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January 08, 2008

No Greater Love

Why, for all of us, out of all we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction, where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.

- T.S. Elliott

What they all said about him, after he was gone, was that he could have gone anywhere, accomplished any task, chosen to be anything he wanted to. What he chose to do was serve his country.

Nathan was no underprivileged drifter forced into the military for lack of better options. He was one of America's best and brightest. A child of privilege who, if one believes the Gospel according to our Congressional overlords, should have known better than to settle for life in the armed forces. But as it did for so many Americans, the world changed for Nathan Krissoff on a brilliant September morning in 2001:

"He would not and could not stand idly by," Marine Corps Capt. Michael Dubrule said Saturday during a memorial service for Krissoff in Reno.

On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, Nate Krissoff left for Iraq.

"Lt. Krissoff was the type of man who made things seem easy," said 1st Lt. Daniel Ballard, an intelligence officer with the battalion who roomed with Krissoff. "He was an ideal Marine. I know I am a better person and a better Marine for having known him."

Ballard underscored Krissoff's affability and his curiosity, which both stemmed from an attentiveness to the needs of others that manifested itself in his daily interaction with his Marines.

"Nate taught me to treat everyone well because you never know who is going to be your buddy down the road," he said. He always asked questions, and "he was a gifted listener."

"Most of all, Nate was a friend. He was my roommate here at Camp Fallujah. We kept each other sane," Ballard continued. "We had many talks about God, the purpose of life, the world in general, and I know he's in a better place now."

At memorial services for the young lieutenant both at Camp Falloujah and back at his home in Reno, Nevada, it seemed everyone had memories to share:

Acting on intelligence not long before his death, Krissoff helped save the life of an older Iraqi man from insurgents, Gibbons said. Stories like this from Iraq "rarely" make it into the mainstream media, said Gibbons, a combat pilot in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.

Memories are powerful yet elusive things. Unruly and capricious, they resist our determined attempts to summon or lock them away. Dancing slyly at the borders between desire and imagination, they return unexpectedly to torment us when our defenses are down or, perversely, brush against us like purring kittens offering comfort and uncomplicated joy. They are preserved, reinforced and evoked by stories, rituals and traditions, symbols, as a scent carried on a breeze, a favorite song, the slant of light on someone's hair or a stolen glance across a crowded room.

We will never know what memories Bill Krissoff has of his son Nathan.

What we do know is what they have inspired him to do: at the age of 61, Bill Krissoff is closing his medical practice and following his son to Iraq.

Because 42 is the Navy's age cutoff for medical officer enlistees, Krissoff was initially told that joining would be a difficult and lengthy process. So he pressed the issue and asked for the needed waiver from the highest authority he could find - President Bush.

Krissoff met Bush in August at an American Legion convention in Reno. The doctor described the personal meeting he had with the president immediately following the convention as a solemn experience with a small group of families grappling with the loss of loved ones in war.

Krissoff says Bush asked each family what he could do for them.

Krissoff told the president he wanted to serve.

After a brief moment, Bush deferred to Krissoff's wife, Christine, who has consistently supported her husband's decision. Krissoff says he pressed Bush about the matter with humor.

"'Sir, I'd like to serve but they told me I'm too old, but I'm younger than you, sir,'" Krissoff says, telling the story with a rare grin.

Much has been written about Nathan Krissoff, and about his father Bill, and deservedly so. But I found myself thinking of the one person who was barely mentioned.

The person who stood by Bill Krissoff's side when he asked President Bush for that medical waiver to join his two sons in the war on terror. Christine Krissoff: the woman who raised Nathan and Austin Krissoff. I thought of her because of my friend, and (oddly enough) because of school buses:

16 years ago in the fall, I walked my little boy down to the bus stop for his first day of kindergarten.

He had his backpack filled with all the things the school said he should have. He had his lunch box packed with goodies (all nutritious). His double crown had been tamed, at least for the time being, his clothes were clean and tidy and his shoes were tied.

I will never forget the catch in my throat as he tried to get on the bus and he couldn't quite get his foot on that first step...

It has been written, "Greater love hath no man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends." How much harder must it be to give life, to devote your every waking moment to protecting and nurturing a child as he grows stronger and more full of promise with each passing day; and then to stand aside with grace and dignity and accept a freely made decision that goes against your every protective instinct? What a journey from those long ago moments when a newborn takes his first butterfly-fragile breaths to the moment he strides out of your life, almost without a backward glance?

I have never had to send a son off to war. I have never had to square my shoulders against the silence.

But I find myself thinking, for some reason, of far distant Thermopylae and I suspect that much of the steel in the United States Marine Corps did not descend solely through the male line.

The battalion sergeant major, Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Pickering, barked the "Final Roll," but no reply was returned after he announced Krissoff's name three times.

A bugler eased into the somber melody of "Taps," and as the last note melded into silence, Marines in attendance filed out of the rows to pay their respects at the small memorial that had been erected in Krissoff's honor.

An inverted rifle with a helmet crowning the buttstock, identification tags dangling from the pistol grip, and boots resting on the floor at a 45-degree angle reminded the Marines why and for what he sacrificed his life.

"When we depart these lands, when we deploy home, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the long silence of our friends," Seely said. "Nathan, your love, your brotherhood, your memory, like the flash in the horizon at sunset and sunrise, will be endless. Your silence will be deafening."

Posted by Cassandra at January 8, 2008 10:12 PM

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We keep losing our best and brightest for the likes of Murtha, Pelosi and Reid to have the right to profane their sacrifices.

It makes me unutterably sad...

Posted by: camojack at January 9, 2008 01:23 AM

Camo, PLOsi and Moutha can say what they will, but we have the capacity to be bigger than that.
Our military men and women have demonstrated
that time and again, as have the parents and family of service members.

Remember, a lie is still a lie no matter how many times it is repeated.

Posted by: Cricket at January 9, 2008 08:59 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/09/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M at January 9, 2008 11:21 AM

Nathan Krissoff, Mike Gabel, Nick Washalanta, and so many others.

I saw the comment from Amy the other day on the "Sky Soldiers" post, and I felt so overwhelmed by the sadness of it all.

Last month, my wife's uncle passed away after a long, painful fight with cancer. This seemed so sad and tragic, in that he was such a kind and good-hearted man. Why did he have to suffer so much?

This was the topic of the Catholic priest's homily at the funeral.
How can a merciful and loving God exist, and permit so much suffering amongst his people, especially among his believers?
The priest's answer was standard Catholic theology, but he expressed it very eloquently, so I wanted to repeat it here, if I can recall it properly.

God made us in his image. Not all-powerful, or all-knowing, or even immortal in this world, but in one important way. We can feel and express love, like God can. This is a great gift, but it is also a painful burden.
In this, we are different from the other creatures of creation (although many will argue that their dogs love them!), in that we can feel and express love for each other.
When we see suffering, the 'better angels' of our natures' are moved to help and mitigate it. When we feel suffering ourselves, the pain of the suffering is meant to open our hearts to recognize the pain of others. The path of feeling pain and suffering doesn't always lead to love. It can be tortured and perverted. But in that we know suffering ourselves, love should move to fill the part of us that has been hurt.

When we lose someone we love, as Amy has lost Mike Gabel, what has happened? How can God hurt Amy like that? I hope that Amy can somehow cope with this loss, but the empty space in her heart that is there because of Mike's death, was first created with her love for Mike, and now can be filled with love for others, and maybe in the larger sense, the rest of humanity.
Being alive means you will be hurt, but it is our choice to go forward either in misery, or in hope of redeeming the love that has been shown to us.

Mike and Nathan, and so many other men who have paid with their lives for us, did it probably more out of love for something tangible, like their families, or as Mike Gabel, for Amy. Not that they expected to die or looked for death, but they decided it was worth wagering their lives in serving to preserve the life and freedom of the ones that they loved most.

It speaks well for us as a people, that some would step forward to demonstrate this. Some would mock the Army and Marines as heartless "kill-bots", thugs, morons, etc. There is no arguing with them. They obviously know no one personally in the military.

Perhaps the noblest thing that one man can say about another, is that "he died trying". To spend the most valuable thing you posses, your life, in an effort to achieve that which you value most highly. Mike Gabel, Jeffrey Smith, Jason Denham, Nick Washalanta, Nathan Krissof, Rick Rescorla, and so many others; all different men. Some wiser, some older, some just too damn young, but dedicated to do what was right, and willing to risk their lives, and spend them if necessary, to achieve what was right and valuable to them.

They died trying.

The pain of these losses shouldn't deaden your insides; it should open your heart to the needs of others, to show them the love that is so lacking in the world. As those lost to us started, the rest of us must continue.
It's been over thirty years since my own father died, yet I don't think a day has passed in those years when I didn't think of him at least once or twice a day, sometimes more often. I still feel that pain. I have felt a little like the Matt Damon character at the end of "Saving Private Ryan", when he returned to Capt. Miller's grave, in that I try to tell him, I've tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that's enough.

I think when Cassandra writes one of these pieces, I remember the Pinochio philosphy of life; "Now I know I'm a real boy, because I can feel my heart breaking." The loss of these men, some very young men, is indeed heartbreaking.

Cassandra, you write so well. Don't stop, even though these posts must sometimes be awfully hard to write. We can't forget. Don't let us forget. Some people want us to forget 9/11, and all the lives lost on that day.
Don't forget.
It's not about revenge or harsh justice. It's about the value of one, single human life, wrongly taken.

I think, then, that the best answer to the pain of losing these good men, is this. We have all got to try and be better citizens and people; better Americans. To re-dedicate ourselves to the work still ahead, to make our country a more just and fair place to live. "Liberty and justice for all" aren't just words to repeat, like a slogan.
It's what they paid for. It's what we must redeem.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 9, 2008 04:00 PM

"But I find myself thinking, for some reason, of far distant Thermopylae and I suspect that much of the steel in the United States Marine Corps did not descend solely through the male line."

No man with any real strength, that strength always being rooted first in character, could argue against that statement Milady.

And Mr. Brouhaha, that was very well said.

Posted by: bthun at January 9, 2008 04:58 PM

I worried a lot when I wrote this that it would come across as too dark.

That is not at all what I meant to convey. Despite all the pain this war has brought, in comparison to previous wars relatively few have died. And as was noted in quite a few articles I read we are able to save something like 97% of the wounded now. That was unheard of in previous wars.

Even the collateral damage (though I hate that word) is so much less than it used to be. It will never be small enough, but we really try to minimize the impact. If there can possibly be such a thing as a humane war, we are beginning to approach that obscenity. Because the thing is, as long as human nature doesn't change, war won't go away.

What inspires me is that people like these men continue to rise to the occasion and that despite the jabbering of the chattering classes, women like Christine Kristoff and Carrie, and Deb Conrad and my friend Maureen have the incredible courage to support their sons.

It's one thing to support a husband in something like this.

But with a child (even though he is not a child anymore) a piece of your heart goes with him. And yet these women rise to the occasion, and I do not think people stop to consider how much of what goes into sons comes from their mothers too.

I guess that is what I wanted, above all, to say. It is a cause for thankfulness. We complain about the feminization of America, but in some cases we have good cause to look to America's women with pride and gratitude, because they are the backbone of this great nation.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 9, 2008 05:06 PM

Anyway, I didn't do a very good job. Emotion is the enemy of clarity, and I wasn't really able to distance myself from this.

And yes, it was bthun. Very well said :)

Posted by: Cassandra at January 9, 2008 05:13 PM

"Anyway, I didn't do a very good job."

Yes you did. And I might add, you always do.

Posted by: bthun at January 9, 2008 05:21 PM

You did fine. I wasn't trying to twist or make your words dark, but that's just it. Too many people read stuff like this and see darkness.

I see hope that men are still men, and women are still women (viva la difference!) that someone has inspired them, and they should inspire us. The dark side of the blogosphere wants to call it all criminal. I see it, and see a chance for us to redeem, "the better angels of our nature".

Emotion? I read these memorials, and think of my own growing sons. Someday they will be of age. What will I say to them, knowing the price that others have already paid? How can it be anything but emotional? Are we made of stone? I read somewhere today that some think that because of this war, freedom and the American dream are dying, or are already dead.
Nonsense on stilts. It's never over 'till we say it's over, roll over and give up.

"That these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation shall have a new birth of Freedom; that this nation of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 9, 2008 05:41 PM


Posted by: Cassandra at January 9, 2008 06:45 PM

Lincoln said it well. Even further back, Pericles:

And of how few Hellenes can it be said as of them, that their deeds when weighed in the balance have been found equal to their fame! Methinks that a death such as theirs has been the true measure of a man's worth; it may be the first revelation of his virtues, but is at any rate their final seal.

For even those who come short in other ways may justly plead the valor with which they have fought for their country; they have blotted out the evil with the good, and have benefited the state more by their public services than they have injured her by their private actions.

None of these men were enervated by wealth or hesitated to resign the pleasures of life; none of them put off the evil day in the hope, natural to poverty, that a man, though poor, may one day become rich. But, deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest.

They resigned to hope their unknown chance of happiness; but in the face of death they resolved to rely upon themselves alone. And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.

Such was the end of these men; they were worthy of Athens, ...

Wherefore I do not now pity the parents of the dead who stand here; I would rather comfort them. You know that your dead have passed away amid [many hardships]; and that they may be deemed fortunate who have gained their utmost honor, whether an honorable death like theirs, or an honorable sorrow like yours,...

As they say, read the rest (Pericles' Funeral Oration).

Posted by: ZZMike at January 11, 2008 04:05 PM

I consider myself lucky to have been a friend of Nate.

Thank you for writing this.

May his life be remembered, as well as his sacrifice.

Posted by: Sarah Endsley at June 3, 2008 01:55 PM

May his life be remembered, as well as his sacrifice.

Amen, Sarah.


Posted by: Cassandra at May 25, 2009 06:52 PM