A Broken Understanding

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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.

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“Sup, ladies?”

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.

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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.

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Boom, Baby!

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.

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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.

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Continued in “The Snipers of Shadow 2 Part 1; Ramirez and Natty”

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33 Comments Add yours

  1. Pam Coffey says:

    Very well said. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

    1. Thank you for sharing this story! It REALLY touched my heart. Although I was never in the military, I can relate to the last section of how Christ died for us and in return, we are to live for Him and honor Him in all we do.

      My heart is really close to those who currently serve or have served in the armed forces and law enforcement. I’ve heard it said that the real heroes aren’t those who have survived and returned to tell the stories. The real heroes are the men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow brothers and sisters. Thank you for your service and for telling the story of a true hero!

      Dave – Centennial, CO

      Like

    2. Tim Babb says:

      Nate, thank you for your courage, your serving, and for your heart in sharing Claudio Patino in this manner. Your family has had the love and respect of multitudes from several generations, and you sir, are no exception to that legacy. God bless you for pointing to the priority of cross of our Lord. Be God’s.

      Like

  2. Marc Deckard says:

    God bless you Nate. Thank you for your service to our country and most importantly to God. God bless all whom you serve with.

    With sincere respect,
    Marc Deckard
    Arcadia Christian Church

    Like

  3. Alva Lee Harley says:

    Nate, I don’t know you but I know the know the Coffey family, all the way back to your grandparents. You come from good stock. And you’re carrying on the heritage of displaying Christ in all you do. I thank you for your service to our country. I thank you for your service to our Lord. This article honors your friend and Christ. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Teressa Pearson says:

    So precious. Thank you.

    Like

  5. Ron and Karla says:

    We are proud of you and thank you for not only serving our country, but loving and caring for our daughter and grandchildren.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Alex says:

    Our family is grateful and honored to know such a fine specimen as yourself. Thank you again for this article and showing the love and respect you carry towards Claudio.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Terry Rountree says:

    Nate, you probably only remember me by name, but I have known you for many years (since your were probably only 2 year old). I can relate very well to your story. I found your story and your feelings very common to all combat personnel who have lost a bother (combat fellow). Your addition of what Christ has done for us and what he means to you and can mean to all, very thoughtful and excellent help for those suffering from issues such as you have described. Thank You.

    Like

  8. Reblogged this on The Melting Thought and commented:
    This has to be one of the greatest stories I have ever read.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Carlos says:

    Very well written and said. So very sorry for your loss and may he Rest in Peace.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  10. Zarah says:

    I love hearing about what others thought of my uncle. Your words and the way you described him was just exactly how he was. Thank you for sharing this article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert says:

      Sorry you lost your uncle. Peace to you and your family!

      Like

  11. Bulk Fuel says:

    Always beside you.

    Like

  12. sasha says:

    Nate,

    Thank you for the touching words! I knew Claudio in high school. He was an amazing person and it’s nice to know he hasn’t been forgotten, thank you for your service.

    Sasha, Yorba Linda CA

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Christian Kopeny says:

    Thank you for the article, I attended High School with Claudio. Very moved by your story. Praying that God uses this to bring people to saving knowledge of Christ.

    Like

  14. Reblogged this on The 1791 Thinkshop and commented:
    Take the time to read this!

    Like

  15. Majik says:

    Semper Fi! True words and hits home! The best of all testimonies.

    Messiah’s Misfitz MM

    Like

  16. Pam says:

    Bless you.

    Like

  17. D Potter says:

    Thank you. I’m not good with expressing my thoughts in writing, so I don’t comment on blogs often. However, I feel a deep respect for our military and hero’s who fight and defend out freedoms. Thank you for your sacrifice and this beautuful account. I’m sure you hold it sacred, and it wasn’t easy to share. I never met Claudio, but he is respected and remembered in our community. Thanks for giving us more insight to the type of man he is.

    Like

  18. Joe Gillis says:

    That was a very well said an very nice to see he is still talked about because he should be along with every other soldier that has paid the ultimate sacrifice. Thank you to the person who wrote this and for all guys that stood by his side. We never leave are brothers behind. I was very good friends with Claudio in high school and I was there at his going away party before he left to boot camp. That was the last time I saw him. Ill never forget the good times we had, the laughs amd the smiles. Thank you Claudio for everything you did. A lot of people don’t understand what you guys go through and why were there fighting. For now, it’s not good bye it’s see you later. It’s your turn to protect those pretty little angels up there…. RIP Brother….

    Like

  19. Becca G. says:

    I am enjoying reading your work and I appreciate the fact that you are lowering the veil to your time and work after I met you at CBC. Thank you for your honesty and your courage to share your story.

    Like

  20. Paul Murphy says:

    Claudio was a recent high school grad and dating a girl in the neighborhood when I was introduced to him. He was antsy to get on with his life and was contemplating joining my Marine Corps. Having told him what I knew about being the best marine possible, I was proud to see him a few months later in uniform after boot camp and awaiting orders. The grief of his death was heartfelt knowing he’d never come home again. Reading this story makes me proud to learn that he had transformed into the strong , sure leader that the Corps requires to continue their storied history. Rest in Peace Claudio, you lived the Marine Corps slogan; Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful.
    Paul J Murphy (Captain USMCR 1980-86)

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Rachelle says:

    Wow.. this was powerful. You are a strong man.

    Semper Fi.

    Like

  22. Thanks for remembering. Pain sucks, but you cast suck a great picture of how we don’t have to earn Christ’s love, forgiveness, redemption. Thank you. I’ve never served in the military, but do go into the local jail and meet with the women as a chaplain and face a lot of PTSD. I will remember your words as I talk with them. Thanks for your honesty. You and your family will be in my prayers.

    Like

  23. Emily Otto Harder says:

    Wow, Nate. Thank you so much for sharing this story. It was so powerful and gave me a new perspective of Christ’s love and sacrifice. I appreciate the sacrifice you and so many others make for our freedom. Thank you! You have a beautiful family as well!

    Like

  24. Robert says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. It is powerfully written, touches the deepest part of our souls. I am sorry you had to experience such a loss! Claudio Patino IV is a hero and so are you Nate. You both fought for this country Claudio is walking in heaven and you are here telling his story; both great men. Thank you deeply for your service!

    Like

  25. Rachel says:

    Thank you for your service to our nation. Thank you for sharing your struggle as it brings hope. Thank you for sharing Jesus and being Jesus to those around you.
    May Gods grace surround you and your family more and more each day.
    I pray Gods protection over you, your family and your unit.
    – A Grateful American

    Like

  26. Suzie says:

    Nate, thanks for sharing Claudio’s story, and your heart as well. it was a gift to me in the midst of my own grief and pain.

    Like

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