on them.
A year later, I was in Baghdad, Iraq as a Private Military Contractor.
There were two realities of that job;
1. I was always armed, and
2. I spent much of my free time alone in my room.
The guilt of watching him die every single day never left me. Almost daily, it seemed I would find myself in tears, on my knees on the floor, begging God for forgiveness for my failures as a leader, a Marine, and as a man. More than once, the desire to end it all became so strong that I would have to unload my pistol and leave it in my room. I couldn’t face my former teammates, and just getting and sending emails to them was an excruciating experience. The only thing that kept me from killing myself was the thought of the pretty woman and four children I had waiting for me at home.
I can never earn his sacrifice, but I can honor his life and death with mine. I can tell his story. I can tell my kids about the greatest warrior I’ve ever met. I can live my life, not as a feeble attempt to
repay him, but as a reflection of the love I have for him.
In the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” there is a scene where a dying Tom Hanks is speaking to Matt Damon’s character. Private James Francis Ryan just witnessed a group of men come to save him specifically, and then die in the process. After the battle, Ryan hears Tom Hanks’ character, Caption John H. Miller’s last words, “James…earn this. Earn it.” We see years later, an aged James Francis Ryan standing at the grave of Captian Miller. He collapses in tears, asking his wife if he’s been a good man. He’s apparently spent his entire life trying to be worthy of the sacrifice made for him, and in old age, he knows he couldn’t.
Cpl. Claudio Patino IV wasn’t a perfect man. The fictitious Capt. John H. Miller wasn’t either. Jesus was. “…but while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He died specifically for each of us, and it would be an unbearable burden if we allowed it to be. The difference is that His last words weren’t “Earn this,” they were “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
None of you know Claudio Patino like I did, but you do, or can know Jesus. I struggled for years to earn the grace Christ gave to me, just as I struggled for years asking why my brother died on an unnamed hilltop in Afghanistan while I survived. The answer lies in knowing we can’t earn it. We can be grateful for the sacrifice, accept what it has done for us, and live our lives in honor of it.
Continued in “The Snipers of Shadow 2 Part 1; Ramirez and Natty”