Chapter 2 – Ron Christensen

 

“The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.”

-Winston Churchill

 

Veterans Day

First Sergeant Ron Christensen, US Marine Corps (Retired) stood in the gymnasium of the school he had graduated from almost thirty years prior and initiated a healing process nearly a half century in the making.  Approximately 80% of the small town’s residents sat in the bleachers, all eyes fixated on the tall Marine standing proudly in his American Legion uniform while he introduced the honored speaker of the night, Colonel Dan Johnston, US Army (Retired).  After the introduction, Johnston took the microphone and began to tell a story that had commenced halfway across the world and would end in this small town in Northern Wisconsin.  In the summer of 1970, Johnston led the Reconnaissance Platoon of the 2/502 Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division, deployed to Vietnam.  In August, the North Vietnamese ambushed his unit and killed Russell Bahrke, Jr., one of the soldiers in his platoon.  Russell was the lone fatality Johnston experienced from his command in combat, and the only Suring resident to die in the Vietnam conflict.  Tonight, on one of the last nights in January 2015, the town would remember and honor Bahrke.

When Russell died in Vietnam, his family never had the opportunity to honor him in the way he deserved.  His death shocked and dismayed Bahrke’s father to the point he refused to allow the official notification team that came to his house to enter and demanded they leave.  Kim Bahrke, Russell’s only sibling, was eleven at the time and witnessed the entire scene, Colonel Johnston later found out.  “An unfortunate outgrowth was that Kim was given the impression that his brother’s death in Vietnam was somehow shameful or dishonorable; and he has carried that burden ever since,”  Johnston explained.  Kim never saw the letter Johnston wrote home to the family, explaining his brother’s brave actions and heroic sacrifice.  Growing up, he possessed negative and dishonorable feelings about his brother’s service.

After Ron introduced Colonel Johnston, the crowd rose as one and gave him a thundering ovation.  “That gesture by the crowd brought tears to my eyes,” Johnston remembered.  “It was almost as if I was finally being welcomed home from Vietnam, and it felt like it was being done by my own hometown.”  The Colonel spoke to the crowd that night for approximately ten minutes, and began by telling them, “I can stand before you today and testify without a doubt that Russell Bahrke’s service was exemplary.  He was a good, solid soldier that I would have had stand by me at any time, in any place, under any circumstance.  And he did you proud.”  He delivered a stirring speech that moved many in the crowd to tears, ending with, “I firmly believe that the obligation of every one of you sitting here today is to live a life that is worthy of Russell Bahrke.”  After receiving his second standing ovation of the evening from the crowd, Johnston ceded the mic back to Ron.  Colonel Johnston experienced feelings during the event that exceeded his wildest hopes of what the night would bring.  Reflecting on the special evening a few years later, Johnston described, “If Ron would not have called and extended the invitation, I would have missed this ‘welcome home’ and I would have continued to have this massive hole in my life.”

After Johnston spoke, Christensen brought Kim Bahrke onto the floor, explained to the audience that Kim was Russell’s brother, and asked the crowd to show their level appreciation for his brother’s service and the sacrifice made by him and his family.  The crowd erupted with deafening applause that went on for several minutes.  Those in attendance felt the kind, sincere, and heartfelt feelings the audience directed towards Kim.  Colonel Johnston said that he, “could almost sense the relief and redemption rise from Kim’s shoulders.”

Christensen had labored for months to put together this Suring Military Night, an event he organized every year in order to recognize veterans from the area.  Ron coordinated this special agenda to honor the one Suring resident killed in action 45 years prior, and to ensure that his family could finally find peace with Russell’s service and sacrifice.  Johnston could not have been more impressed with how Christensen pulled off the event.  “Incredible attention to detail.  A first-rate educator.  Very respectful and truly caring,”  were the phrases he used to describe the experience he had working with Christensen to create this moment.  He respected the effort Christensen took to ensure that neither Kim nor the family suffered any pain as he pulled the event together.

For those close to Christensen, it was easy to understand why he was willing to do so much to execute a night like this.  For him, doing ‘the right thing’ for Russell Bahrke, his family and Colonel Johnston represented an easy choice.  Christensen commanded a conscience as straight and true as the north-seeking arrow on a compass, and he possessed the wisdom to listen to it.

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Ron Christensen introduces Colonel Johnston at Military Night

When people first meet Ron, they are struck equally by his physical presence, his seriousness of focus, and his quiet confidence.  Standing 6’4” with a rugged, athletic build, he looks as if he were extracted from the pages of a recruiting campaign.  Having served in overseas embassy duty and as a Drill Instructor at the famed recruit training depot in Parris Island, he could play any role required of a Marine.  Major Jason Barrett, who was his direct boss during the final job of his 20-year career, described him this way: “Ron Christensen was a poster Marine with the stature and physique of someone from the barracks at 8th & I,” referring to the Washington DC duty station that is the oldest post in the Marine Corps and home to the world-famous silent drill team.  In high school, Christensen was a ferocious athlete, excelling in every sport he played, earning a multitude of awards and records in football, basketball and track.  Beyond the myriad honors he earned in his career, he is also the owner of an impressive achievement.  During his senior year season playing on the Suring Varsity Basketball team, he shattered a backboard on a dunk, forcing the game to end prematurely1.  After joining the Marine Corps, he continued athletic participation, helping to ensure he maintained his impressive shape.

My High School Football
Christensen was a multi-sport athlete in high school

I met First Sergeant Christensen when he and I were stationed in Quantico, Virginia at the Basic School, the leadership and tactics training program for newly-commissioned officers.  I served as an instructor there, and he led the entire S-1 (Admin) team.  When I checked in, I was immediately impressed by Christensen’s singular focus on whatever he was working.  When he was dealing with administrative issues, his focus was 100% there.  When he was in the gym over the noon-time hour playing pickup basketball, you would swear he was competing for an Olympic gold medal.  Given my partiality to the sport of basketball, I often found myself playing with or against him in some epic games.  I can honestly say I have never witnessed someone so intense and focused in such an informal competition setting.  Christensen possessed an insatiable drive to achieve that smoldered in him just below the surface.  And the overall score in the athletic contest was not his litmus test; he judged himself on the effort he gave on every play!  His youngest son John considers his dad the walking embodiment of the saying, “Anything that is worth doing is worth doing right.”

Christensen also has a quiet confidence.  He is very respectful to everyone he encounters and displays a high level of humility.  One could talk with him for a very long time and not hear one word about the many accomplishments he has had over the course of his life.  I experienced his humility while writing this chapter.  When I initially interviewed him, it was like pulling teeth trying to gather details of his accomplishments to highlight in this book.  Even though I have known him for over twenty years now, and he knows I am aware of many of his accomplishments, he was still quite demur.  He is simply not constructed in a way to talk glowingly about himself.  However, behind this humility exists an internal confidence that comes from knowing he will outwork anyone and everyone to succeed in whatever needs to be done.  He engenders confidence with his consistent reliability.  Many times throughout his life, the belief that a strong work ethic in concert with drive yields positive results has been affirmed for him.

The quality that takes some time to appreciate fully in Christensen is his remarkable conscience and the way his actions always tie back to doing the right thing.  When you are around him for some time, you recognize how his strong moral compass guides his actions day to day.  Kris, his high-school sweetheart and wife of 32 years, credits his strong faith for developing this.  She explained that the renowned Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” are words that have guided Christensen since she’s known him.  As a further explanation for his conviction, Kris and each of their three sons also pointed to the iconic “Man in the Arena” speech given by Theodore Roosevelt.  In that speech, Roosevelt railed against those who criticized the ‘doers’ and encouraged people to dare to act, whether that led to great victory or tough defeat.

Ron started dating Kris when they were seniors at Suring High School.  When asked what she remembered about Ron deciding to join the military, she replied, “I was not surprised at all. He wore Marine T-Shirts all the time!”  Though she was kidding about the connection between his decision and his everyday wardrobe, she and others who knew him best recognized his decision made complete sense.  Wayne Sleeter, one of Ron’s best friends in high school, said, “It did not surprise me he joined the Marines as he loved challenges and was driven.”

Ron grew up as a serious, focused kid and even in his early years his father’s service in the Marine Corps enamored him.  “The biggest influence to join the Marine Corps was my father even though he never encouraged me to do so,” Ron described.  His father Ronald enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1959 and served until 1968.  In 1965, he landed in Vietnam as a Corporal squad leader in 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.  Ronald finished out his first tour there and returned to Camp Pendleton, California as an instructor in the Infantry Training Regiment.  Ron was born shortly thereafter.  His father returned to Vietnam as a Staff Sergeant in 1968.  He participated in the defense of Khe Sanh, experiencing some of the fiercest combat of the entire war.  He rotated back to the United States in June of 1968 and was honorably discharged shortly thereafter.

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Ronald Christensen (on the left in the foreground) served two tours in Vietnam

Like many veterans who experience combat, Ronald didn’t talk to his family about the details of his service.  However, Ron gravitated to the honor of what his father represented and found ways to imagine himself a part of the brotherhood he sensed existed within the Marine Corps.  Ron remembered one of the ways he did this: “My father kept his dress blues uniform in his closet, and I would often sneak into my parents’ bedroom and put it on.  One time, in 6th grade, I wore the dress blue jacket to school. I never asked to wear it and I am not sure that he ever knew that I did wear it.”  His dad’s service impacted him deeply, as there weren’t many other representatives of the military in the small town.  The closest base to where they lived was Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, which was about 5-6 hours away.  As Christensen remembered it, other than a few older veterans who lived in Suring, there really was no military influence there.  But his father’s example served as a powerful impetus for Ron to join.  Jay Downey, who has known Ron since they were in seventh grade, added, “his father served, and I knew how important it was to Ron to serve our country because of that.”

In addition to the potent influence his father’s service had on him, Christensen yearned for what the Marine Corps represented to him.  Simply put, he believed the Marines were the best. Whether it was the inspirational commercials he saw, the way people talked reverently about Marines, or what he saw about them on the news, Christensen desired to be a part of the hallowed organization.  Explaining why he wanted to be a Marine, he said, “I just thought it was a tough thing, a hardship thing.  It was an elite thing to be a part of.  People would look at me like I was crazy and had a death wish for wanting to go in, and there was something appealing to me about that.”  Christensen’s path was so certain that when the recruiters from all the services visited his school on career day, he attended each of the other service’s presentations just so he could tell them he was going to join the Marine Corps!

On Monday, October 24, 1983, Ron sat at his kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal before heading off to school. As the morning news stories aired, he paid more attention when one of the stories highlighted the military, and specifically the Marine Corps.  The day before in Beirut, Lebanon, a truck loaded down with explosives had plowed through security barriers and detonated itself at the building that served as the barracks for US Marines who were serving as part of a peacekeeping force.  The explosion killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and 3 soldiers, making the tragedy the largest single-day death toll for the Unites States Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.2   As Christensen digested the news, he immediately personalized what had occurred, feeling a sense of kinship with those who were lost.  Later, he would recall about that day, “It was like it happened to my family.  I felt like they were my brothers, even though I certainly had not earned anything or claimed the title at that point.”  Though he was already leaning very heavily towards enlisting as soon as he was through high school, this event cemented his decision.  In many ways, the day served as his ‘9/11’ and provided a clear picture of the type of sacrifice he one day might have to provide by choosing to join.

Ron signed his enlistment contract when he was 17, just after the end of his junior year in high school.  He inked his commitment early as part of the delayed entry program the Marine Corps offered.  He would attend boot camp soon after graduating high school.  Gary Regal, four years ahead of Ron in school, said, “What I remember most about Ron back then was his athletic achievements and the leadership he showed at a young age.”  He was a very conscientious athlete and took in the lessons that his coaching mentors provided.  One of the lessons that had impact on him happened his freshman year and was delivered by Sam McMahon, Christensen’s freshman basketball coach at Suring.

During one of the practices that season, the team was shooting free throws near the end of practice when Coach McMahon left the gym for a few minutes.  Christensen, following the lead of many of the other 15-year-old boys on the team, began to joke around.  He was practicing free throws, but instead of releasing the ball with the arc he normally would, he launched it about 30 feet straight in the air to get a laugh from his teammates.  Little did he know, although Coach McMahon had left the gym, he was watching the players through a small window to see how they would react to no adult supervision.  After practice, the coach told Ron that he had seen what he was doing and that this was not the type of leadership he expected from Christensen.  In the next game the team played, Ron was surprised to find out that he was not starting against their rivals.  That was strange as he was the best player on the team and normally played every minute of the game.  As the game went on, the embarrassed freshman was waiting to be put in.  The game was close throughout; however, the coach never put him in.  The loss the team suffered stung even more as Christensen knew if he played the result most likely would have been different.  He didn’t appreciate it at the time but would come to understand how valuable the benching was.  “It was probably the greatest lesson I have ever learned in sports, about setting the example for people.”  He used the event as motivation for many years, drawing out the important lessons and ensuring he always remained completely focused on the task at hand.

Because he was not of legal adult age yet, Christensen’s parents had to provide their signed consent to validate his enlistment papers.  When it came time for the recruiter to come to their home to seal the deal, Christensen was nervous about the response he would get, and was ultimately disappointed by what his father said.  Looking back at that day, he shares, “I remember the recruiter showing up and I met him in the driveway to tell him my Dad said he wasn’t signing anything.”  However, his disappointment was brief, as shortly after the recruiter visited with his parents, they both agreed to give their permission.  Christensen, initially perplexed by the quick change of mind, credited it to the idea that his father was testing how serious he was about the decision he had made.

In June of 1985, immediately after graduating high school, Christensen reported to boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.  He found the rigorous 12-week evolution a challenge, but one that made him stronger and reinforced the decision he had made to join.  Explaining what he got most out of boot camp, Christensen pointed out: “It put you out of your comfort zone and definitely let you know that your body was much more capable than your mind thought it was.”  After graduating, he was assigned the military occupational specialty (MOS) of Administration and completed follow-on training at Camp Pendleton, California.  Though he desired to be in the infantry, Ron took the change of plans in stride.  For him, earning the title Marine was the most important goal and he was determined to make the very best of his time in service.  His wife indicated how this fit within the pattern of how he treated all situations, noting, “Ron tries to see the positive in even the worst of times.”

Throughout his career, Ron sought positions that helped him to be his very best. He was assigned to two different infantry battalions at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina for his first four years of service.  His second assignment was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, supporting the unit responsible for recruiting future Marines in that part of the country.  While there, the Persian Gulf war began.  Ron, feeling like it was his duty to be with the units going to combat, approached his Commanding Officer and asked to be transferred to a combat unit that would be deploying as part of the operation.  His boss denied the request, indicating the work they were doing was too important to spare anyone.  He told Christensen, “If they need you, they will call you.”

While stationed in Minneapolis, Christensen approached the end of his first enlistment contract.  He now had a decision to make; either re-enlist for at least four more years, or get out of the Marine Corps.  Having enjoyed his time in so far, he was leaning towards re-enlisting, but felt, “If I stay in, I wanted to get to twenty years.”  He and Kris agreed that he would continue his career in the Marine Corps, with the goal of getting to twenty years of service.  However, they also agreed that when he reached that threshold, he would retire and they would settle back down in Suring.  “The deal was, 20 years in, and no more,” Christensen remembered.

Over the course of the next few years, Ron selected some of the most challenging assignments the Marine Corps offered.  In the spring of 1992, he reported to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina to be a Drill Instructor.  This was one of the most important positions in the Marine Corps, since it was responsible for shaping and molding the future of the service.  Being stationed at the famed boot camp, he knew that many eyes would be on him and the job would be difficult but extremely rewarding.  As with everything he did, Ron attacked the challenge and continuously raised the bar of his exemplary performance.  Always prepared, he consistently stood out as one of the most squared-away DIs on base.

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Christensen out in front of his boot camp recruit platoon

After completing the successful tour at Parris Island, Christensen was transferred to Quantico, Virginia, where he took over as the Administrative Chief for The Basic School, the training course that taught newly-commissioned officers the basics of leadership and tactics.  During the summers while stationed there, Ron and all the former Drill Instructors in the near area served at Officer Candidate School (OCS).  Here, they served in a similar capacity to how they did at boot camp, only now they were producing commissioned officers.  Following the stint in Quantico, he reported to duty as part of Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, first in London, England and then in Bern, Switzerland.

In May of 1998, while serving on embassy duty in London, Ron witnessed a meeting between US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Palestinian Leader Yasir Arafat.  The goal of the meeting was to broker an agreement that would eventually restart the stalled Palestinian and Israeli peace talks.  Ron and his team were responsible for planning and providing security for Secretary Albright.  It wasn’t lost on him the incredible responsibility put on him, and looking back at it, he expressed the reservations he was feeling at the time: “I wasn’t totally comfortable and confident in everything I was doing, but the embassy put tremendous confidence in me.”

The security guard detail prepared relentlessly to ensure every element was covered and all possible scenarios were rehearsed.  Though the planned meeting was to be peaceful, the relations between Palestine and other countries was very tense, and it would not be totally outside of the realm of possibility for something to go awry during the meeting.  Ron’s operational boss, the State Department’s Regional Security Officer, told the team, “These people are known terrorists.”  He warned the team especially about Arafat’s right-hand person, known simply as ‘the Doctor.’  In the detailed planning for the session, he shared that if the Doctor pulled out a gun, Ron “should take him out.”  This warning made Ron anxious as he prepared for the event.

On the day of the meeting, Arafat and his entourage arrived at the embassy late.  As they came into the building and went through the metal detectors, Christensen remembered the alarms “started going off like crazy.”  Christensen tensed as he thought through what might be happening; however, the regional security officer kept the group moving towards the elevator.  As Christensen got on the elevator and rode it up to the conference room with group, the full weight of what he was doing hit him: “I was thinking that I am just a person from Suring, Wisconsin and here I am in an elevator with Madeleine Albright and Yasir Arafat.  It was a very surreal experience.”  Christensen was vigilant, ready to react to whatever came about; however, happily the meeting was uneventful.  The day provided Ron a memory of his service that would remain with him for a very long time.

After embassy duty, Christensen was transferred back to Quantico, this time as an instructor at the school that trained those going to fulfill the type of overseas role he had just left.  At the end of this tour, he had reached 17 years of service in the Marine Corps, and he remembered back to the deal he had made with his wife.  He has just been promoted to First Sergeant, the second highest enlisted rank that one could attain.  As he worked with his monitor3 to determine where there were 1st Sgt roles open across the country, he noticed one available for Inspector & Instructor(I&I) duty in Madison, Wisconsin.  Knowing this would be the role he would retire from, he jumped at the opportunity to live close to home.

As elated as he was about the location, he was not excited about the idea of supporting a reserve unit.  Within the Marine Corps, there was more than a healthy disdain shared by the active duty forces for reservists.  And though Christensen had few experiences with reserve Marines in his time in, none of them had been positive.  “We always referred to them as ‘spares.’  We didn’t consider them to really be in the military,” he said.

Despite the biases he brought with him, he changed his opinion of the reservists almost immediately upon joining Golf Company.  What changed his mind was what he observed firsthand during the first drill weekend4 that the reservists had.  “We went somewhere for the company to qualify on the rifle range,” Christensen recounted.  “The weather was horrible, with a ton of rain and wind, and I thought ‘This is going to be a disaster.’  In the fleet when you do rifle qualifications, you go through classes, you snap in on the barrel, and you shoot all week long.  I thought there is no way that we are going to take these guys out to qualify in one day in this weather.  I remember they got to shoot a few practice shots and then went right into the qualification course.  Every single member of the company qualified.  I just remember the unit was really well-disciplined and I was totally impressed with the NCO leadership and how they conducted themselves.  It was exceptional the amount of initiative they demonstrated.”

As he began to tackle the new responsibilities, he threw himself into the task as strongly as he did every role he had ever had.  As the senior enlisted leader of the I&I staff, his responsibilities were two-fold: he served as an advisor to the reserve company First Sergeant, and he helped to ensure the weekend drill sessions for the company were set up to maximize time and the training value of the evolutions.  First Sergeant David Eastwood, Christensen’s counterpart on the reserve side and an incredible senior staff NCO, was very thankful for the relationship the two of them had: “First Sergeant Christensen’s leadership style was that of a calm professional.  I appreciated this approach as not all leadership styles work well together.  We rarely disagreed on a course of action and if so, we would discuss in private, reach an agreement and move forward together.”  The two of them were the driving force behind the biggest strength the company possessed: the tremendous positive leadership, initiative, and attitude demonstrated by the NCOs.

Though the mission of training and preparing the company was critical when he first joined the company, Jason Barrett remembers when the importance ratcheted up: “We spent 9/11 together and that changed, as it did for many who served, everything.  Our mission was now to get the company ready to go.  As an I&I, it was the ultimate mission – mobilize your reservists for war.”  Barrett and Christensen represented the senior leadership for the I&I team, and their relationship was critical to setting the right tone.  Barrett appreciated the teamwork he experienced with Christensen: “We had instant camaraderie and – I felt – we worked seamlessly together.”  Over the course of the next three years, they worked together, in conjunction with the leadership of the company, to develop a cohesive and tactically sound unit ready to take on every challenge they would see when they were eventually deployed to Iraq.

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Christensen with Chaplain Huff, shortly after joining Golf Company

When the company deployed, Christensen stayed back in Madison.  In his role as I&I company 1st Sgt, he was responsible for the drill center in Madison, as well as helping coordinate with the families of those deployed.  While the Marines of the company understood why Christensen had to stay in Madison, their attitude on the matter mirrored Sergeant BJ Ganem, who stated, “Every one of the Golf Company Marines leaving for Iraq wanted the government to make an exception for 1stSgt Christensen.”  During the time the company was in Iraq, Christensen’s presence was felt in so many ways.  I give both Christensen and David Eastwood the credit for the strength of the NCO leadership during our time in Iraq.  The two First Sergeants had created a leadership capability in the company the likes of which I have not seen replicated in other organizations.  When I talked to 1st Sgt Christensen about being the subject of one of the chapters in this book, he was surprised and protested, “But I didn’t deploy with Golf Company.”  I explained to him the core of this book was going to be about service, not deployment.  And I also told him that after everything he did to prepare our guys for combat, he was crazy if he didn’t understand that he was over there with us in a very real way!

When people have asked me about my time in Iraq, I generally will tell them that outside of my marriage and my kids, it was the greatest experience of my life.  However, the one big caveat to that response revolves around casualties.  And it was in this area that I appreciated First Sergeant Christensen’s strengths the most.  “Every single casualty call was a gut punch to me and I will never forget them,” Christensen recalled somberly.  Casualty assistance often induces devastating emotions, but it represents a critical part of the support provided by the military when a servicemember is injured or dies while in uniform.  Whether a death happens by accident, in training, or during the middle of an active-combat zone, the visit that occurs between the uniformed service personnel delivering the news and the next-of-kin family members often begins the hardest period of those family members’ lives.  There is no ‘right’ way to carry out this task, but it is one that the military takes extremely seriously so that the traumatic news is shared with the dignity, respect, and timeliness the situation demands.

In the Marine Corps, when a Marine is killed in action the parent unit sends a Personnel Casualty Report (PCR) to Headquarters Marine Corps, Casualty Branch.  From there, the casualty branch immediately designates a Casualty Assistance Officer (CACO) to serve as the point person for coordinating and conducting notification to next of kin.  Marines in units across the country are pre-identified for this critical responsibility.  Normally, the specific CACO for a notification is selected based on geographic proximity to the documented address for next of kin.  Because most Marine Corps operational installations are located on or near the coastlines of the Continental Unites States, few Marines are stationed on bases near where they grew up and where the next of kin are located.  As such, the responsibility of conducting the notifications often falls on I&I units which are dispersed throughout the country.

As the I&I First Sergeant, Ron knew when he joined Golf Company that he would most likely be involved with casualty calls during his tenure.  Christensen and Major Barrett, as CACOs, were responsible for the geography covering central, western, and southern Wisconsin, as well as into Minnesota and potentially some parts of Iowa.  Personnel expected to be involved with the coordination and delivery of these notifications did not receive formal training and the reference manual they were given, while very detailed, could not fully ready someone for the first time they were called upon to carry out this duty.  Ron recounted the first casualty call he did: “I remember being in the office in Madison and having Headquarters Marine Corps on the other end of the phone saying they needed us to make a casualty call to the parents of Gunnery Sergeant Jeffrey Bohr, who was in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine regiment and had been killed during a seven-hour battle south of Baghdad in April of 2003.  Because Gunny Bohr had a spouse who lived in and around Camp Pendleton in California, and parents who lived in Iowa, a joint notification was coordinated so that all next of kin would be notified around the same time.

Christensen made the long drive from Madison to Ossain, Iowa with Major Barrett to conduct the notification.  As they got closer to the parents’ home, they picked up a local clergy who Ron had coordinated to be available to accompany them.  Ron wanted to provide a known and trusted face to the Bohrs.  When they arrived at the home, Ron recalled what he saw: “I remember getting out of the car and walking toward a gentleman standing outside filling a bucket of water with a hose standing by a fence.”  Seeing the two official-looking Marines in their service Alpha uniforms and the local clergy get out of the car, Mr. Bohr may have realized what was happening even before any words were spoken, but the words were critical to starting the process of personal grieving.  During a notification, there are only two absolute steps: (1) ensure that it was the right person being addressed and (2) share the tragic news with as much compassion and respect as possible.  Barrett asked him, “Are you Robert Bohr?” When the man nodded yes, he proceeded with the tragic but necessary words: “I am so sorry that I am the one that has to tell you this, but your son Gunnery Sergeant Bohr was killed in action yesterday.”  Mr. Bohr removed his baseball hat and slammed it on the ground as he digested the unbearable.

The casualty assistance team spent the next couple of hours providing Bohr’s father the support and information needed as he processed the tragic news. Early in the discussion with him, they found out that he and Gunny’s Bohr’s mother had been divorced for a few years and she lived hundreds of miles away.  This highlighted one of the challenges the CACO teams often faced, having to trust information from a Marine’s service record that at times was erroneous.  After they ensured there was someone nearby who could come and stay with him, they left the father’s home and made the drive to notify Mrs. Bohr.  Arriving there after dark, they first went to the sheriff’s office to coordinate with them and then drove to her home, where they compassionately shared the news and remained with Bohr’s mother.  In conducting a casualty call, if the person who was being notified was alone at home, 1st Sergeant would offer to bring over someone the person knew to be there with him/her.  After this, one of the hardest parts of the notification was judging how long to stay.  Christensen explained the nuance of this: “What I’ve learned is to make the notification, and then don’t hang around too long.  The family wants to be with family.  You had to go with your gut on when was the right time to leave, because you could stay there forever if you allowed yourself to.  But you do have to leave.  It is important to get out there so the families can go through the initial shock without a Marine who they don’t really know hovering over them.”  After some time, Mrs. Bohr encouraged Christensen and Barrett to head back home.  Getting back to Madison well after midnight, the two Marines felt the full weight of the day they just had experienced.

Before this first casualty call, Christensen had repeatedly thought, “I cannot do this.  I cannot deliver this news.”  However, as he helped with this first notification, he was propped up by a sense of duty and knew he was obligated to do it right.  He felt that was the least he could do given the magnitude of sacrifice that the Bohrs’ son had made for the country.  Christensen explained: “It is important that it was done right, and I felt like I could comfort and care for the people in that time better than anyone else.”  Barrett was very thankful to have had Christensen with him, relying on his steady hand and strong conscience to help ensure they carried out the somber duty with as much respect as possible.

Different than the Bohr notification, when doing a primary next of kin5 notification, Christensen would return the following day and work with the family on funeral arrangements and would ensure they knew what survivor benefits were provided and what decisions the family needed to make.  Often the family’s most pressing question was when they would be reunited with the body, information usually not precisely available in the hours subsequent to the notification.  However, once Mortuary Affairs – located in Dover, Delaware – had information on the timeline for the body to be flown back to the States and ultimately to the airport the family selected, Christensen would share with the next of kin.

It was after this step that Christensen’s attention to detail, incredible work ethic, and absolute desire to do right by the families really showed.  When a body returned to the home airport to be received by the family, it was transported in a casket that rested inside a shipping crate.  This was done for purely practical reasons, to ensure the casket was not damaged in transit.  However, Christensen believed very strongly it would be inappropriate for anyone, especially the family and friends of the service member who may be at the airport, to ever see the impersonality of a shipping crate.  So, for situations where he had notified the next of kin family members, he would meet the plane as it came into the airport with an American flag and would go into the cargo hold of the plane to ensure the American flag was draped properly over the crate as it was transported out of the plane.  He then would have the body taken to a warehouse so that the casket could be taken out of the crate outside of the eyes of anyone other than 1st Sergeant and the I&I staff.  They would ensure the American flag was draped over the casket before it was taken to the waiting hearse for transport to the funeral home.

Christensen would also coordinate with the relevant state and local police jurisdictions to ensure that a police escort would be with the body all the way from the receiving airport to the funeral home.  He would arrange for a state trooper to provide an escort the entire way, and for every local town that the body would travel through to pick up and drop off the escort upon entering and leaving their town along the way.  He did this, regardless of the number of local jurisdictions to coordinate with to make sure it was done right.   This was a detail that had a tremendous impact on the family and friends of the deceased and was one more thing that helped them know how much a grateful nation respected their loved ones and wanted to honor them.

Christensen coordinated this level of detail with every fallen hero coming home, regardless of the amount of time it took, the number of calls needed, and the approvals required.  Diligent and respectful as he coordinated with myriad agencies and people, he would never take no for an answer.  He treated every one of the situations as if he were coordinating this for one of his own family members.  Positive intent fueled his stalwart conscience, and he always followed through on the actions needed to ensure the ‘right thing’ happened.

In November 2004, First Sergeant Christensen received the call from Major Terry Race that he had hoped he would never get.  Race, the Marine officer-in-charge of deployment support and the first point of contact in Golf Company related to casualty calls, informed Christensen that on November 8 five Marines from Golf Company had suffered casualties.  The HMMWV they were in on patrol in Lutifyah was demolished by an IED buried in the middle of the canal road they were travelling.   Corporal Bobby Warns, Lance Corporal Shane O’Donnell, and Lance Corporal Branden Ramey were killed, and Staff Sergeant Chad Simon and Lance Corporal Scott Kruchten were seriously injured.  Less than three weeks later, on Thanksgiving evening, Lance Corporal Ryan Cantafio was killed and BJ Ganem was injured in another IED attack, this time on MSR Tampa.  While their stories will be reserved and told in subsequent chapters, the intersection between what happened those days in Iraq and First Sergeant Christensen’s story were the notifications he carried out to the families.

The days after our brother’s casualties were dark days for Golf Company.  As Company Commander, I personally felt responsible for each of those Marines and over 14 years later I still have not been able to reconcile the feelings of regret and failure for not having brought them home safely.  I know I did not feel that responsibility alone, as several leaders in and out of their chains-of command felt similarly – accepting accountability is part of the Marine Corps way.  But I remember thinking on both of those nights, after I had penned the letters to the Warns, O’Donnell, Ramey, and Cantafio families, that there was one action I would not have to worry about.  I knew that the notifications to the families and subsequent arrangements would be done right, and I knew this because First Sergeant Christensen would be involved.  My mind raced those nights, trying to get my heart around the enormity of the implications of the events of those days.  The implications to the families.  The implications to friends of our fallen brothers.  The implications to other families in the company, whose worry level undoubtedly would spike exponentially.  The implications to our Marines and Sailors, who cared about these Marines as brothers in every sense of the word, and yet had to find a way to move on and carry out our critical mission in the face of tragedy.  Part of what was sustaining me through these worries was the knowledge that Christensen would help carry out the all-important notifications.  It’s hard to adequately put into words how meaningful this was to me.  Derived from a set of shared experiences where I had witnessed not just his incredible competence, but also his resolute conscience, my confidence in Christensen was – and still is – absolute.

Ron retired from the Marine Corps in August 2005.  While deep down he recognized he had tremendous impact during his 20-year career, he also left unsatisfied.  “I didn’t feel like I had yet done enough,” he explained.  “I was a twenty-year Marine who had not seen combat.”  Never mind all the work he put in to prepare Golf Company for the tremendous performance it had in Iraq; he just felt that there was more he could and should do.  This feeling he experienced was one shared by many service members, regardless of how much they had given.  It is an interesting phenomenon that those who have the least reason to feel this way often have this feeling most intensely.

To honor the deal he had made with Kris many years prior, Christensen moved his family back to Suring and they settled back in to the town he loved so much.  And he has dedicated much of his time and effort since then recognizing the service of veterans and doing whatever he can to support them.  “I think it is important to recognize people for their service,” says Christensen, “and demonstrate and honor the sacrifices they have made.”  His long-time friend Wayne Sleeter explained how Christensen helped to change his view of his own service to the country: “I served in the Air Force during peacetime and really never thought of myself as a true veteran. In my mind, you had to be in combat to ‘earn’ that title.  Ron made me understand that everyone who joined the military was important to the security of our country.”

Christensen coordinated the first Military Night at Suring High School during the 2009-2010 basketball season, starting an annual event solely dedicated to honoring veterans.  The event was personal to him, explained Christensen: “When I was stationed in Quantico and would go to Washington DC and visit the Vietnam wall and see Russell Bahrke’s name on the wall, I was embarrassed that I was from Suring but did not know who he was.  And I just thought how could I come from a small town and not even know who this guy is?  And if I didn’t know after serving 20 years in the Marine Corps, how would anyone else know who he was?  My mission became to educate that community on the service and sacrifices that others had made.”  Each year, he pours every bit of himself into ensuring the event lives up to the standard he has set for it.  Son Cody concurred, “I don’t think he ever stops thinking about Military Night.  He wants it to continue forever and always wants to top the previous year’s performance.”

Like he did with the night featuring the Bahrke family and Colonel Johnston in 2015, he puts tremendous thought and attention to detail into the event every year.  One of the other years, the focus of the night was honoring the three Suring residents who had received Purple Hearts6.  Christensen found out that one of the individuals, Tim Mitchell, had finished his senior year of high school but completed it one credit shy and left for the military without being presented a diploma.  Christensen sprang into action to make sure the veteran was taken care of: “Unknown to Tim I was able to submit a request to the school board to recognize his service in Vietnam and his receipt of the Purple Heart to count towards his missed credit in Social Problems and to grant him a high school diploma.”  During the ceremony that year, Mitchell received his original diploma, which to that point lacked only the signature of the superintendent.  He was now an official graduate of Suring High School.

Christensen serves as the adjutant of the American Legion Post near Suring.  This leadership role keeps him connected to veterans and the key issues they are facing.  In 2016, he quit his job as CEO of a small chain of retirement homes and took on the role as Veterans Service Officer for his county.  These roles worked through the States’ Department of Veterans Affairs and are critical to connecting veterans with critical resources.  In making the change, Christensen took a hefty pay cut, but once again, the answer to ‘what is the right thing to do?’ guided his conscience and actions.

From 2005 to 2017, Christensen was the volunteer assistant varsity basketball coach at his alma mater, Suring High School.  This role allowed him to serve in a different way.  He was an excellent teacher of the game and his endless competitive energy rubbed off not only on the kids he coached, but also on many an unlucky referee who happened to make an erroneous call while officiating one of the games he was coaching.  He coached all three of his sons on the varsity basketball team and remembers those times with a special fondness reserved for a proud father seeing his sons excel at the very activities he did decades before, in the same community that was home for him.  In addition to the important Military Night tradition he established, he also brought so many other critical lessons that benefitted the kids on the team.

One of the core beliefs he shared with his team was his absolute respect for the American flag and national anthem.  And unlike many who wade into this topic, his approach was never to tell others how they should think.  Instead, he got them to think on their own by explaining why the flag meant what it did to him.  Christensen’s middle son, Cody, recalled: “I believe respect was shown for the flag because he constantly educated us on what it represents.”  He shared with his players the origins of the military guidon, a flag that would mark where the command element a unit was established and had allowed units for centuries to move expeditiously on the battlefield.  Given the importance of this, to be the guidon bearer in a unit was one of the most important honors a service member could earn.  Moreover, units would be awarded streamers to attach to their guidon to indicate battles they had distinguished themselves in, further inducing a reverence directed to them.  While warfare has changed and negated the practical need for a guidon, today they remain sacred as they symbolize the unit and are used to build esprit de corps.  If the guidon is disrespected, it is taken as directed to the entire unit.  At boot camp, one of the worst punishments is when the unit guidon is taken away from a recruit platoon for not performing to standard.

The American flag is the ultimate guidon.  During pre-modern warfare battles where guidons were used, they were carried side by side to the flag.  In the same way that the unit guidon represented all the best of the unit, so too did the flag represent everything great about the United States.  And because in battle the guidon bearers often possessed the least life expectancy given the command and control they exerted on an entire unit, they also became a powerful symbol for the sacrifice that so many have made in service.  When the national anthem is played, much of the respect given to the flag is out of deference to this sacrifice and pride in ‘the unit’ represented by our country.  “To me, the flag seems like the symbol of our country,” explains Christensen.  “It should be sacred.  Even with different views, we should all respect the flag.  I think it is important to tell the kids what it means to me.  I was the speaker last year at Military Night, and I talked about the casualty calls, and I talked about not forgetting, and how we do it.  And every one of those red stripes on the flag that signifies the bloodshed in battle also represents an individual Marine to me.  Every time I hear the anthem, it is a way that all those individuals we have lost will never be forgotten.  And the players I have coached hopefully are thinking about someone they know who has served.”

Family and Dog
The Christensen family. Cody, Ron, John, Kris, and Kevin

Perhaps the biggest impact Christensen had on the players, other coaches, and community in his time coaching was conveying the importance of service.  He did this by honoring other veterans, but even more so through educating others on the ideals that had become second nature to him.  The positive impact of events like Military Night on the kids and community of Suring can be measured in the number of players who have come back to Christensen later and shared some personal anecdote on how what they had witnessed deepened their appreciation for those who served and sacrificed.  Jay Tienor, who played for Suring when Christensen coached was selected for a statewide scholar-athlete award his senior year.  In advance of the awards ceremony, each awardee was asked to record a short video highlighting something important to them.  Jay talked about the American flag, and he talked about the coach of his team who taught why respect for the flag was important.  Kevin Christensen decided follow in the footsteps of his father and joined the Air Force.  He deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 with the sage counsel he received from his father: “Even after Dad got out and I joined the Air Force, I could always turn to him for advice, explanations on why leadership is making the decisions they are, or his own personal experiences that may have been similar.”

semper fi fund military night
Christensen with Golf Company Marines BJ Ganem and Mick Gillitzer on Military Night

Ron Christensen is an American hero.  He is everything that is good in our society.  He gave twenty years of dedicated, honorable service to the Marine Corps and had immeasurable impact on countless Marines.  Even after getting out, he has kept serving. He is the ultimate “Man in the Arena.”  His conscience is the definitive guide of his efforts.  The delta that exists between what he views as the right things to do and his actions is as close to zero as is feasible.  What is maybe most remarkable about all he has given to our country and others is the fact that he doesn’t feel like what he has done is special.  If it is possible for one person to summarize 20+ years of a person’s life in a few sentences, it might be Jason Barrett when he said: “First Sergeant Christensen’s story is, quite possibly, the perfect one.  And his experience with Golf, Company 2/24 provided the final chapter of an esteemed Marine Corps career.  A Wisconsin Marine comes home to train and prepare a Wisconsin Company of Marines to go to war.  And once his mission is complete, he retires into the sunset – with his family, to the town he was raised in where he continues to lead and love those around him.  I don’t think it gets much better than that.  To this day, he remains one of the most impressive individuals I’ve had the honor to work with.  He is Semper Fidelis.”

 

Footnotes

1Video of this feat still exists and can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtFUyP_SrP8

21983 Beirut barracks bombings. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 14, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_Beirut_barracks_bombings

3A monitor is someone who, as part of the manpower section of the Marine Corps, is responsible for working with Marines to assign their next duty station and billet (role).

4During normal operations, a reserve unit trains one weekend a month and then two straight weeks one time a year, normally in the summer.  Given the limited time for these “drill weekends,” it is critical to optimize the training that gets done.  Much of this is a function of the preparation the I&I staff does in between drill weekends.

5The primary next of kin is used to identify the one person who will receive the first notification of the death of the service member.  If the deceased was married, the spouse is the primary next of kin; if not, then it is the closest blood relative.

6A Purple Heart is the military decoration awarded to a service member who is wounded or killed in battle.

 

2 Comments

  1. Very powerful and moving. Most definitely describes how each one of us should value, respect, honor and be gracious to all those that serve. Thank you so much for this chapter.

    Like

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