THAT TUESDAY AFTERNOON, as Jim Leon steered his red Nissan Maxima into his windswept Lancaster neighborhood, he sighed in relief. No government vehicles were parked in front of his beige clapboard-and-flagstone house. Which meant there was no bad news from Iraq, where his 20-year-old son, Marine Corps corporal Christopher Leon, was serving in Ramadi, one of the country’s most violent cities. During the four months since Chris deployed, this had become Jim’s ritual. Because his job as a lab technician at Quest Diagnostics in Tarzana required him to be at work by 6:30 a.m., he always arrived home early. If anything was wrong, he would at least find out before his wife, Kathi, who kept normal business hours in the billing office of an Antelope Valley urologist.
Like so many streets in Lancaster, Avenue K-9, where the Leons live, is a link in a vast grid of alphabetized avenues running east to west and numbered thoroughfares laid out north to south. An unincorporated desert community just 30 years ago, Lancaster now has a population of 130,000 and sprawls across the top of Los Angeles County. From its chain restaurants to its proliferating subdivisions, it exudes newness and uniformity. The big residential developers are KB, Beazer, Pulte, and Heritage, and the interchangeable versions of paradise they’ve created are advertised on fluttering banners proclaiming 7 FLOOR PLANS, YOU’LL LOVE IT HERE, or NO PAYMENTS UNTIL 2008. The Leons own a three-bedroom house in Harris Homes, one of the earlier neighborhoods on the desirable west side. The living room, all green and white with a faceted mirror over the fireplace, is dominated by a fabric-and-rope tree for their five cats. A Sony big-screen TV fronts one wall of the den. Plates adorned by Norman Rockwell paintings are mounted to another. But photographs of Chris are the interior’s most distinctive element. A shot of him as a towheaded three-month-old hangs near his parents’ bed. Pictures of him on a recent Easter and on his prom night top the mantelpiece. The first thing visible on entering the front door is a formal portrait of him in his Marine Corps dress blues. Blond haired and hazel eyed with a square jaw, he radiates self-assurance.
The Leons adopted Chris at birth, making him not less than flesh and blood to them but something more. At the time, they’d been together 12 years and were living in a tiny condo in Agoura. Tall with a thin gray mustache, Jim, who moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest in the 1960s, is urbane, deliberate, and at 72, his wife’s elder by 16 years. Dark haired and exuberant, Kathi grew up in the North Valley, and most of her family still lives in the area. Each went through troubled early marriages, and both are deeply religious, regarding faith as a bulwark against an uncertain world. Indeed, Jim—who was raised Jewish—converted to Catholicism shortly after marrying Kathi. For a long time they saw themselves as liberals, but eventually they drifted to the right. Not that they were doctrinaire about it. They opposed abortion and felt that the Republican Party offered the best hope for a culture that fostered life. Jim, who's estranged from a son and daughter by his first wife, especially wanted a child, and he and Kathi tried hard to have one, invoking the Lord—they prayed constantly—and science. Despite side effects that made her hands ache so badly she had to bandage them, Kathi took the fertility drug Danazol. Nothing worked. Then in the fall of 1985, Kathi’s obstetrician phoned with wonderful news. A 13-year-old patient named Nikki Ruhl was putting her child up for adoption. Were they interested? On November 5, the day Nikki gave birth, Jim and Kathi were at Thousand Oaks’ Los Robles Hospital. After the papers were signed and Nikki was granted a few hours to hold her son, the couple took the infant home. They called him Christopher David, but Baby, Kathi’s pet name for him—which even after he joined the Marines she continued to use—emphasized his status in their family as a fragile and precious gift. “It was such a God thing,” she says. “He gave us this blessing. You think you’re in control, but God is.”
Jim and Kathi moved to Lancaster in 1988 because it was a part of Los Angeles where they could afford a new house with a big yard. It took time for Jim to adjust to the one-hour commute to and from work in Tarzana, but soon enough the two were using the same expression used by others in the Antelope Valley for the more urban Southern California they’d left behind: Down Below. Down Below was crime and congestion. But here, especially in Harris Homes, which had materialized overnight, was a community of like-minded people seeking something better. In its orderliness, Lancaster offered a place of greater safety.
For Jim and Kathi, Chris’s childhood was a happy blur. They ferried him to T-ball games, bought him Star Wars toys and skateboards, and enrolled him in one of the Antelope Valley’s most elite elementary schools, Desert Christian. Chris and his best friend since second grade, David Meade, played on various roller hockey teams—the Sabres, the Hawks, and the Rangers—at an indoor rink. The only trouble anyone remembered Chris getting into as a boy occurred at the age of seven or eight when he and David set some sagebrush at the end of Avenue K-9 on fire while fooling with matches. They tried to put out the flames with Super Soakers, but when that failed they did the right thing, telling Kathi, who called the fire department, which extinguished the blaze.
Since Chris departed for Iraq, Jim and Kathi had thought back often on those days. They’d also thought back on more recent, harder times. Like many young marines, Chris had gone through a period in his teens when he’d behaved heedlessly. He had nearly destroyed himself with alcohol and drugs. There was a long stretch during which Jim and Kathi despaired of ever reaching him. But Chris fought his way clear, the battle largely taking place in his room. Painted electric blue, it is plastered with posters of Eminem and 50 Cent. A hockey stick autographed by the Kings looks down from one side, a row of Dodger caps from another. Here Chris sought meaning in his life and forgiveness for his trespasses, at 18 scrawling a plea for divine intervention on the closet wall with a Magic Marker:
Jim and Kathi were thankful the Marine Corps had given their son a sense of purpose, but they were terrified because it had placed him in danger. Jim was particularly fearful, as he viewed the world so differently from his son. Where Chris was vigorous and confrontational, he was bookish and reserved. He spent his days in a lab coat performing repetitive tasks with names like “enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.” Neither had much patience for the other’s interests. The gap had been the source of much tension during Chris’s adolescence, but they had gotten through it.
All of this was in the back of Jim’s mind on Tuesday, June 20, 2006, when he saw the Father’s Day card from Iraq. Greetings for specific occasions are hard to come by in Ramadi. Chris was forced to select one that read “Happy Birthday Dad” and displayed a lighthouse. Inside, he’d written a note that from its spotty spelling to its assessment of past failings was a synopsis of his life:
Jim’s eyes filled with tears. Chris had never told him that he looked up to him or regarded him as a source of strength. Maybe he had been a better father than he imagined. Maybe their life in the Antelope Valley had worked out according to plan. When he finally composed himself, Jim called Kathi to tell her everything was okay and that he’d received an amazing card from their son that he couldn’t wait for her to read. Ten minutes later, the doorbell rang.
One day during his sophomore year, Chris was standing on the grounds of Lancaster’s Paraclete High handing out sticks of gum to some friends when a classmate approached and demanded a piece. Chris refused, and the boy grabbed him by the hair. Chris retaliated with a vicious punch to the mouth. He mostly ended up hurting himself, though, opening a jagged gash across his knuckles. The cut became infected, and the next morning he awakened with a hand as big as a balloon. He missed half a week of classes, but the worst thing was that he didn’t care. In fact, he took pride in the entire episode, regarding it as a defining moment.
Paraclete High is on the northwest side of Lancaster, just below Quartz Hill, the area’s wealthiest enclave, home to physicians, lawyers, and aerospace engineers employed by the giant Boeing and Northrop Grumman factories that dominate the Antelope Valley’s economy. Although affiliated with the Catholic Church, the school draws students of all religions to its yucca-studded campus. Ninety percent of the graduates attend college, and as a freshman Chris had given every indication that he would be one of them, earning mostly As and Bs. The next year had begun just as promisingly, with Chris playing cornerback on the varsity football Spirits, getting into enough games to feel that he contributed to the team’s 2001 California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Championship.
Then the bottom fell out. In his second sophomore semester, Chris received a C in English, Ds in French, biology, and religion, and an F in algebra. Never again would he walk onto the football field. His new sport was paintball, which had him running through the desert blasting away with a $1,300 Angel gun his parents dutifully helped him buy. He’d taken up drinking and smoking, choosing brands—potent King Cobra 40s and nicotine-rich Camel Wides—that he believed gave him gangster credibility. Many weekend nights he stayed out until dawn without calling home. He also started stealing money from Jim and Kathi, even taking Christmas presents intended for his grandparents, returning them to the store where they were purchased, and pocketing the refund.
Jim and Kathi racked their brains to understand what was going on. How could their baby have so quickly become a demon? What had they missed? There had, of course, been signs. When Chris was at Desert Christian, he’d been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, and his doctor had prescribed Ritalin, then Dexedrine. During his teens, though, he stopped taking the drugs. They made him feel dull. Without them, he was prone to rogue bursts of energy. There was also something else: By the time Chris turned 15, Jim was 66, far older than other boys’ dads. Jim lived for baroque music, believing that in the intricacy of a Bach mass he could hear the truth in all its nuances. Chris loved rap, especially anything by Dr. Dre, finding authenticity in its discordant rhythms and harsh lyrics—to him the truth was a blunt object. They quarreled over control of the CD player. “I’m gonna put you down, old man,” Chris would growl, to which his father would retort, “That’s very mature.” The relationship degenerated. “I felt inadequate,” Jim says. “I didn’t know what to do for him.” Hoping to pick up the slack, Kathi often assumed the paternal role, going camping with her son while Jim stayed at home. In an extreme gesture of solidarity for a 50-year-old mom, when Chris got his ears and tongue pierced, she got a diamond nose stud.
At the heart of it all was a riddle that Jim and Kathi couldn’t solve: It was one thing for Chris to accept intellectually that he’d been given up for adoption, but emotionally it was another story. No matter how hard Jim and Kathi tried, he felt detached and betrayed. He didn’t know who he was, which meant that the battle to forge an identity fought by every teen was for him doubly intense.
On top of all this, Chris was plainly using drugs. What Jim and Kathi lacked was evidence. Shortly after Paraclete let out for summer 2002 vacation, they found it—a bag of marijuana in their son’s things. The discovery produced a moment of clarity for Kathi. “I thought, ‘All right, it’s time to put the screws to him,’” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna show him.’” She phoned the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. On a June Sunday as Chris was sleeping, two deputies appeared at the door. After awakening and cuffing him, they put him in the back of a squad car. Since he was a minor and in possession of less than an ounce, they charged him with a misdemeanor and did not transport him to the Lancaster substation. He would be required to attend several Narcotics Anonymous sessions and pay a $400 fine, but ultimately his record would be wiped clean. Chris was devastated and furious. “Fuck you, Mom,” he screamed when he stormed back into the house. “Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.” He then stomped off to his room, slamming the door behind him.
During this period, Jim and Kathi sought consolation and guidance at the 5,000-member Desert Vineyard Fellowship. Wearying of Catholicism’s rigidity and seeking a form of worship that was at once less dogmatic and more vibrantly rooted in scripture, they had joined in 1999. The Vineyard movement, which grew out of the countercultural Jesus craze, began on Santa Monica Beach during the early 1970s. Preachers wear jeans, sermons are conversational, and the music is guitar-driven soft rock to which parishioners stand and sway with hands uplifted to the Lord. Desert Vineyard, which is presided over by the Reverend David Parker—known to everyone as Pastor Dave—is the second oldest of the denomination’s 1,500 churches. The congregation includes Northrop Grumman engineers and businesspeople. But many who attend are troubled—35 percent have experienced substance-abuse problems. Desert Vineyard offers a variety of prayer-based support programs, and Jim and Kathi enrolled in one composed of other parents of children using drugs. “They let us know we weren’t alone and weren’t failures,” says Kathi. “They’d say, ‘We’ve been there. Don’t give up.’”
Still, Jim and Kathi were at a loss about what to do. One minute Kathi would announce that they were kicking Chris out, but Jim wouldn’t hear of it. The next, Jim would declare that he’d lost patience, and Kathi would say that they had to keep trying. They agreed on one matter, though: They were through paying thousands of dollars for private schooling. Their son’s days at Paraclete were over.
Chris’s junior year at Lancaster High started off disastrously. Forging notes from Jim and Kathi, he skipped classes and attracted the attention of truant officers. His grades dropped even lower: Fs in Spanish, English, algebra, history, and science. Affecting hip-hop style in Enyce sweaters and cargo pants from Shady Ltd., he spent afternoons racing his mom’s navy blue Saturn along secluded streets. His favorite was Bulldog Avenue near Quartz Hill, where a tight four-lane turn provides an ideal spot for drifting. To give the car a high-performance roar, he removed its air filter, ignoring warnings that this was a surefire way to burn out the engine, which he did. At night Chris was often at a party house owned by an older guy who kept crack in the refrigerator and loved to brag about the life. Strange girls and ex-cons were always passing through, and four or five people would still be awake at sunrise. Before long, Chris was smoking and dealing methamphetamine, the Antelope Valley’s hardcore drug of choice.
“He was a classic Lancaster kid,” says David Meade, who stayed on at Paraclete but remained Chris’s closest friend. “He screwed around in high school because there’s nothing to do here but drink and smoke. You get sucked into it, and it’s a nasty cycle. You get your girlfriend pregnant, and you end up in a crappy job to pay the bills. And crystal meth is always a danger. It’s the largest problem in our town. There are lots of meth labs on the east side, where people’s houses blow up in the middle of the night. This was the road Chris was on.”
Jim and Kathi didn’t know everything, but they knew enough. During talks with a Lancaster High guidance counselor, they were given two choices: Chris could either attend Desert Winds, a separate campus for delinquent students, or he could enroll in Independent Study. Just two months into his new school, their son was running out of options.
On the periphery of the Lancaster High campus, far from the school’s busy quads, is room 306, home of the Independent Study program. The location is intentional and symbolic. Here, students who have rebelled against order being imposed on them are expected to impose it on themselves. Rather than meet in class for lectures and instruction, they work on their own schedules. Whether they read textbooks at home or study online at a cybercafé is immaterial. They’re only required to appear in room 306 to submit papers and take tests.
One morning in November 2002, Chris walked through the drab blue door for the first time. Instead of desks lined up in neat rows, there were casually arranged round tables. At the entrance was an area reminiscent of a library checkout counter. In a cubicle formed from tall black filing cabinets sat Cheryl Holland. A 58-year-old mother of two and a teacher in the Antelope Valley School District since 1974, Holland projects empathy and toughness. Almost every inch of her work area is covered with photographs of kittens, singer Céline Dion, and former NFL quarterback John Elway. She loves nothing more than to talk about making a difference in children’s lives. Then she’ll square her jaw and declare that if a student ever hit her she’d deck him.
“When Chris’s parents decided it was time to put the brakes on his tailspin,” Holland says, "it was the luck of the draw that he was assigned to me. I took one look at him and realized he just needed a little time to get his head out of his ass. He thought he could continue to be a slacker. He thought he could just go through the motions. I told him that wasn’t going to fly here. I told him I’d be nice if he did his work, but if he didn’t I’d get down and dirty.”
Chris told David Meade that Holland was a bitch and complained to Jim and Kathi that he hated her. “She was in his face,” says Kathi, “and he didn’t like it. But she got his attention.” To Jim and Kathi’s relief, Chris responded to Independent Study’s unstructured environment, in part because it allowed him to call his own shots, a privilege he had never before been accorded. “The program required him to become accountable,” says Holland. “After a while I no longer had to tell him to do his work,” adds Kathi. “He just did it.” In his first grading period, he earned two Bs and a C.
Shortly before Chris enrolled in Independent Study, he fell in with several boys who’d recently formed a crew whose name could not have been more purposeful: Insanely Determined to Succeed. Aside from Chris, IDS had four other members: Jon Sherman, Sonny Huerta, Alan Iosue, and his old friend David Meade. “We started it for protection,” says Jon. “We were kind of crazy and got into a lot of fights. It got dangerous out here.” This was one reason Jon recruited Chris. “He just had this strength about him. I wanted him on my side.”
The first months Chris was at Lancaster High, the boys of IDS spent the bulk of their time driving the Antelope Valley’s backstreets or hanging out in an isolated cul-de-sac near Alan’s house known as “the spot.” There they drank, talked, and when the testosterone was running high, squabbled. “We didn’t do shit,” says Jon, “and that’s where we did it.” Their regimented desert city felt stultifying. Too much conformity. Too many naysayers. Too few outlets for creativity. They were always up for anything unsanctioned, even if it took them to the party house. “It was a fucked-up time,” says Jon. “There were days we’d have $1,000 in our pockets.”
All the members of Insanely Determined to Succeed came from middle-class or privileged backgrounds (David’s dad was an astronaut who flew on three shuttle missions), and each possessed intrinsic skills or qualities. Sonny could cook so well, people thought he could be a chef. Jon could paint. Alan loved architecture. David followed politics and read voraciously. Chris was different. He didn’t pursue an obvious passion, but he was the most alive, the most resilient, the one the others turned to. “My mom died, and afterward I was pretty messed up and got into some trouble,” says Alan. “I spent 19 days at juvenile hall. Chris was the first person I saw when I got out. He came over to see how I was doing and talked to my dad. I was having difficulty in school, and he told me to stick with it.” While none of the group’s members was headed to Harvard, and all except David were going to have difficulty graduating from high school, they were to a one idealistic—which had always been part of the attraction. “When I first got to know Chris,” says Jon, “he was hanging around with guys who were much lower in intelligence. He just needed help. He needed brothers.”
By the start of their senior year, the boys of IDS had begun to follow their own code. “We had too much respect for ourselves to go on the way we had been,” says Jon. “I feel like we ultimately became a reincarnation of King Arthur’s knights. If someone fell down, we picked him up. We sought knowledge. We told one another the truth. We pushed ourselves to lead lives of valor.”
As Chris started to feel better about himself, two good things happened. First, he found a girlfriend. Analyse Reaves, a Paraclete student from an academic family (her father administers the UCLA physics lab), had long resisted his approaches. During his sophomore year, she’d outright rejected him. “That Valentine’s Day she broke his heart,” says David. Yet Chris persisted, and when he asked her to go to Disneyland in March 2003, she said yes. Soon the two were inseparable. Not only did she boost Chris’s ego and improve his manners (“He was very rough around the edges,” says David), she got him to swear off meth. “Until then he didn’t have a reason to stop,” she says. “I think I helped him find one.”
Chris also landed a job, taking the position of stock boy at PetSmart in Lancaster’s Valley Central Mall. Initially, he put in just a few hours after school unloading merchandise and helping customers carry purchases to their cars. Eventually, the manager came to trust him, assigning him the task of opening the place on Sunday mornings.
PetSmart is next door to the city’s Armed Forces Career Center. All the major branches of the military have offices there, and on breaks Chris would wander down to see what was going on. He gravitated to the space occupied by the United States Marine Corps. Decorated by posters bearing slogans like PAIN IS TEMPORARY PRIDE IS FOREVER and a wall plaque displaying the corps’ eagle, globe, and anchor seal, the office was run by Gunnery Sergeant Larry Watts and Staff Sergeant Leann Elizabeth Dixon. Watts is a stern, black Chicagoan, Dixon a white Floridian known to pick up stray animals and nurse them at home. Chris liked them both, but he was even more taken by the Marine Corps itself. As he saw it, the service could provide him a chance to excel as an individual while becoming part of something bigger. The romance, the call to duty, the machismo—the corps was Insanely Determined to Succeed writ large. Here, at last, was an opportunity for Chris to merge the warring parts of his soul. He was so gung ho that he told his parents he was quitting school and joining immediately. Kathi objected, insisting that he get his diploma. As it turned out, the Marine Corps offers a Delayed Entry Program designed for those in his position. On July 22, 2003, with Sergeant Dixon bearing witness, Chris signed up.
“This was Chris’s way of redeeming himself,” says Jim. “He wanted to do something difficult. I think he was a little elitist about it.” David believes Chris saw the Marines as a calling: “He told me God wanted him to do it, that it was a vocation.” Jon puts it more enthusiastically: “It was fucking cool.”
Chris immersed himself in the Delayed Entry Program. “He was one of my faithful fellows,” says Sergeant Watts. “Each Saturday we’d run, do pull-ups and push-ups, and every week I’d go by Lancaster High to see how he was doing with his studies.” Chris stopped eating fast food and began downing protein shakes and vitamin supplements. “He started drinking this green goop,” says David. “It was awful.” He also applied himself to Independent Study. “During his junior year I had to push him,” says Cheryl Holland. “But during his senior year all I had to do was guide him. He became a pleasure to have in my life. It was hard for him—he never did learn to spell—but in fact he was smart, a deep thinker.” To graduate on time, Chris needed to make up all the classes he’d failed. During his last semester he took seven courses, receiving Bs in six. The sole blemish was a C in food. He also undertook a senior project titled “Becoming a U.S. Marine.” Chris accompanied his six-page essay with a cover letter that opened, “For the past four years I have gone through more struggles than the average high school student.… I never really thought I was going to graduate high school. That was until I started really getting involved in the Marines. My whole outlook on life has changed.… I look forward to becoming a Marine. I will do everything possible in my position to make this country a better place for everyone.” The project received the Independent Study Program’s highest mark—a 4, for “Distinguished.” On June 10, 2004, Chris graduated from Lancaster High with his class. Several weeks later Jim and Kathi drove him to the Armed Forces Career Center, where a van was waiting to transport him to Los Angeles. From there, it would be on to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, and then Camp Pendleton.
The war in Iraq had entered its second year, but just a few months before, President George W. Bush—whom Jim and Kathi had supported in 2000 and would vote for again in November—had proclaimed, “Mission accomplished.” Says Kathi, “It never crossed our minds that Chris would see combat. Our goal had been to get him through school. The Marines helped us achieve it. Iraq felt very far away.”
The Leons’ living room door opens onto a metal security screen, and through it Jim could see a Marine Corps staff sergeant, a chief warrant officer, and an air force chaplain. Jim made no move to unlock the screen, convinced that if he kept his visitors at bay, what they had come to tell him could not be true. He said nothing. He stared at the men, his hands at his sides. The standoff lasted only a minute, but it felt longer. Finally, Sergeant Jeff Brown, who’d never before had to perform this duty, asked, “Can we come in?”
“I don’t know how you guys do this,” Jim said after stepping aside.
“Your son, Christopher Leon, has been killed in action,” Brown began. As the casualty assist calls officer (CACO, in Marine argot), Brown was in charge, but there was no prescribed protocol. All he had to go on was his memory of what it had been like for his parents when he was a boy and his brother died. He knew he couldn’t protect the Leons from pain, but he could at least assure them that the Marine Corps would take care of the myriad details. As he started to explain, however, he saw that Jim had turned white, becoming at once agitated and withdrawn. Brown thought he must be recalling memories of Chris. That was only partly right.
The image Jim could not get out of his mind was of Chris’s dead body. His facial features were unchanged, but the animating force—the spirit that had made him Chris—had been extinguished. Eyes gone vacant, mouth slack, he was pasty, cold, rigid, inert. Oddly, he was not in uniform but in street clothes, yet maybe that was fitting. Before he was a marine, he was the son whose Father’s Day card was lying open on the den table. Jim fought hard to dislodge the vision. Once he did, though, he felt the first flush of a familiar toxic glow. In 2002, while commuting to Tarzana, he’d suffered a mild heart attack. In 2003, he underwent triple bypass surgery. He was later diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Now he was experiencing the same sensation. Pressure surged in his chest. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
“Would you like me to call an ambulance?” the chaplain asked.
While the paramedics were en route, Jim phoned Kathi. She was at her desk near the refrigerator in the back of the urology clinic, entering charges into a computer and sending claims to insurance companies, when she picked up. “We’ve lost Chris,” Jim said, his voice breaking. She screamed, “No” and continued screaming until her boss’s wife took the receiver from her hand. One of her coworkers attempted to reassure her, saying there had to be a mistake, but Kathi knew better, and as she walked through the crowded reception area she kept screaming. She screamed all the way home and was still doing so when the emergency technicians arrived: “No. No. No.” Finally, one of the men said, “You have to stop,” but she wouldn’t. The advice was an affront from someone who couldn’t possibly comprehend what she was feeling. Her baby, the unexpected miracle in her life, was gone.
The EMTs raced Jim to Antelope Valley Hospital, where he was diagnosed as having suffered another mild heart attack and placed in the intensive care unit. Kathi stayed behind and began notifying friends and family members, among them her sister, Lori- Ann, and her mother, who because of a bad connection couldn’t hear what her daughter was saying, forcing her to repeat, “Chris was killed. Chris was killed.” All the while, Sergeant Brown and the other servicemen stood at the edge of the room at parade rest. They would do whatever they were asked, but they would not infringe.
By eight o’clock the Leons’ house had filled with people—most from Desert Vineyard. Among them were Dana and Dawn Stewart, whose son, Marine Corps lance corporal Ian Stewart, had been killed in Iraq two years before. “I never wanted to walk in your shoes,” Kathi burst out on seeing Dawn, and they embraced. Associate Pastor Paul Lopiccolo led the group in prayer, kneeling in Kathi’s living room and assuring her that her fellow church members would keep vigil. That night, after everyone departed, Kathi took strength from the knowledge that others would be beseeching the Lord in her name. “I was too devastated,” she says, “to pray for myself.”
Of the boys in Insanely Determined to Succeed, Jon heard first. He had just come home from his job at T-Mobile, where he was working to put himself through Antelope Valley College. He called the others. Sonny was attending the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena by day while grilling steaks at a Claim Jumpers by night. Alan was selling electronics components in Las Vegas to pay for classes at the Community College of Southern Nevada. David was studying at Pepperdine University while employed in a Santa Monica law firm’s collections office. He was the last to learn. He’d turned off his cell phone Tuesday night and didn’t find out until the next morning when he picked up a text message from Jon as he was walking to the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 3rd Street. Suddenly, the palm trees and the Pacific dissolved in a blur of tears. After crying for 15 minutes, David told one of the partners that his friend had been killed in Iraq. He then headed to Lancaster. Up the Antelope Valley Freeway, out of the green basin, and into the dry mountains that rim Los Angeles County he drove. Eventually, he found himself at Jon’s apartment. Both of them wanted to visit the Leons, but neither could muster the courage that night.
Over the next several days, as Jim lay in a hospital bed, Kathi leaned heavily on Lori- Ann, who’d come from Westlake Village to stay with her. The house was filled with flowers, but Kathi could barely see them, having ruptured blood vessels in her eyes during her screaming. Nor could she eat any of the casseroles and sandwiches members of Desert Vineyard kept dropping off. She had no appetite. “I was just broken down,” she says. “My mind had become mush. I couldn’t reason.” Her biggest concern was the return of Chris’s remains. The bodies of fallen American servicemen are initially flown to the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs in Dover, Delaware. The length of time they are kept there can vary widely. Each morning Kathi called Sergeant Brown to see where things stood, but he couldn’t get an answer. The only information he could provide was that Chris’s remains were viewable. Unlike many servicemen killed in Iraq, he had not been torn apart by an improvised explosive device. A sniper had shot him. “I never thought I’d want to see a body, especially my son’s,” says Kathi, “but I was comforted by the fact that I’d be able to.”
At 11 p.m. on June 29, a week and a half after Chris was killed, a Delta flight carrying his remains landed at Ontario International Airport and taxied to the gate. Jim had been released from the hospital, and he and Kathi, her parents, and her sister and brother-in-law were standing on the tarmac alongside a Marine honor guard commanded by Jeff Brown. After the passengers disembarked, Chris’s casket appeared in the mouth of the cargo hold. Encased in Styrofoam and shrinkwrap, it looked like an appliance carton. The marines needed ten minutes to rip away the packing material. They then draped the coffin with an American flag and carried it to a waiting hearse. “It’s such a horrible car to see your baby go in,” says Kathi. “But at least we got to touch the casket and kiss the flag. We were in such a state of shock. A woman in a ground-level shipping office saw us standing there and opened a locked door and said that if we needed to use the bathroom to come in. It was a tiny thing, but it showed real kindness. We were so grateful.” As the hearse pulled away, Jim saluted. Behind the glass wall of a busy concourse, people standing in line were saluting, too.
The next day Kathi and her family went to Lancaster’s Joshua Memorial Park to view the body. Jim, in his mind having already seen Chris dead, didn’t go. “I just can’t take it,” he told Kathi. After the family filed out, David Meade and Jon Sherman entered. “I was so glad to see him,” says Jon. “I was so glad he was home.”
That evening, family members gathered at the Leons’ to make memory boards to display at the funeral. Jim and Kathi had assembled a stack of photographs from different periods in Chris’s life. As the group began to cut and paste, something unexpected happened—the sadness lifted. Grief, unbearable as it is, offers moments of euphoria, and they were experiencing one, so much so that around ten o’clock Jim rushed out to a Marie Callender’s and bought pies. Everyone stayed up late eating and passing around pictures. There was Chris at two with a baseball cap on sideways and a plastic bat in his hands. Here he was at four in a bathing pool filled with frogs he’d collected. A shot of him at ten riding on his skateboard conjured memories of his frequent falls and how he always jumped back up. They laughed at these images, but one taken of Chris in Iraq elicited a different emotion. He’s wearing a desert camouflage uniform, with his helmet pulled down low. Eyes wary, lips set in a straight line, he looks fierce yet mindful. For years his parents had worried that Chris wouldn’t find himself, but here was evidence that he had, and it made them proud. “I wouldn’t want to tangle with that guy,” Jim thought.
The most daunting part of Marine boot camp is the Crucible. A 54-hour training mission during which sleep-deprived recruits each carrying 75 pounds of gear march, crawl, and run more than 50 miles through mock battlefields, the drill amounts to a final exam. It concludes with a ten-mile climb known as the Reaper. Characterized by rocky terrain and nearly vertical ascents, it is Camp Pendleton’s most formidable challenge. Shortly before Chris started, he bent over to adjust his boots and heard a loud crack, then felt pain. He’d broken his left foot. For a second, he contemplated what to do. Yet as he looked back on what he’d already been through during the eight weeks since he’d left Lancaster—the loneliness and the exhaustion—he decided to push forward. Every inch of the Reaper was excruciating, as was every inch of a six-mile run that followed, but Chris finished. Boot camp was essentially behind him. The life he’d aspired to since he walked into the recruiting station next to PetSmart lay ahead.
Chris’s injury, although not severe, required him to wear a walking cast, and he did not graduate with his class. Accompanying Jim and Kathi to the December graduation ceremony were Analyse and three members of Insanely Determined to Succeed—David, Jon, and Alan. Chris, they all agreed, seemed older, more polite, and for someone who’d been immersed in a culture that prizes toughness, surprisingly more loving. Afterward, everyone went to lunch at the San Diego Yacht Club, snapping pictures of Chris in his uniform with its eagle, globe, and anchor pin as he stood before the sparkling water. He was now a marine. Two days later he walked into a tattoo parlor and had USMC inked onto his right triceps and his last name inked onto his left.
Chris returned to Camp Pendleton for six weeks of infantry training, then reported to Twentynine Palms, home of the Marine Corps Communications School. He wanted to become a radio operator and spent hours learning how to operate the PRC-117 and PRC-119, each about the size and weight of a VCR. Along with bulletproof steel plates, a flak jacket, ammunition magazines, and an M-16 A4 rifle, these machines would become part of the 120 pounds of equipment he would carry in the field. During downtime, he began working out obsessively. At first he just wanted to be strong enough to do his job, but he found he loved physical training. Within months he was bench-pressing 300 pounds and on his way to a green belt in karate.
Because he was close to the Antelope Valley, Chris could go home on weekends. Jim and Kathi’s hope that the Iraq war would be over by the time their son finished training had been a delusion. In boot camp, Chris had told them as much. In one of the weekly letters he sent them, many of which were simply addressed “Mom and Dad, Avenue K-9, Lancaster, Ca.,” he’d written:
I’m getting kinda scared.… The DIs keep telling us that most of us will go to Iraq for sure, including all infintry. But its OK if I go. I’ll come back walking and talking, that is. I don’t want you to tell Analyse this. Okay.
Now deployment was drawing nearer. One night Chris and David Meade were hanging out. “Why are you going?” David asked. “So you don’t have to,” Chris responded. Around this time, Chris attended the funeral of a marine killed in Iraq. Afterward, he dropped in on David at his mom’s house, which offers a view of the entire Antelope Valley. The two boys were standing outside looking down on the lights of the town where they’d grown up when Chris said, “The funeral I was at—only one person spoke. If anything happens to me…”
David refused to let Chris finish. “If you’re predisposed to it, it’ll happen.”
But Chris wouldn’t be silenced. “If anything happens to me and only one person gets to speak, I want it to be you.”
The night before Chris left for Okinawa for final training, Jim and Kathi threw a going- away party. About halfway through the evening, with no explanation or tenderness, Chris told Analyse that he was breaking up with her. They had been together for two years. She was devastated. “He did it in a very cold, very fucked-up way,” says David. “She sat outside in her car for two hours. He knew he was going to die and didn’t want any attachments.” Chris’s other friends felt that his motivation had more to do with the deteriorating nature of the relationship. All agree that his behavior was cruel. “He felt he should just break things off,” says Analyse. “I never saw him again.”
In Okinawa, Chris was assigned to the highly regarded Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. Although not as elite as Force Recon, ANGLICO is among the Marines’ most demanding outfits. Working in small groups usually no larger than four and typically commanded by a high-ranking fighter pilot, ANGLICO teams are the communications link between ground combat missions and air support, which can come in the form of everything from helicopter gunships to F-18s. It’s ANGLICO’S job to call in bomb and missile strikes, and since the missions require precision, units are frequently within 100 yards of their targets. The radio operator must maintain contact between the foot soldiers and the forces aloft. “At first he wasn’t proficient with the radios, not that this was surprising,” says Captain Adam Blanton of Fifth ANGLICO. A 29-year-old Boise State English graduate who grew up in Riverside County, he was Chris’s team leader. “We have the most complicated equipment out there. But he picked things up quickly.”
In November 2005, Chris phoned Kathi. He knew that within a couple months he would be in Iraq, and he wanted to meet his birth mom before leaving. “At first my heart sank,” says Kathi. “I thought I was going to lose him. But I realized that was my own insecurity, my own problem. I needed to do what was best for Chris. So I dug up the paperwork from the adoption. There was a phone number for Nikki Ruhl’s mother. When I called it, I got a forwarding number—and here’s the remarkable part. When I reached Nikki’s mom, who’d moved to Nevada, she told me the forwarding number was due to be disconnected that very day. If I hadn’t called when I did, who knows if we’d ever have found her?”
Nikki was 33, living in Simi Valley and training to be a veterinary technician. Each November 5, ever since that day 20 years earlier at Los Robles Hospital, she’d quietly celebrated Chris’s birthday. When he turned 18, she’d begun hoping he’d call. Now, here was Kathi on the phone saying Chris was leaving for Iraq and wanted to meet her. Nikki couldn’t hold back the tears. “I was so happy,” she says. “Kathi and I talked for two hours. Then I drove to Lancaster a couple of weeks later and spent the afternoon with Jim and Kathi. We looked at pictures and talked about the good and the bad. They made me feel like family.” Jim and Kathi were taken with Nikki, and at the end of the visit, Kathi said Chris would be home for the holidays and she’d make the arrangements.
Everything about Chris’s 2005 Christmas leave, indeed everything about the weeks before he deployed for Iraq, seemed touched by the miraculous. The day after he got back to Lancaster, he went on a date with Aimey Vaccaro. The two had known each other in grade school at Desert Christian, but they’d lost touch. Just five feet two inches tall and 105 pounds, with straight brown hair with red highlights, Aimey is tiny and saucy. She favors faded jeans and Dooney & Burke bags and drives a white Toyota with the vanity tag AIMEY V. She was attending Antelope Valley College and working at a local clothing store. Chris, who Aimey remembered as “a little pip-squeak,” had metamorphosed into a five-feet-ten-inch, 175-pound marine. He liked to show off his ripped upper body and his tattoos, which now included a rosary on one arm and a dragon on his back that he’d acquired in Okinawa. Yet for all his toughness, Aimey found him dear. By night’s end, both were smitten. “I liked him,” she says, “but I told myself, ‘I’m not going to be a 19-year-old girl tied down to a boyfriend in Iraq.’” Still, in the coming days the two spent hours together around a giant Christmas tree at Jim and Kathi’s house, wrapping presents and watching DVDs (Jim Carrey’s The Grinch, an entire season of Fox’s rude Family Guy). “He was addictive,” Aimey says. “It was impossible not to be with him. I gave in.”
Chris attended a candlelight Christmas Eve service with Jim and Kathi at Desert Vineyard, then the next morning rode with them to Westlake Village for dinner at his aunt and uncle’s home. He supervised the distribution of presents and taught his four-year-old niece how to ride the new bicycle she’d received.
The following day, Chris drove to Simi Valley to meet Nikki Ruhl. He was so nervous that he phoned Aimey three times before he arrived. Nikki was equally flustered, calling Kathi three times as well. Like Chris, Nikki is blond with hazel eyes. “You’re so pretty,” he said when she came to the door. The two spent the morning together, with Nikki doing most of the talking. She told Chris she had gotten pregnant the first time she’d ever had sex. The reason she’d put him up for adoption was that she’d been so young and scared. If only she hadn’t been 13, she added, asking if he could understand. He said he did. She offered to tell him about the 17-year-old boy who was his father. But he didn’t want to hear about him. He was just interested in her. Chris spoke of the difficulties he’d caused Jim and Kathi, but he stressed that it was all in the past. He went on about the Marines. Nikki thought he was earnest and cocky, an impressive combination.
In the early afternoon, the two drove to a T.G.I. Friday’s, which made the occasion feel like a first date—in many ways it was. Over lunch they discovered all they had in common. Each had found school difficult. Both loved animals. Neither possessed a good sense of direction. Near the meal’s end, Chris told Nikki that meeting her had made his life complete. Then he pulled out a picture of Nikki taken the year she’d given birth to him. Jim and Kathi had given it to him when he entered high school. He told her he’d been carrying it ever since and would carry it with him in Iraq.
Chris spent January at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, perfecting his radio skills. “He went from being merely proficient to being one of the best I’ve seen,” says Captain Blanton. It was also during this period that Chris and Aimey fell in love. Maybe it was the war, maybe it was just luck, but they were open to each other in ways neither had been to anyone before. Despite his rejection of Analyse, Chris realized he needed someone now more than ever, and he was astonished that Aimey was willing to be that person. On January 8, he e-mailed her:
I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being there for me (for us) for what I’m about to go threw ‘what we’re about to go threw.’ You have a lot of courage and strength for what you’re taking on. A lot of women in your position can’t handle what you’re about to go threw. I admire you so much for you’re strength.
In February, Chris flew back home for a last few days’ leave before deployment. His grandparents hosted a party, and he took Aimey out for a Valentine’s Day dinner at Café del Rey overlooking the Pacific in the Marina. The next day he phoned David Meade and suggested a double date. That night, Chris and Aimey and David and his girlfriend, Anna, met at an Islands restaurant. Everyone had hamburgers except Chris, who true to his new obsession with fitness ordered a chicken and lettuce combination. The four then drove to the Sunset Strip, where David had purchased tickets for a Louis C.K. show at the Laugh Factory. After his set, the emcee announced a surprise guest—Dave Chappelle, whose midseason defection from his Comedy Central series had sparked headlines. To Chris, Chappelle was a giant, the stand-up equivalent of Dr. Dre. He loved a sketch called “Black Bush,” in which the comedian, playing the president, takes the country to war in Iraq because he doesn’t understand the meaning of yellow cake, confusing the weapons-grade uranium his advisers claimed Saddam Hussein possessed for a piece of Duncan Hines. The absurdity of the notion broke Chris up. Seeing Chappelle in person was just the right send-off .
Two days later at 5:45 a.m., Kathi and Jim climbed into the front seat of the family car and an exhausted Chris and Aimey fell into the back for the mad dash down the Antelope Valley Freeway to make an 8:50 flight from LAX to Charlotte, North Carolina. There Chris would change planes for Camp Lejeune and departure for Iraq. Chris slept for the trip’s first hour, but by the time they hit the 405 freeway he was awake and furious. Traffic was barely moving—they were never going to make it. “I can’t miss this flight,” he hissed at Kathi. Around 8:30, they arrived at the US Air terminal, and Chris leaped out. He was too late. An attendant told him he’d have to wait for the next departure at 1 p.m. At first Chris was angry, but when he returned to the car, he smiled. Instead of having to say good-bye in a rush, he could spend the morning with his parents and Aimey. After breakfast at an International House of Pancakes, where they talked about everything and nothing, they drove to a bookstore, where Chris bought copies of Playboy, Maxim, and Vibe. They then stopped at a Starbucks and lingered over coffee. Finally, it came time to head back to LAX. The line for security snaked outside onto the sidewalk, allowing them a luxurious few more minutes together. As they inched along, Aimey held one of Chris’s hands and Kathi the other. They took every opportunity to say, “I love you,” or exchange kisses with him, not caring if strangers saw them hugging and crying and holding on until they reached the point beyond which only passengers could continue. “You’re the best,” Jim shouted after his son, and Kathi called out, “Baby.” On hearing her pet name for him, Chris turned and smiled. In time, Jim and Kathi would regard these four extra hours as the most valuable gift they had ever received.
The only thing Chris told Jim and Kathi about Iraq was that he could “feel the evil.” Ramadi, where he was stationed, was christened “the most dangerous place in the world” by Time shortly after Fifth ANGLICO arrived. The city of 400,000 just west of Baghdad was the center of both the Sunni insurgency and Al Qaeda. Block after block had been reduced to rubble.
Fifth ANGLICO found itself in regular daily combat. Chris’s 4-man unit was part of a larger 13-man squad that reported to Major David Berke, an F-18 pilot. Sometimes they went out with 1,000-man army battalions, other times with Iraqi forces, and occasionally with small detachments of Navy SEALs. “We were mortared, hit by IEDs, fired on constantly—everything,” says Sergeant Jerred Speller, who was part of Chris’s team. “We went on the worst of the worst missions, and the most dangerous aspect was that when we received contact, we ran toward it. We have to see the enemy before we can order planes to drop 500-pound bombs. If we don’t, there’s too much chance for innocent people to get injured.”
One day early on, when Fifth ANGLICO was returning from a rural section of Ramadi, Chris was nearly killed. They’d been out with the Delta 149th Infantry in an area riddled with IEDs and were on their way to their vehicles when someone started shooting at them. Speller and the captain managed to dive into a ditch, but Chris took cover behind a haystack, which provided no cover at all. His comrades yelled at Chris to get out of there. When a lull came, he bolted toward them, firing his M-16 over his shoulder.
This was what Ramadi was like in the spring of 2006. “We’d be out all day on some brutal, ridiculously painful mission,” says Major Berke, “and we’d get back to base and all I could do was crawl off to my quarters. Chris, on the other hand, would go straight to a pull-up bar and do a set of chin-ups—while still wearing his gear. Then he’d get to work on his radios.”
Chris sought support in daily phone calls and e-mails to Aimey. Several weeks after reaching Iraq, he wrote:
Hello my love!
One more mission down, I miss you so much Aimey! Im so thankful I have you to appreciate and love. Everyday my love for you gets stronger, my heart and soul needs you. Everyday I think of your touch and how I can't wait to have you in my arms again! I LOVE you so much! You give me strength and confidence in everything I do. Knowing there’s someone behind me 100 % is breath taking!… I love you with all my heart, soul, body and mind and don’t ever forget that.
Everything about their exchanges was heightened, the urgency amplified by the inability to see or hold each other. All told, they had been in each other’s presence for less than a month. “When someone isn’t there physically,” she says, “you have to ask a lot of questions and you begin to know them on a profound level. I could talk to him for hours. Being in Iraq, he’d learned not to take life for granted.” It wasn’t always easy for her to convey the certitude that he was seeking, but she tried:
My love, my strength, my faith—
I miss you so much. Even though I’m having a hard day I know you have it much worse.… You said today—“I sometimes think, ‘How can someone be waiting for me? How can she make that commitment and take such a big risk?'" My reason: YOU. We have such a special connection that is accompanied by complete honesty—and trust.… I read that once in a great while one person comes across another person who is the perfect companion to accompany us in our travels through life.… You’re mine. Even though you’re far away, miles are just location. I will always act in your absence as I would in your presence. I love you with all my heart Chris.
In May, Chris asked Aimey to marry him. She said yes. They set December 30 as the date. Aimey and her mother found a church in Valencia, contracted a caterer, sent out “Save the Date” notices, and at David’s Bridal Shop in Northridge bought a gown.
On June 2, Chris e-mailed David Meade with the news:
What’s up bro, not much here we’ve had a lot of time off lately because the army unit we work with is packing up to leave and a new one is settling in. But things are going to pick up soon enough.… I’m getting married in December and I would be honored if you would be my best man. So how is everything going back in Cali. Man I cant wait to get home. It was 114 today you can’t even walk outside without sweating your ass off. And wearing all you’re gear and going on foot patrol. Holy shit! Allright Dave I’m gonna get going take care, Chris.
On June 11, American and Iraqi troops launched yet another campaign to pacify Ramadi. The plan was to establish fortified outposts in a number of contested sections of the city and use them to create safety zones in the hope that stable social and economic life would follow. “Our objective,” says Berke, “was a house on the high ground in southern Ramadi that looked out over a train track and a large neighborhood.”
Unlike its surrounding structures, the house that became known as Command Post Iron—or COP Iron—was in excellent shape. Two stories in height and built of stucco-covered stone, it was the perfect location from which to project order onto chaos. By June 20, the building had been in U.S. possession for six days. Parked in front were several Abrams tanks and a number of Bradley fighting vehicles. Spread out on the grounds, 20 or 30 GIs were building sandbag parapets. On the rooftop, which was surrounded by a thick masonry wall, Chris and the marines of Fifth ANGLICO provided cover for the grunts working below. “It was still a very hot area of Ramadi,” says Speller. Yet compared with the spots he and Chris had been during previous weeks, this one felt secure, so much so that Speller curled up with a book.
“The thing about Iraq,” says Blanton, who was inside the building at the time, “is that you can go forever without anything happening, and then in an instant your life is hanging by a thread.” All day the men of Fifth ANGLICO stood watch. When Berke radioed to order Blanton’s team to remain in place a few extra hours, no one expressed the least concern. Then the unit came under fire. “Sniper,” screamed Speller. He and Lance Corporal Matthew Odom popped their heads up over the wall to scan for signs of the shooter. Chris raced into the house to alert Blanton, then returned to the roof. The fire was coming from the east, not the north, he told Speller. Thirty seconds later, Chris went down. Speller, who was at his side in an instant, saw blood pouring from a wound behind Chris’s right temple. “I tried to put a bandage on his head, but the blood was coming out so fast I couldn’t make it hold,” he says. “He was still breathing, so I kept working. I finally got one wrapped all the way around, and a couple of army medics helped me get him on a litter and downstairs to one of the Bradleys.”
Charlie Med, the hospital at Camp Ramadi—the huge base that houses most American troops in the city—is a ten-minute drive from COP Iron. As the Bradley was on its way, Blanton radioed Berke that Chris had been hit. The major raced to Charlie Med and was there when the Bradley arrived. “When they opened the back of the truck, I looked right at him and I knew in an instant he was dead. He was all gauzed up. There was a big hole in his head. I could see the entrance wound. They took him inside, and two minutes later the surgeon came out and confirmed it.”
Around 9 p.m., Speller, Odom, and the other men of Fifth ANGLICO carried Chris’s body out of Charlie Med, passing through a cordon of marines standing at attention. They then loaded him onto a CH-46 helicopter for what is known as an Angel Flight. As the chopper lifted off, the group on the ground saluted. Several days later there was a service at Camp Ramadi. Blanton maintained his composure until it was over, then walked off by himself and broke into sobs. Afterward, he posted his thoughts on his Web site:
The loss of Chris hit everyone in the unit pretty hard. I don’t think it hit me hardest, but it has affected me greatly and changed the way I do business. I experience a sense of fear I never had before Chris was killed.… I still can’t believe he’s gone. In time I will find my way home from this awful place.
Chris’s homecoming came at Desert Vineyard Fellowship a week after the ceremony at Camp Ramadi. The day before, a fringe group had sent a threat over the Internet, vowing to protest the services. As a consequence, a contingent of sheriff’s deputies greeted the Reverend David Parker when he arrived at the church. The lawmen were later reinforced by about a hundred members of the Patriot Guards—a motorcycle-riding contingent of veterans and supporters of American troops. But no demonstration ever materialized.
A thousand mourners packed the vast sanctuary. Sitting in front were Jim and Kathi, Nikki Ruhl, and Aimey Vaccaro and her mother. In the middle of the hall sat Chris’s Independent Study teacher, Cheryl Holland; his old girlfriend, Analyse Reaves; and the clerks and managers from PetSmart. Captain Blanton’s mother had driven over from Riverside County, and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Shrader, ANGLICO’s commanding officer, had flown in from Okinawa. The boys of Insanely Determined to Succeed—except for one—were there, too. Against the urgings of David, Jon, and Alan, Sonny had decided to go on a long-scheduled family vacation to Mexico. “It was the hardest decision I ever made,” he says. Not everyone understood or quickly forgave.
The services began with the old hymn “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand.” Then Reverend Parker delivered a sermon in which he alluded to Chris’s troubled teens (“After losing his way, he graduated from Lancaster High”) and applauded his service to his country (“He willingly and proudly defended America”). Fulfilling his friend’s request, David gave the eulogy. In it he sought to exalt the fraternal ideals of IDS. “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge,” he said. “Myth is more potent than history. Dreams are more powerful than facts. Love is stronger than death. The way we remember Chris is the way he becomes immortal.”
Aimey Vaccaro followed David. She spoke of her love for Chris, calling herself “the luckiest girl there is,” but as she looked out on a room filled by their contemporaries, her tone changed. “Not only did Chris die for his country,” she said, “but for his friends. I hope that’s really a wake-up call. It’s up to you to know what life is all about. It’s not about the parties and the things we get so worked up about.” The lesson of Chris’s death, she was saying, was that one’s time on earth is finite. Only dedication and accomplishments, not myths and dreams, would properly commemorate him.
The funeral procession then drove to Joshua Memorial Park, where Jim and Kathi received the flag from Chris’s casket and a Marine honor guard delivered a 21-gun salute. Several weeks later Jim and Kathi picked up a bronze box adorned with an eagle, globe, and anchor seal containing Chris’s ashes and brought it home. They placed it on a granite-topped buffet in the den, where they would see it every day. Their son, Christopher David Leon, was the 2,509th American service member killed in the Iraq war.
A month or so after Chris’s funeral, Kathi Leon, accompanied by her sister, Nikki Ruhl, and Aimey Vaccaro, found herself climbing a flight of stairs in a down-at-the-heels minimall in east Lancaster. At the top, beneath a sign reading THIS FACILITY IS UNDER VIDEO SURVEILLANCE AT ALL TIMES, was Sanitarium Tattoos, a cramped room dominated by drawings of skulls and crossbones and a table holding needles and inks. Ever since Chris got his first tattoo after boot camp, Kathi had chided him. “Why would you make yourself look so ugly?” she’d ask. “Why have you done something so revolting?” Yet just as she’d at times tried to reach Chris by following his lead in life, now she would do so in death. Proprietor Rick Labosh inscribed a red heart, Chris’s birth and death dates, and the words A GIFT FROM GOD onto her right calf. She later returned and had Labosh etch Chris’s face onto her shoulder. Even as she was doing these things, Kathi was slightly appalled, but she had passed into a stage of grief where, as she puts it, “nothing is too weird.”
In the weeks before and after Kathi’s trip to Sanitarium Tattoos, many of those who were closest to Chris also visited Rick Labosh’s shop, turning over legs and arms to his needles. Nikki, who felt like she’d now lost Chris twice, had his dates and the words REST PEACEFULLY MY SWEET ANGEL tattooed in a garland of ivy leaves on her left calf. Three of the boys from Insanely Determined to Succeed—David, Jon, and Alan—had their biceps tattooed with jeweled crosses surrounded by the epitaph REST PEACEFULLY CPL. CHRIS LEON. Aimey went to Buzz Bomb, a tattoo parlor on the Venice Beach boardwalk she and Chris had visited together, and had his dog tag and the words A TRUE HERO NEVER FORGOTTEN inked onto her left shoulder blade. En masse, it seemed, those who’d loved Chris were trying, as David had urged in his eulogy, to immortalize him.
By autumn Kathi had gone back to work at the urology clinic, but Jim never returned to Quest Diagnostics. The treatment for his congestive heart failure had adversely affected his kidneys, and he was weak and disoriented. He felt Chris’s absence keenly, yet he couldn’t cry. Numbness had set in. On many days he never got up from the sofa. Aimey dropped out of college for the semester—holding down her job was triumph enough during a period when she often had to take Ativan to fend off panic attacks and Ambien to sleep—and David entered therapy with an Encino psychiatrist. He blamed himself for Chris’s death, believing that if he and the others in IDS had forced him to study harder and avoid drugs he would have joined them in college rather than gone to war. As for Jon, he downed a six-pack of beer many nights to turn out the lights.
The place where the opposing opinions of how to face Chris’s death met was his MySpace page. Chris had started the page—which he topped with the motto “My sacrifice is your comfort”—shortly before leaving for Iraq. Now that he was gone, his friends refreshed the site with postings that reflected their conflicted feelings. David championed the view that Chris’s good deeds would give him eternal life. “Chris protected our freedoms,” he wrote. “He protected our right to know the truth about what’s happening in this country.” Aimey, however, often despaired. In an early fall note addressed directly to Chris, she wrote, “I miss you so much baby. It hurts every day. I keep wishing that this wasn’t real and that my phone would ring again. I still sign onto MySpace hoping that my new message is from you—but I know that will never happen again.” On September 17, the day Fifth ANGLICO returned from its tour of duty in Iraq, Kathi added her voice. “Baby, I can’t believe today is going to come and go and we won’t have had you home to celebrate. This is really too hard for words.” Several weeks later David also came around to this view. “I never knew it took so long to come to terms with something like this. I thought someone died, you mourned for a while, and you moved on. On the contrary, it takes time to accept that a person you love isn’t coming home.”
Surprisingly, those close to Chris felt their moods lift on November 5—his 21st birthday. Everyone congregated at Jim and Kathi’s for cake and margaritas. Nikki, Aimey and her mother, David, Jon, and Alan, and Chris’s grandparents and aunts and uncles sat around talking about him. Jim, who on previous visits by his son’s friends hadn’t been well enough to say hello, joined the party. They passed around Chris’s medals, among them the Purple Heart, the Combat Action Ribbon, and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. Late in the afternoon, David and Jon walked into the front yard and in a private ritual that they knew would have delighted their friend poured two King Cobra 40s into Avenue K-9. “That day,” says David, “marked the first time I could breathe.”
On December 30, which should have been her wedding day, Aimey donned a white button-down shirt and white jeans and went to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Lancaster with her mom, sister, and several of the girls who would have been her bridesmaids all dressed in red—the color she’d picked for the big event. The previous night, as she’d reflected on what it would have been like to oversee the final details—the seating, the music, and the flowers—she’d cried. But as she and her friends enjoyed a long evening, she felt peace. “A few weeks earlier, I was a disaster,” she says. “But I’m starting to feel okay. I thought, ‘A new year is coming. I can carry over the crippling emotion or I can start in a different way.’ I’ve decided to start in a different way.”
The next night, New Year’s Eve, David’s girlfriend threw a party at her Sherman Oaks apartment. The 20 guests ate sushi and drank vodka while listening to rap and rock. Everyone laughed and gossiped until shortly before midnight, when four of the revelers disappeared into a bedroom, closing the door behind them. It was the first time the members of Insanely Determined to Succeed had all been together since Chris’s death. Before anyone could speak, Sonny, who after skipping the funeral had avoided the group, broke down. “I’ve missed you guys,” he said. They agreed that Chris would want them all to go on with their lives. Jon then draped a dog tag bearing their friend’s likeness around Sonny’s neck, and he and the others, each of whom wore similar tags, were back at the party before 2007 began.
Looking forward wasn’t going to be as easy for Jim and Kathi. They decided to forgo a massive Christmas tree, opting instead for a tiny artificial one that Kathi decorated with cards bearing handwritten remembrances of Chris. “A son who loved deeply,” said one. “A son who was deeply loved,” said another. On Christmas Eve, they and other church members who’d experienced loss during 2006 attended a “Blue Christmas” service at Desert Vineyard. As always, on Christmas morning they drove to LoriAnn’s house in Westlake Village, where they were joined not just by Kathi’s family but by Nikki and her mother. Kathi, dressed in a bright purple sweater and black slacks, and Jim, in a red-checked shirt and khakis, tried to be festive. They looked on as their niece opened her Disney Tea Party Play Set, and they talked about a holiday care package they’d sent to the men of Fifth ANGLICO, who were in Okinawa preparing to redeploy. But after presents were exchanged, their spirits darkened. When LoriAnn pulled out a photo album from the previous Christmas in which she’d pasted pictures of Chris and written a holiday prayer—“For everyone to be together again next year—safe and healthy (Chris home from Iraq)”—they began to cry, and while Jim noted that his newfound ability to shed tears was a step forward, he didn’t sound convincing.
“This is our first Christmas without Chris,” he said, “and I don’t like the fact that there are now 3,000 families that have gotten the same news we got. I resent it. I wish we would get out of Iraq. What we’re doing there doesn’t make sense.”
“But he was a marine,” said Kathi. “He was doing what he wanted to do. He was doing his job.”
At that, LoriAnn announced lunch, and Jim and Kathi, carrying a box of Kleenex, walked into the dining room.
New Year’s was, if anything, even harder. Where Chris’s friends saw a beginning, his parents saw an end. On her son’s MySpace page Kathi wrote:
Chris there is no happy to this new year. Only the knowledge that we are further apart than ever. It’s hard enough that the day changes but we are already into another year. I can’t bear the thought of having time continue and making the distance even greater. How do I get past this?
In stronger moments, Jim and Kathi can both dimly perceive happier times ahead. Kathi has joined a gym in the hope of getting into good enough shape to run in the annual Marine Corps Marathon honoring war dead. Jim has rallied sufficiently to volunteer several days a week at Desert Vineyard. Yet they remain inconsolable. On days when he’s not at the church, Jim finds himself sinking deeper into depression. Although he’s taking Prozac, the drug can’t keep him from fixating on Chris. He frequently pops a DVD of the funeral into the machine in the den, watching it over and over, the images serving as a narcotic. “Kathi doesn’t like me immersing myself in it,” he says, “but I find it comforting.” Kathi’s grief reveals itself differently. “I’m flatlining,” she says. “I try not to show any feelings at all.” But she’s only partially successful. Whenever President Bush, someone she once trusted, appears on TV, she changes the channel. Then there are times she picks up one of their many pictures of Chris, presses her lips against it, and whispers, “Baby.”
Chris’s bedroom is as it was when he last slept there. The Dodger caps still stare down, and the handwritten plea for guidance is on the closet wall. Even little things—a bottle of Calvin Klein Truth Cologne for Men on the chest of drawers and a can of Bud Lite on the television cart—are unchanged. To be surrounded by their son’s possessions gives Jim and Kathi a sense of security. Yet they now know there really is no such thing. Chris went out from Lancaster with its symmetrical streets and identical subdivisions into anarchy. That anarchy has come back to Avenue K-9, shattering the Leons’ lives and filling them with doubt. If their son died in an unjust war, they wonder, can there be a just God? Jim and Kathi remain believers, seeing the Lord’s hand in Chris’s emergence from his difficult adolescence and keeping faith they’ll meet him in a better world. But this one holds few allures. They are grateful for Pastor Dave and the others at Desert Vineyard, who regularly check in on them. They are thankful for family members who do the same. They are indebted to the many neighbors who’ve hung blue-and-gold banners declaring SUPPORT OUR TROOPS from trees and roofs. Their home, though, is as much a prison as a refuge. “We’ve lost not just Chris but our future,” Jim says one late winter afternoon sitting in the den. “There will be no wedding, no grandchildren, no one to leave any of our possessions to. Ahead for us is nothing. It’s just a hole.”
Photograph courtesy of Leon Family