Chapter 5 – Bobby Warns

“What we do now echoes in eternity.”  Marcus Aurelius



One by one, they came forward.  Young and old.  Male and female.  Family and friends.  Awash in grief yet steadfast in their conviction, they waited patiently.  As each of their turns came, they slowly approached the church podium and spoke.  The words took shape deep in their hearts, resolutely passed through their lips, and found home in the assembled crowd’s consciousness.

“Bobby was a happy Marine.

Bobby was a lover of music.

Bobby was a hero.

Bobby was a trickster.

Bobby was a joker.

Bobby was a cyclist.

Bobby was a helper.

Bobby was an entertainer.

Bobby was a playmate.

Bobby was an artist.

Bobby was a daddy.

Bobby was a lover.

Bobby was a free spirit.1

Should the Army and Navy ever gaze on Heaven’s scenes, they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines.  Corporal Robert P. Warns, II is at his post and is on duty.”2

The words uttered that day have lingered in the memories of countless people, providing fitting tribute to the man they were spoken of and helping to keep his memory alive forever.  On November 8, 2004, Bobby Warns was one of five Marines who were killed or seriously wounded when a roadside bomb exploded on the HMMWV he was traveling in while on a combat patrol.  A week later, his funeral took place in Waukesha, Wisconsin.  6400 miles away, his Golf Company brothers mourned losing him and their other brothers and prayed for the recovery of those who were injured.

Six months later, Payton Elizabeth Robert Warns was born.  She was delivered at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee.  The day was joyous, as Payton and her mother Erin were bathed in love by friends and family.  The occasion was perfect, save one thing; Bobby, Payton’s father, was not there.  He should have been.  His Marine brothers had completed their deployment and returned to Wisconsin just four weeks prior, reuniting with their families.  He should have come back alongside them and been there with his daughter and the mother of his child.  But Bobby would not meet Payton in this world.  He had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Bobby and Payton’s stories are linked far beyond the obvious of being father and daughter.  The circumstances and time proximity in which one of their lives ended and the other started serves to amplify the immutable bond that exists between them.  The words spoken at Bobby’s funeral signified much more than the expressions of a grief-stricken community.  They represented a collective view of an ended life that started an incredible legacy.  There is little doubt that Payton is her own person today, as Bobby most definitely was too.  But when you look into the eyes of his precocious 14 year old daughter, you see the best of what Bobby was, and an absolute assurance that his memory will live forever through her.

Memories of loved ones can be fickle.  If not carefully cultivated, even the most treasured ones fade over time, as current events overtake one’s consciousness.  However, some of the most entrenched memories in this world are the ones held by parents of their children.  From the day Bobby was born, Bridget Warns carefully filed away in her mind every small and large detail that made him the person he was, and has remained able to recall each with crystal-clear detail.  Like how Bobby was a loving child and was free with hugs and kisses for her.  “I remember thinking that I would miss that when he got older and might be embarrassed to express these emotions.  That never happened.”   She remembers his independent spirit and the time he brought down the house during a middle school concert with his piano playing.  “Like all kids, he hated practicing, and he didn’t get along with his music teacher.  She only allowed him to play in the concert at the last minute.  But Bobby never told his parents he was going to perform.  About half way through the concert, his aunt told Bridget and Bob, “It looks like Bobby is going to play the piano.”  Bridget was horrified.  “He hadn’t touched the piano in weeks.  We were sure he was about to totally embarrass himself, and us.  To our shock and surprise, he played a somewhat difficult piece flawlessly.  People were standing up to see who he was.  It was a night of pure stress and pride.”  Bridget remembers how her son displayed a special talent to look ahead and see the big picture.  “When Bobby was 6, he was playing a game called Carrom with his aunt.”  When she was about to take her turn, Bobby grabbed her hand and said “think about your next move.”  Bridget was amazed to see someone that young thinking about the future and not just the move in front of him.   She also remembered when Bobby decided to blaze his own sports path.  His sister Katie was a talented and accomplished athlete in almost every sport she attempted.  Bobby decided to try a sport that he knew she would not – wrestling.  “When he started wrestling, he was probably 5’4” and about 90 pounds.  He was one skinny little dude.”  When he had his first match, Bridget was not expecting much.  “We didn’t have much confidence in his skills.  But before we knew it, he had pinned his opponent.  Once again, he amazed us by what he could do when he put his mind to it.”  Bob remembers the protective spirit he displayed for others from a very young age.  “We were at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  Bobby was about 8 or 9.”  He was in the bathroom with Bob when he noticed another father reprimanding his own son pretty strenuously.  Bob was proud of the reaction his son had to this.  “Bobby was watching, observing the situation closely and ready to come to the aid of the young boy if things got out of hand.”  And Bob and Bridget remembered how much family was the center of Bobby’s life.  “He had a deep love for family, and he was adored by his cousins, aunts and uncles,” said Bridget.


Bobby and the Warns family through the years

“Can you drop me off at work?  I’m already an hour late.”  Bobby often led with humor.  As a teenager, he routinely subjected friends to oddly-worded, silly requests.  Having known Warns since grade school, Jonathan Bright considered the specific ask on this day just another daily interaction with his close friend.  Another common question Bright would get was, “Is your probation officer still here?  No?  Good, because I have a gun in the closet.”  Spending a ton of time together, the two of them found their share of adventures to entertain themselves.  “Our favorite thing to do was have bottle rocket wars in his backyard,” Jonathan remembered.  “We lobbed them over snow banks and tried to perfectly time when to throw them.”

Jared Girmscheid became friends with Bobby after they met during freshman year of high school.  He remembers when years later Warns “pretended to be British by doing an unbelievably bad accent, kind of a mix of the lucky charms guy and Crocodile Dundee, and kept challenging strangers to arm wrestling matches for drinks.”  Bobby was persistent in pursuing potential challengers.  He had recently learned a way to ‘cheat’ in the contest by locking his wrist right before the start of the contest.  Unless his opponent knew the short cut, Bobby would start each match with a huge leverage advantage.  “It was a total Bob thing to do,” said Girmscheid.  “He learned a trick and wanted to try it out in a funny way.  So everywhere we went, he would find the biggest guy and challenge him.”  One evening almost took a negative turn when Warns took $20 off a guy in a dive bowling alley bar, and the loser cursed profusely at him and approached as if to do him harm.  Given that the man “looked like he was comfortable with the idea of prison,” Warns decided to drop the accent and explain the joke to the offended man.  Thankfully, he thought it was hilarious, and soon was joking with Warns.  Girmscheid viewed this example as representative of the effect his friend had on others. “That was quintessential Bob.  Most people went from asking ‘what the hell’s wrong with that guy?’ to ‘Bob?!  I love Bob!”

Bobby’s sister Katie remembers the many talents her brother possessed, especially his artistic skills.  When she was a teenager, she and Bobby and a group of friends decided to go to Summerfest, a huge music festival held every June in Milwaukee.  They wanted to see Tom Petty, who was set to play one of the evening concerts.  Warns came up with the idea of how to get his group of about 20 friends into the evening headline concert for free.  At the time, you could leave the grounds and get back in as long as your hand was marked with the unique stamp the event used.  “Bobby had the idea to bring a black light and yellow highlighter to a friend’s house, and to use his artistic skills to replicate the official stamp.”  Bobby spent an entire afternoon, meticulously creating the stamp that matched exactly what was being used by the event.  The friends arrived at the Summerfest gates and headed to the door where returning patrons were entering.  Katie was last of the group to go through.  “The person checking hand stamps scrutinized my stamp, announcing to his co-workers that mine didn’t look real,”  Katie remembered.  But then another of the workers came over and studied Katie’s hand, before announcing, “Oh, no.  That one is definitely real.”  Breathing a sigh of relief, Katie joined all of their friends inside.  “We had a great time at the concert and that has always been a fantastic story.”  For Bobby, this was one of many examples where he went out his way to do something to ensure that his friends were taken care of and had a great time.

Justin Pfeifer became close with Bobby during their sophomore year of high school.  He remembered Bobby telling him about his interest in the military early on in their friendship.  It didn’t surprise him when Bobby started to get serious about joining.  “Bob was the first person I knew that had a paintball gun,” said Pfeifer.  “He was always playing target practice around the yard, trying to convince me to let him shoot me.”  The two of them played video games a lot, even going so far as to work at an arcade to give them more opportunities to play different games.  It was clear to Pfeifer that his friend had a mentality fit for the military.  “I went to the Marine recruiting office with him several times.  It was interesting listening to the recruiter talk about the process and what to expect from boot camp.  On these visits, you could tell that Bob already knew most of what the recruiter was talking about and it became apparent to me that I was the one that was being recruited.”  While Pfeiffer did not join, the trips to the recruiting office gave him a better understanding of the military, and specifically the Marine Corps.  Another person who had an inkling that Warns was going to join was Jonathan Bright.  He did not see Bobby’s decision to enlist as a spur of the moment one at all.  “It doesn’t surprise me that he joined as he’d been contemplating it for a long time.  When he decided to go into the Marines, however, I do remember he was very concerned about what his mother would say.”

Bobby’s unease may have stemmed from the fact that he had not discussed at all with Bob and Bridget his interest in joining the Marine Corps.  “I can’t tell you how blindsided we were,” said Bridget.  Looking back at his childhood, she recalled one interaction that provided foreshadowing.  It was during a ‘take your kids to work day’ at Bridget’s office.  She introduced Bobby and Katie to her co-workers, including Steve Patterson, who had served previously in the Marine Corps.  “I don’t how they got on the subject of him being a Marine, but Bobby started asking him about it,” said Bridget.  Steve opened up his desk and pulled out a rubber band slingshot that he shared with the youngster.  He told Bobby about some of the core precepts of being a Marine.  For example, he shared how everyone was a marksman, even the cooks.  Bridget didn’t consider at the time how much impact that interaction could have on her son.  “Bobby was fascinated and asked him a ton of questions, and I never thought twice about it until we came home one night and found a Marine recruiter in our living room.”  Surprised by the scene that was unfolding in their home, Bob asked his son why he wanted to do this.  They had never discussed it and there certainly had not been any pressure from him and Bridget to go in that direction. “It wasn’t like it was a legacy thing,” Bob explained.  “His grandfather wasn’t a Marine.  I wasn’t a Marine.  It was totally his choice.”  Warns recalled what his son told him at the time that gave him a firm understanding of the reason why Bobby was joining.  “I remember Bobby saying how he had seen Marines going into Catholic Memorial and it was the feeling of respect they were given that he wanted.”  Bob and Bridget were very proud of the decision that Bobby made.  Warns enlisted in 1999, completed recruit training in San Diego, and joined Golf Company soon thereafter.  Sergeant Brad Dobbs remembers that Bobby was “instantly popular with a lot of the company.”  He also marveled at the decision that he had made to join.  “Bobby was a prime example of the kind of citizen-warrior that we need.  This is someone who came from a good family, smart, charismatic, and could have done anything he wanted to.  He could have just got a job where he had air conditioning, a comfortable chair and earned a very respectable salary.”

Soon after joining the Marine Corps, Bobby met Erin.  In the fall of 1999, both of them were freshmen at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  On the day reserved to move in to the dorms, after Erin and her suitemates settled their belongings in their rooms, they decided to participate in some of the activities happening on campus.  As they approached the elevator on their floor, the doors opened and a gaggle of guys spilled out.  They had been playing football on the rain-soaked field right outside of the dorm and were now in a hurry to get somewhere.  “Bob happened to be one the guys and he literally knocked me over and covered me in mud.  He picked me up off the floor, said he was sorry and ran off with his friends.”  One of Erin’s new friends was indignant.  “One of my suitemates said he was so rude, and all I could say was that he was so good looking!”  The interaction was one of many to come, as Bobby lived on the floor above Erin.  As they started to hang out with each other’s friends, they got to know each other well.  From that inauspicious start on the first day of college grew a good friendship and then a relationship.

Bobby’s friends noted how he changed after joining the Marine Corps.  Jonathan Bright noticed that “when he’d come back from training weekends it would take a few days for him to get back to normal.”  No longer could they rely on their friend to want to party and play video games regularly.  Bright remembered, “He was much more serious and the everyday Bob that we knew changed.”  Warns still possessed a light-hearted and mischievous constitution, but the gravity of serving in a post-9/11 military brought to him a higher level of focus.  He, like many of his Marine brothers, spent most of his time in the military knowing with a fair amount of certainty that he would deploy one day into a combat zone, and this must have weighed on him.  Despite this, even as the company readied itself for what would ultimately come, Bobby held on to what made him intrinsically himself.

Bobby Warns the Marine represented a powerful challenge to stereotypes about those who serve.  “He walked to the beat of his own drum and was interested in living his life the way he wanted to live it,” said Ryan McGranahan about his friend.  Certainly, he shared with all of his brothers a great sense of honor and desire to serve.  He was proud of his service and the various decisions he made that resulted in him being in Iraq.  But unlike the perception of how many viewed the military, he did not blindly accept everything that his service entailed.  Bob Warns said, “He truly wanted to be a part of the Marine Corps, but it wasn’t blind commitment.  He was kind of like a religious heretic.  He believed, but he had questions.”  While the view that the Marine Corps is filled with rigid ‘yes people’ who never question authority is a bit extreme, there certainly is a large amount of homogeneity that exists within it.  The importance of the chain-of-command and adherence to orders wielded broad influence on the actions of those who served and resulted in a certain set of ‘personas’ in many situations.  However, Bobby resisted being reduced to a one-dimensional stereotype.  I believe there were many reasons for that.  Part of it was that he was incredibly good at many things that served as outlets for him.  He was a talented artist and was never hesitant to leave his mark with his creations.  As well, the natural sense of humor and willingness to push others’ buttons that characterized his teenage years carried over into the Corps.  His platoon mates remember when Bobby somehow was able to bring a taser to Camp Pendleton when the unit located there for pre-deployment preparations.  The videos he made of himself being tased kept his friends howling for days.  And he had a way of voicing his displeasure with just the right balance of ridicule and caution.  On several occasions, when he would be upset with some Marine Corps policy or norm, he would use a black sharpie marker to add an ‘R’ to the end of his USMC tattoo on his arm.  It was one way to maintain an air of irreverence while still flying under the radar.  However, Bobby’s choices of how he entertained and expressed himself colored how others viewed him, and didn’t always go over well.  “Bob’s unique nature didn’t always jive with what the Marine Corps expects from its members,” explained Ryan McGranahan.  Bobby didn’t flaunt his ‘rebel’ demeanor; but at the same time, he was never afraid to make the point that he was an individual.  “He was the type of guy that would wear a Grateful Dead shirt to hang out in the barracks, just to make the point that he was not going to be pigeonholed as a person,” said McGranahan.  He also was not fearful of making his displeasure known in unconventional ways.  While this sense of individuality kept Bobby whole, it didn’t always win him points with others, especially those with whom he had fewer interactions.  However, in what was most important about being a Marine, he was rock solid.  “Bobby may have got his ass in a sling sometimes with higher ups, but when it came down to it, he knew what the hell he was doing professionally,” said McGranahan.  “He was exceptional with machine guns, and was one of the best rifle and pistol marksmen I have ever been around.  He could roll out of bed and shoot expert on the rifle qualification course every single time.”


Bobby after a long day of training; his artwork was well known within Golf Company

The decision to serve often extends beyond a one-time choice.  Yes, everyone who enters the military makes an initial decision to join.  But beyond that first choice to sign up, it is fairly commonplace for Marines to ‘re-up’ for multiple years after their first contract expires.  When someone re-enlists, they do it in a ceremony that mirrors the first time they enlisted.  The formality of the ritual reinforces the continued choice they are making to serve.  In addition to those who re-enlist, there are those who make specific requests to be sent to units headed to a combat environment.  While we were preparing to deploy, we had several Marines request to join us from different units in the Marine Corps, and in some cases from the civilian world.  Captain Jeremy Hoffmann was serving in an active-duty unit and was close to the end of his service commitment when he requested a transfer to 2/24, knowing our unit was preparing to go to Iraq.  Sean Sullivan, a 1984 Naval Academy graduate who got out the Marine Corps in 1996 to practice law in the Chicago area, petitioned Headquarters Marine Corps to get back in June 2004 to go with us.  In Golf Company, there were multiple other examples, including Sergeants Brad Hazell and Ryan Tumberg, of Marines who asked to transfer from their unit to ours in order to deploy with us to the Iraq combat zone.  And we also had a few of our Marines whose end of active service (EAS) dates – their departure date from the Marine Corps – were to occur before we would be headed out from the United States to go to Iraq.  As we approached the day when we would get our official orders, there was a lot of questions, rumors, and confusion about when and if our Marines would be subjected to a ‘stop-loss policy.’  This was a policy that was used throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and allowed the Department of Defense to put a moratorium on service members departing the military, even when their EAS arrived.  We were hearing that we might activate in June and then deploy in September.  For the few Marines in Golf Company who had EAS dates in June through August 2004, there was even more uncertainty and potentially a very big decision in front of them.

Bobby was in that situation.  His EAS was in June, a few months before we would fly to Iraq.  He didn’t know what flexibility he would be given about having to go.  If his orders stated that stop-loss would go into effect immediately upon Golf Company being activated, he would have the opportunity to appeal if he desired.  He could have been given a role supporting the I&I team that would have kept him in Wisconsin.  Faced with one of the hardest choices of his life, he didn’t take the easy road, and he didn’t hesitate in making up his mind.  He chose to go with us, before he knew whether he would be subjected to stop-loss or not.  Erin looked back at his rationale with admiration.  “His contract was up that June and he was given an offer as to whether to stay and do something in the States or to go.  And he said he was going.  When he told me how much those guys meant to him, it was eye opening to me.  I was so incredibly proud of him to make a decision on something that mattered to him when he was given some sort of other opportunities to not go.  To me it was amazing as to how selfless someone can actually be.  And how much he must have cared for the people he was with.”  Bobby explained his decision to his father.  “He said that he didn’t really have to go and because his service time was winding down,” remembered Bob.  He asked him why he chose to go then.  “Bobby said that he couldn’t leave these guys; that he couldn’t not go with his guys.  I was very proud of him when he told me that.”  Jonathan Bright recalled Bobby’s decision to go.”  He didn’t feel right about abandoning the guys he’d been training with for years.”  I remember a similar discussion I had with Bobby at the Reserve Training Center in Madison, around the same time that rumors were swirling as to what would happen with stop-loss.  I had heard he made the choice to go with the unit.  I wanted to hear it directly from him.   Meeting with him, I asked him if he was sure.  He said he was.  I asked him why.  “He looked at me directly and answered my query with a question.  “Sir, how could I not go when my brothers will be there?”  If ever a question could be constructed 100% from honor, it would be that one.

Bobby did not easily share the decision he made with everyone.  He was reticent to tell his mother.  He had the same feeling as when he initially decided to enlist in the Marine Corps and was not eager to generate the amount of worry for Bridget that undoubtedly would occur.  This time, he decided to go even further to keep Bridget in the dark.  “He told me he had no choice,” she remembered. “That he had to go.”  There is no way to know for sure what his motivation was, but it is not a far stretch to think he did so to protect his mother from feeling that she could have done something to persuade him to remain home.  The bonds that exist between children and their mothers are such that mothers never stop worrying about their offspring.  While that is also true about fathers, societal norms have tended to suppress the visible sentiment in a way that has not happened with mothers.  I believe that Bobby wanted to provide as much peace as he could for Bridget.

Bobby and Erin at the Golf Company send off to California

As Golf Company prepared to deploy, Bobby’s carefree and light attitude buoyed his Marine brothers.  He went to great lengths to reduce the levels of stress that naturally built up in preparing for and going to combat.  Corporal Chris Maida remembered when the company found out where exactly they would be headed to in Iraq.  “They were giving us a little background of Mahmudiyah,” Chris explained, referring to the biggest city in the AO.  “Everyone was a little anxious because the reality of the situation was growing on us.  We were all very quiet as we digested what we were being told, until Bobby yelled, ‘C’mon!  Piece of cake.  It’s like we’re going into Wisconsin.’  He knew the lines of every movie.”  Bobby’s adaptation of the classic line from the movie Stripes was one of many times he was able to inject a movie quote into the situation with perfect context and humorous impact.

While at Camp Pendleton in the middle of an intense training workup, Bobby chose interesting ways to have fun and try to loosen up others.  Ryan McGranahan remembered one of Warns’ exploits.  “I was the duty NCO and was sitting in the duty hut when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of light through the window.  It turned out be a flaming roll of toilet paper that Warns had thrown down from the upper levels of the barracks.  A short time later, McGranahan looked up to see a series of tied-together bed sheets hanging down from the top of the barracks, and Bobby using them to repel down the side of the building.  “He got to the bottom, looked at me, said ‘hi’ and walked away.  He and some other Marines had been having a good time upstairs, and he was just looking for something do to.  “This was not the only time Warns practiced his repelling expertise.  On another night at Pendleton, Mike McVay, who was Sergeant of the Guard for the day, woke up late as a Marine in the company was banging on his door. When McVay answered it, he was told that there was a commotion in the barracks, and that Bobby was at the center of it.  “Ok, what is he doing?”  asked McVay.  “He’s repelling from the third deck of the barracks!”  McVay laughed to himself, as he was used to Warns pushing the limits of the conventional.  He started walking towards the barracks and encountered the Duty NCO, Corporal Dan Millar, walking back to the duty hut.  He asked him if he had seen Bobby and was told there was no sign of him recently.  McVay recalled, “I thought he had probably finally gone to sleep.  I waited for a few minutes, and just as I was about to head back to my room, I hear this zzzziiiiiiippp, and there is Warns, dropping from the upper deck on the new grappling hook he had just bought on liberty in Oceanside.  He just looked at me and said, ‘What’s up Sergeant McVay?’   I couldn’t help but laugh.”

Corporal Hank Peters was on duty in Camp Pendleton the night Bobby decided he just had to remove the fire extinguisher from the duty hut.  He was insistent that Peters allow him to take it.  As the Corporal of the Guard, Peters knew that was something he couldn’t do.  “We couldn’t give it to him because we’d get in trouble,” Peters said.  After trying to persuade him to give it to him, Warns made an attempt to take it himself.  He started to wrestle Peters, and while they went at it, the company duty officer came up on the scene.  He sternly told Warns to get out the duty hut and to stop screwing around.  Peters was embarrassed about the interaction in front of the commissioned officer, but was relieved that it seemed he would escape discipline now that it was over.  Or so he thought it was.  “Bobby went off for about 10-15 minutes, and then all of sudden a PT shirt comes down right in front of our window,” Peters remembered.  “We went outside to investigate, and we turned around to see Warns sneaking in the back of the duty hut to try again to steal the fire extinguisher.”  Warns was going to achieve his mission one way or the other!  “We were getting kind of mad.  Eventually we got him kind of calmed down.  For 2-3 hours, he was pretty fired up about getting that fire extinguisher.”  It is telling how many of these moments of levity that people remember about Bobby.  He possessed a special gift of being able to live in the now, and he used humor and a willingness to push boundaries to provide humorous distractions for others.

Bobby flashing his trademark grin after a training exercise

Bobby was purposeful when he injected humor into situations.  “Things were getting a little tense in our last month before we were going to finally ship for Iraq,” recounted Ryan McGranahan.  “Bob could sense that, so he went out and bought a kid’s swimming pool.”  The pool itself was a great way to beat the heat of the 90+ degree days the company endured during the height of the California summer.  Mike McVay described what Warns did to take the fun to another level after the pool was filled with water.  “Out comes Warns with a red tank top that said Lifeguard across it.  Bobby completed his ensemble with a whistle, floppy hat, and a dab of sunblock on his nose.  We spent the next few hours laughing our asses off at ‘Lifeguard Bobby’ constantly blowing his whistle at people splashing in the pool and for other made up infractions.”  Though representing a small window of time in a summer of pre-deployment preparation, Bobby’s actions set a tone of normalcy and led to a more relaxed environment.  In a profession where everyone’s job duties were so serious, the positive psychological impact that Warns’ willingness and ability to provide levity at just the right time couldn’t be overestimated.

Bobby provided comic relief and established normalcy in the tensest situations

Prior to leaving California for Iraq, Bobby’s life changed in the biggest way.   Mike McVay one of the first to learn about the change, something he will never forget.  It was on a day in August 2004.  The unit was winding down its training phase at Camp Pendleton.  Some of the Marines in the company would soon be leaving to head out for the advance party to Iraq.  McVay stopped by Warns’ room to pass some word for him and his team, but was not able to enter as Warns’ door was locked.  McVay could tell that Bobby was on the phone, talking quietly to whomever was on the other line.  McVay knocked on the door, indicating he needed to talk to Warns.  Warns replied, “Dude, just wait.  Give me a second.  I’m on the phone.”  McVay moved on to talk to the other team leaders in his section, and returned back to Warns’ room ten minutes later.  He found the door still locked, and banged on it as he was losing his patience.  “Warns, come on!  I have to pass some word.”  Bobby slid open the curtain covering the window next to his door so that McVay could see him.  He mouthed “One minute.” A few minutes later, the door opened.  As McVay walked in, he noticed that Warns was excited about something.  “What the hell is wrong with you?” asked McVay in his signature direct style.  Warns replied back immediately, “Nothing is up.  What did you need?”  Despite his claim, he was pacing back and forth and was clearly preoccupied by something important.  McVay pressed:  “Ok, what’s going on?  You’re so jacked up right now.”  Warns replied, “I can’t tell you man, but you will know soon.”  McVay took this as a challenge, replying, “Neither one of us are leaving this room until you tell me.” Bobby refused to tell him anything more, and the back and forth between the two of them went on for five minutes.  Finally, Warns relented.  “Ok, I will tell you, but you cannot tell anyone.  You have to promise me.”  McVay said, “Ok.  Yeah, I promise.  What’s going on?”   Warns was not convinced that he had secured the level of absolute confidentiality he was seeking. “No, seriously, you have to promise!”  McVay understood from his tone this was something serious.  “Warns, I promise man.  I won’t tell anyone.  I swear.”  Bobby took a breath, and then the words spilled out of him with enthusiasm: “I just got off the phone with Erin.  Dude, I’m going to be a dad!   We aren’t telling anyone yet until she makes it to her next appointment and we know that this is for sure and everything is going to be ok.”  McVay was struck by the pure joy that lined Bobby’s face and was excited for what being a father for the first time would mean for him.  Later that day, Bobby told Ryan McGranahan the news, who noted a difference in his friend.  “He was ecstatic about becoming a father and I could tell that it was changing him as we spoke,” said McGranahan.  Now, Bobby just needed to break the news to his parents.

“The very first thought was that his parents were going to kill us,” said Erin.  “I was not Catholic and the family seemed pretty fixed in being Catholic.”  Erin was insistent that Bobby tell them before he left for Iraq.  But Bobby was not so concerned.  “I think it consumed me more than it did him.  I was so worried about their reaction.  Bob didn’t really think it was a big deal.”  Over Labor Day, Erin traveled out to San Diego to spend a week with Bobby, when the company had a week of time off prior to leaving for Iraq.  “We just had an awesome time together,” recalled Erin.  “We were talking about what our future together would be.  Talking about baby names.  We spent hours walking the zoo, walking the beaches.  Just dreaming and envisioning what the future would be.”    Erin considers the time they had together that summer an incredible blessing.  She was so excited to see how he was reacting to the idea of a child coming.  She also remembered back to the time the two of them had spent around his goddaughter Finn in May before he left for California.  “He just loved her so much.  Being a guy at that age and really enjoying kids so much was so refreshing for me to see.  There was no question in my heart that he was ready to love and take care of a child.”   Bobby’s sister Katie knew how good of a father would be as well.  “He always gravitated towards babies, even at a young age,” she recollected.  “He loved our cousin Jordan, who was born when we were in grade school.  Bobby loved holding her, and he did so with a huge peaceful smile.  There is no doubt in my mind this is one of the main reasons he was blessed with Payton.”

Bobby and Erin

Bobby shared the news of the pregnancy with his parents as he and Golf Company were on their way to Iraq.  Perhaps sharing some of the same uncertainty as Erin had as to how his parents might react, he broke the news to Bob and Bridget in a letter.  “I remember reading it and thinking how neat Bobby’s handwriting was,” Bridget said.  “It was probably because he had written so many different versions.  He waited until the final paragraph to tell us that his girlfriend, Erin was pregnant.  We didn’t realize it at the time, that this was his most precious gift to us.”

As Bobby and Golf Company travelled to Iraq, Erin returned back to Milwaukee.  Because she had a history of blood clots, she went in for extra testing throughout her pregnancy.   Beyond that, physically she had a very easy nine months.   Emotionally, it was really hard.   “The mood swings were up and down.  I was sad that Bobby couldn’t come to any of the appointments with me,” recounted Erin.  “And not knowing what the terms would be, knowing that the baby would be due beginning of May and not knowing if he would be back by then made me really upset.”  After a few weeks of not being able to get anything but post office mail, Erin and Bobby were able to establish a Skype connection when the company got reliable access to internet connection.  Erin adjusted her routine to be available for the calls that came through at random times.  “My computer was out in the family room area, so I would sleep on the couch because of the time change.  I couldn’t hear the ‘ding’ from the bedroom when he got on the Skype.”

Because of his military sub-specialty, Bobby had one of the toughest roles on the deployment.  He was an ‘oh-three-thirty-one’ (0331) – a machine gunner.  As explained in previous chapters, our unit’s strategy during deployment was highly dependent on our ability to create an almost continuous presence in key areas across our AO.  To do that, our Marines and Sailors patrolled.  A lot.  Two and three patrols a day did not represent an unusual day.  Many of these patrols were vehicular, for the simple reason that our AO covered a lot of distance.  Each vehicular patrol went out with at least 4 HMMWVs, and at least one medium or heavy machine gun mounted in the turret of one of the HMMWVs.Because Bobby was a machine gunner, his expertise was in high demand daily, as squad leaders worked through filling out their patrol manifests.  When needed, a non-0331 could be used on the machine gun turret, and many of our Marines served in that role well.  However, whenever possible, we tried to have an actual machine gunner in that capacity, given their extensive training, experience, and knowledge of the capabilities of the weapons they would be employing.  Bobby went out of his way to volunteer for patrols, knowing that each one he went on was one fewer that one of his brothers would need to go on.  These ‘transactions’ happened in milliseconds and never garnered attention at the time.  Yet, the meaning of his gestures meant everything.  They helped to develop absolute trust across the unit.  They were the foundation of a high functioning team.  And they represented an almost silent indication of true brotherhood.

Bobby at FOB St. Michael and at one of the checkpoints on MSR Tampa

A few weeks before Bobby was killed, Bridget was traveling for a work engagement.  On her flight back from Minneapolis, she and the others on board were made aware that the plane was carrying back a body of a deceased service member from Iraq.  At that time in the conflict, commercial jets transported the body of the fallen warrior, with a uniformed service member on the flight who travelled as an escort until the body was returned to the family.  Often, the passengers on the flight were not aware of what was happening until the plane landed.   The pilots generally would tell the passengers of the honor they were fulfilling and ask everyone to remain seated until the body has been unloaded and turned over to the family.  On this evening, when it dawned upon Bridget what was happening, her mind instantly went to the family, as well as to her son.  “I was beside myself and thanking God that it wasn’t Bobby.”  Weeks later, it would be Bridget on the receiving end of the most terrible news that a mother could receive.

The memories of the day Bobby was killed remain burned into the minds of his Marine brothers.  “I was standing post on the northwest corner of the Weapons Platoon house when Bobby’s patrol came rolling into the FOB,” said Ryan McGranahan.  Warns was attached to First Platoon on MSR Tampa, so he had been separated from most of his Weapons Platoon buddies for a few weeks.  On that day, however, his patrol had been tasked with traveling to the FOB in Lutifiyah for a coordination and resupply visit.  “I noticed Bob right away. I waved to him, and after the patrol debriefed, he came up to the roof of the building I was on.  He sat down with me while I was on post.”  The friends had been on different routines over the course of the previous few weeks so they had not seen each other much.  Sitting on top of the building, McGranahan was stunned when Warns pulled a shiny revolver out his cargo pocket.  “I asked him what the hell it was.  He winked at me and pulled out a cigarette and put it into his mouth. He then put the pistol up to his cigarette and pulled the trigger.  It was a lighter!”  Once again, Bobby knew just the right thing to keep things light, allowing his friend to relax.  They spent the next half hour catching up, touching on things important in their lives, and simply enjoying each other’s presence.  “We talked about the baby, Erin, our lives, and what we were going to do when we got back to the world. He was so excited to be a father.  I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.”

While the patrol was at the FOB, I met with the senior leader of the patrol, Staff Sergeant Chad Simon.  Simon and I sat down in the small room that alternately served as a meeting room and my sleeping quarters.  The radios in the adjacent command post provided a steady stream of background noise as we talked through a number of topics.  I wanted to take advantage of being in the same location as Simon to pick his brain on what he, platoon commander Jeremy Hoffmann, and First Platoon were experiencing out on MSR Tampa.  At that point in our deployment, we were still feeling out what that mission was all about and I was contemplating different ways of approaching the unique challenges it posed.  Simon gave me his assessment and opinion on how we could be more effective there.  He also pressed me for a number of things that our Marines needed to make the checkpoints on Tampa more secure.  For each item, he had a great rationale and though he presented his requests very thoughtfully, he also impressed upon me a sense of urgency around quickly fulfilling those requests.  We agreed upon a plan of action and then I asked him if he would be willing to lead another patrol in the Hay Mezra neighborhood on his way back to MSR Tampa.  Our strategy in Lutifiyah included establishing an almost continuous presence in the hot-spot areas in our AO, and “The Mez” was one of the hottest.  Simon agreed to lead the squad in doing the patrol.  We shook hands, and I thanked him for doing the patrol and for what he and his platoon were accomplishing already out on Tampa.  He left the CP building and rounded up the others to get the patrol underway.

Still perched on top of the Weapons Platoon building, Bobby saw the other members of the patrol heading towards the vehicles, so he grabbed his gear and headed down to the landing zone.  McGranahan recounted the departure.  “I saw him get into the back of one of the trucks, and as they pulled out, he gave me a wave. I waved back and that was the last time I saw him.”  Approximately 10 minutes later, McGranahan heard a thunderous explosion and witnessed the rising smoke cloud when an IED buried in a canal road (see Figure 6) between the Hay Mezra and Hay Salaam neighborhoods detonated.  The blast demolished the HMMWV Warns was traveling in, killing him, Lance Corporal Shane O’Donnell, and Lance Corporal Branden Ramey.  Staff Sergeant Chad Simon and Lance Corporal Scott Kruchten were seriously wounded.

Nov 8 IED attack - updated
(Figure 6: IED attack on November 8, 2004)

The concussive blast was so strong that miles away, the buildings in FOB ROW shook as if it had occurred much closer.  Lance Corporal Matt Renkas noted in his journal, “When you hear something like that you think something big just happened.”  Mike McVay immediately went into response mode.  “I had the mortar section spin up because I didn’t know if it was incoming fire, it was so loud.”  He sprinted into the CP with his mortar board, searching for situational awareness on what had occurred.  At that point, I was on the radio, talking with Sergeant Abbott, who was on Simon’s patrol.  Abbott, an ER nurse in civilian life, was calmly conveying the situation at the site as he simultaneously processed what was happening.He called in the information in SITREP (Situation Report) format.  Those crowded into the CP held their breath as Abbott got to Line 7, which would include any casualties suffered.  He proceeded to inform me that there were 3 KIA (killed in action) and 2 wounded who would needed priority evacuation.    As the names came across the radio, it was as if the oxygen was vacuumed from the CP.   After calling in the CASEVEAC (casualty evacuation) request to our battalion headquarters, I turned and faced all of the Marines assembled in the room.  I could see burning pain in all of their eyes.  They had just heard the names of their brothers spoken in an almost unfathomable context.  But even in those earliest seconds after this terrible event, I saw something beyond pain.  I saw resoluteness.  That determination not only allowed them to stay focused on the mission going forward, it also led to the birth of a sacred oath.  The Marines and Sailors of Golf Company swore to themselves, and each other, that as long as they had breath they would do everything possible to keep the memories of their fallen brothers alive.  The pledges were taken silently and openly, and many times over on and since that day.  Those oaths would become a defining element of the very brotherhood that the members of Golf Company built and would provide a compass for future behaviors, actions, and interactions.  In a way that was real, the Golf Company family finalized its shape that moment as a response to the tragedy.

Beyond resoluteness and the desire to keep their memories alive, the responses to the attack and deaths of our brothers were varied as each member of the company struggled to come to grips with their feelings.   Matt Renkas wrote in his journal: “When they gave us the news, I was in disbelief and then that faded to anger.  Anger about everything, the insurgents, the population, the Marine Corps, myself.”  Mike McVay remembered several others’ reactions:  “We kept thinking that this hadn’t happened.  It was as if were living in a dream.  I didn’t sleep for four days.”  The surreal feelings he experienced was soon replaced with raw anger.  “I had the feeling of revenge,” said McVay.  “I was really angry.”   The feeling was shared widely by Warns’ brothers.  There was a sense of hatred for and a desire to hold those responsible for this act accountable for their actions.  “Did I think I was going to lose my shit and mow everyone down, to include innocents?  No.”  McVay did want to go rogue and personally hunt down everyone who was responsible for Warns’ death, but he knew that he and the Marines under his charge would maintain the moral high ground.  “I had faith that we were going to do it the right way; the way it was supposed to be done.”

After Bobby’s death, Bob and Bridget battled the demons that come with the unspeakable pain of losing a child.  The partnership they had forged since the day they met working in a cafeteria at Northern Illinois University served as the foundation needed to bring them through the void.  Bridget had always been blessed with abundant optimism.  This was tested every day as she worked through her grief, but she always found her way back to it.  For Bob, something occurred to him directly that provided great solace.  A few nights after Bobby died, he had a dream that would defy conventional belief.  “I don’t care what anyone says, I was visited by two angels,” Bob said, describing what he witnessed as he slept.  “They told me that they don’t normally do this, but that they were going to show me Bobby, but that I could not call out to him.”  Bob was instructed strictly that he could just observe.  Seconds later he was looking down on his son, who was holding two babies.   “It was communicated to me that these were aborted babies that Bobby was taking care of.  It was his charge to take care of those babies and to be their protector.”  The scene brought Bob so much comfort in the time of inestimable loss.  “That was one of the most special things in my life,” he said of the miraculous experience he had.

Erin and the Warns family pulled on incredible reservoirs of strength as Bobby’s funeral approached.   They decided to treat the service as a celebration of his life much more than a mourning of his death.  “I would not wear black,” recalled Bridget.  “We all wore white,” she said, referring to herself, Erin and Katie.  The church where the funeral was held was filled with family members and friends.  Each came to pay their respects as they wrestled with the range of emotions that resulted from Bobby’s death.  Bob, Bridget, Erin, and Katie held and consoled each other.  They leaned on others and did their very best to focus on what Bobby brought to others’ lives instead of the pain they felt from his loss.  “The day of the funeral lasted well into the night and next day as friends and family gave him an awesome and memorable send off,” said Bridget.

3481 service members died as a result of hostile action during Operation Iraqi Freedom.The act of giving one’s life in service to country is incomprehensible to those around the person who dies.  While those who serve rationally know that making the ultimate sacrifice is a real possibility, the idea usually falls into the category of what “happens to others.”  Family members often possess a little more pessimistic outlook, an indication of how much they love and worry about their sons, daughters, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, etc.  Even when confronted up close and personal with the reality of someone else losing their life in combat, however, the natural human coping mechanism of dissociation kicks in.

While accurate data exists on the number of combat deaths in Iraq, little official information is available to explain how many involved service members who had children.  However, even without definitive statistics, it is reasonable to surmise that a very small subset of those parents killed in action never had the opportunity to meet their child, as was the case with Bobby.  For any situation where a family member or friend has been killed serving, it inherently feels deeply unfair.  “Why him?  Why her?  Why did it have to be them?”  These are questions with no helpful answers.   But the unfairness seems to take on another dimension when it involves a child who never gets to meet his or her parent.  As the time of Bobby’s death, Erin and Payton’s future took a very uncertain turn.  Yes, they were surrounded by myriad family members and friends who would provide them whatever level of support they needed.   But Erin was guaranteed to be a single mother for some period of time, by absolutely no choice of her own.As the days counted down to Payton’s birth, the uncertainty of what they would face together seemed almost overwhelming.  Said Erin, “I remember at the time thinking this could be a very silent, long journey.”  Erin had been scheduled to have an ultrasound on November 10th to find out the baby’s gender.  It was going to be her Christmas gift to Bobby, and she had convinced the doctors to do it earlier than normal so that the ultrasound pictures could arrive in Iraq in time for the holidays.  When Erin received the news of Bobby’s death, she wanted to cancel the appointment.  “As long as the baby was healthy, I no longer cared if it was a boy or girl.”  Bridget and Erin’s mother convinced her to keep the appointment.  Years later, Erin is so happy they did.  “The ultrasound techs that day were amazing.  Probably the best staff that you could ever have.  They were so sensitive and so caring to my situation.”  And while gentle and compassionate, they helped steer Erin back around to the importance and meaning of what she was going through.  “They reminded me that I still had a child to take care of and it was supposed to be fun.”    About a week after his death, Erin received the last letter in that Bobby had sent her.  Given the circumstances, the letter would evoke strong emotions no matter what it contained, but what Bobby wrote made it that much more emotional.  He told Erin he was completely on board with naming the baby Payton if they had a girl.  “It’s been so special to me knowing that Bob had the final hand in naming her.”

Part of the memorial constructed inside FOB ROW in Lutifiyah

As a country, I believe we are still refining the social contract we ‘sign’ with those who volunteer to protect our country.  We have come a long way from the shameful way we treated service members as they returned home from Vietnam half a century ago.  Over the last few decades, Americans have generally adopted a position of strong support for those who serve, even when they may not agree with the conflicts in which they participated.  Attend any professional sporting event today, and you are likely to witness 2-3 times where the contest is stopped to allow for a Veteran to be recognized for their service.  Heartwarming, it connotes a grateful nation that stands behind those who have made the decision to serve.  One could argue that in an attempt to show public support, our country has done so in a way that excludes other important callings that play an important part in making the United States the country it is.  Police officers, firefighters, other first responders, teachers, doctors, nurses, community service workers and volunteers, and many other professions, create the strong and vibrant society we have.  Personally, I wish we would prop up those professions publicly with the same degree of enthusiasm as we do the military.  But even if we do get to that point, none of that would or should take away from the deserved recognition and appreciation for those who are called upon to put their lives on the line to protect the country.  Every bit of recognition that does to Veterans is deserved, and not enough.  And there are many ways our country already has said ‘thank you.’  In addition to public recognition, Veterans have benefitted from a post 9/11 GI Bill that provides increased educational benefits, as well as a VA Healthcare System that, while still a long way from what it needs to be, has been significantly improved compared to what it was in the last couple of decades in the previous century.  All in all, our country has provided for Veterans in ways that recognizes the various sacrifices they made while serving.  As well, these actions signal to those in the future generation who may consider joining that their service will be honored and supported.

When Bobby was killed, Erin was in her fifth year of schooling at UW-Milwaukee, working on finishing her master’s degree in architecture.  Living 300 miles away from her family, she was cut off from most of who knew her best.  Given how close she lived to Bob and Bridget, she moved in with them until her baby was born.  However, she was not surrounded by other Marine families who could empathize with what she was going through.  “I was getting all of the emails from Barb Wentworth7, but other than that I was pretty isolated. There were no other Golf Company parents or wives I was connected with.”  Cecil Goodloe, who was the Inspector & Instructor (I&I) First Sergeant from Fox Company in Milwaukee, helped her out tremendously.  Similar to the role that Ron Christensen had, as described in chapter 3, Goodloe delivered the next of kin casualty notification to Warns.  He remained in constant contact with Erin and the Warns family, offering his assistance on any issue they had, and providing a critical official link to the Marine Corps during this time of sorrow, mourning, and questioning.  It is in times like this that one of the practical differences between active duty and reserve units becomes apparent.  On active duty, most of the immediate families of the military member, as well as serious significant others, live on and around the base that the unit calls home.  In a tragedy, there is a built in support network of other families within very close physical proximity.  While reserve units tend to pull from all or a portion of one state, that radius can still span hundreds of miles.  This doesn’t allow for the type of casual contact needed to develop relationships one can lean in a crisis.  However, over time, the roles reverse.  Active duty families who have been through trauma, once their loved one is no longer in the military, often move back home where they may be around family, but are separated from the military family they had joined.  Reserve families, however, would now have the advantage of much closer geographic proximity than their active-duty counterparts.  Reunions and casual get togethers are much easier to attend, and a much deeper set of relationships develop.  Erin remembers having a mini panic attack when Bobby told her he had not updated his will after finding out they would be having a baby together.   Bobby wasn’t worried about it and told her that if anything would happen to him, ‘they’ would take care of her.  “I remember thinking who was this they he was referring to,” said Erin.  “I thought he was absolutely nuts.  But at that time, Erin wasn’t aware of the two most sacred words in the Marine Corps – Semper Fidelis.  ‘Always Faithful’ has been the official motto of the Marine Corps for almost 140 years.  More than words, it is a mindset and a promise that lead to certain actions.   When the Marine of Golf Company took the oath to keep Bobby’s and their other fallen brothers’ memories alive, at the center of that oath lives Semper Fidelis.  Erin has appreciated what she experienced from Bobby’s brothers.  “It’s been so great how often people have reached out to me from Golf Company over the years.  It’s been far more over the years than I would have ever expected.”   In a very meaningful way, Erin and now Payton have become integral parts of the Golf Company family.

As Erin came closer to full term, preparations were made for the birth.  Bridget remembers that Bob had to go on a business trip as the time arrived.  “He asked if he should go since the baby was due in a couple of days,” explained Bridget.  “I said no problem since the first born is usually late.  Bad advice on my part.”  The next day after he left for the trip, Erin called Bridget as she was coming home from work and informed her she thought she was in labor.  “I remember thinking that Bob was going to kill me.”  Bridget received the call when she was just a few blocks from home.  She called Erin’s mother in the Minnesota, picked up Erin and took her to the hospital.  “Not sure when Erin’s mom arrived but she was in time for Payton’s birth,” Bridget described.  “I remember being outside the room where Payton was born.  I had Bob on the phone and pushed the door open.  He was able to hear Payton being born and her first cry.  I got yelled at by the nurse but I didn’t care.”  Payton Elizabeth Robert Warns was born, surrounded by love.  Her birth was the positive culmination of the hardest six months of Erin, Bridget, and Bob’s lives.  “Payton is the most wonderful thing, experience, or person that has ever happened to us,” stated Bridget.  “What a blessing.  And she is Bobby.”

Today, Payton is a teenager who shares many of the same characteristics as most teenagers.  She loves to swim, is a diligent student, and has a bevy of good friends.  But she is also her father.  “Payton has the same twinkle as Bobby had,” explains Erin.  “She has some of the same freckles on her nose as he did.  And she has mannerisms when she makes faces or tells stories that are exactly like him.”   Like her father, Payton possesses great comfort in marching to the beat of her own drum.  Erin remembers that “Bob would wear shorts, sandals and sunglasses all year long in Wisconsin, and he didn’t care.”  She recounted the story where Bobby took her to the movies on one of their first dates and wore his sunglasses into the theatre.  “For Bob, life without sunglasses was like taking a blanket or favorite stuffed animal away from a kid,” Erin said with a laugh.   Payton inherited the same quality that allows her to be comfortable in her own skin.  Erin shared the story of Payton in a recent school concert.  While most of the other students got dressed up in suits and dresses, Payton honed in on the literal directions from the teacher that the students “could wear whatever they want.”  After several back and forth discussions, Erin resigned herself to the fact that Payton was going to wear jeans with holes in them.  “She said to me that God doesn’t care what I look like.”

Warns Erin Payton
Payton, Erin, Bridget and Bob

Since the age of nine, Payton has been dedicated to the pool.   In 8th grade, she made the varsity swim team at the high school she will attend.    The pool is her refuge.  “I know I can just be myself and it gives me something to work out the stress.  I’ve made a lot of good friends in swimming.”  The teenager is very in tune with the feelings of others and does her best to put people at ease.  “I know how it feels when people won’t cheer for you, so I will stand at the end of the lane and cheer for the people who don’t have anyone there for them.  I shake the hands of all the people I’m racing against and I tell them good luck because I want them to feel like they can do it too even if I’m racing against them.”   It is when Payton is swimming that Erin often sees the heartwarming similarities to her daughter’s father.  “I will catch her in the pool deck, dancing, or fooling around, or trying to make someone laugh.  It’s almost like it’s him in another form.  She definitely exudes his personality.”  Bridget is amazed by how closely her granddaughter mirrors her son.  “How can she have so many of his traits and actions?  Yes, I miss him.  I am crying regularly for Bobby that I can’t see him raise Payton.  But I’ll tell you what. Somehow he is.  He’s not there.  But he’s there.  He’s not teaching her.  But he’s teaching her.”  The Warns feel very blessed with the loving parents that Payton has.  “We could have no better mother for Payton than Erin,” said Bridget, and Bob added, “And we could have no better stepfather.  Bobby LaBrec is true and heartfelt in the way he feels about Payton and Bobby’s memory.”  Erin married in 2012 and today Payton and little brother Levi are at the center of their parents’ universe.

Though she never has met her father, Payton is precisely aligned with what made him the person he was.  Her family did many things over the years to make sure she got to know who Bobby was.  This included extending the celebration of life from his funeral into an ongoing commitment to incorporating him into every day discussion.  “To this day, people know that they can talk about him freely.  As a parent, there is no greater gift than to have people talk about your kids.”  Bobby’s cousin Brie Russell arranged for several family members and friends to record their favorite stories about Bobby on what would have been his 24th birthday.   And they continue to experience his presence regularly.  Sister Katie experienced his presence intensely on the day that Erin married.  She noticed there was a huge wind chime hanging in a tree next to the wedding area.  This reminded her of the multiple wind chimes that accompanied Bobby’s flower arrangements at his funeral.  “As the wedding party was standing in front of everyone, and the ceremony had just gotten underway, the wind chime started its peaceful and joyful music,” Katie remembered.  She noted how the air was getting thicker and an energy source jumped back and forth through the air as if a force was sprinting in place.  Katie could feel her emotions alternately being sucked into the energy source and being fueled by it as well.  “I started crying and couldn’t stop,“ Katie said.  “I knew it was Bobby’s energy because it was so powerfully happy.  It was a happy I can’t put into words, but it was so strong it took over my heart and made it swell in a way that all I could do was cry. I was speechless and sobbing.”  Katie felt the intense emotion and was positive her brother was with them.   “I knew it was Bobby from Heaven, and that he was coming from a place that was so wonderfully happy, just a hint of it was overwhelming.  I also knew he wanted to share that happiness with Erin and Payton and Bobby, and all of us.”

The stories that were constantly told, along with a natural inclination of the Warns’ family and friends to discuss him gave Payton a great sense of not only who Bobby was, but what he did.  She is not shy about confronting why her father is not with us.  And while painful to discuss the sacrifice he made, she emanates fierce pride for the action her father took.  “He gave up his life so that I can live in a free country and I can do anything that I want.”

Two of the many visits Payton has made to her father’s gravesite, in 2014 and 2016

Bobby’s life has had tremendous positive impact on many people.  His time in the Marine Corps and the sacrifice he made significantly influenced how those around him thought about those who have served.  This has been vitally important because of the growing ‘understanding gap’ between those who have served and those who have not.  Since the end of the military draft in 1973, the percent of Americans who have served has decreased drastically.  During World War II, about 9% of the country served, while today’s military comprises about 0.5% of the United States population.  Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is worried that the military is becoming its own separate social class.  “Most American families aren’t connected to the military, don’t have kids that are in the military, don’t have friends that have kids that are in the military,” Mullen said.Many who knew Bobby found a new level of understanding and true respect for the men and women who volunteered to join.  Jared Girmscheid said Bobby’s service “provided me a new level of respect for the military and gave me a more mature sense of pride in what our country was and how people had to sacrifice to keep it that way.”  Justin Pfeifer, who tagged along with Bobby when he visited the recruiting office, gained a much better understanding through the experience with his friend. “I gained a sincere appreciation for the men and women who do actually serve because it’s much more than just wearing a uniform,” said Pfeifer.  Mike McVay, like many in the unit, has spent a lot of time since returning from deployment, pondering the impact the sacrifice Bobby and his other fallen brothers had on him.  “We all volunteer, with the willingness and unselfishness to give our lives for this country and the freedoms that we have.  But until you have been in the reality of combat and the ugliness of war, you don’t really know how to appreciate what we have in this country, and who have paid the price for the lives we are able to live and enjoy.”  Bobby’s parents learned so much after he joined.  “We never realized that the military was so poorly compensated,” said Bridget.  “It makes me mad when I hear of the crazy salaries that professional athletes are paid and when they are referred to as heroes.  It’s hard to believe that so many people give up a life of privilege to voluntarily serve in the military.  They have my highest respect.”    And it is these same people who banded together to vow they would do everything possible to keep the memories of their fallen brothers alive.  With this has come a dedicated effort to provide as much emotional support and presence as possible with the families.  Erin is very thankful for what she and Payton have received over the years.  “I certainly don’t believe that Payton would be the person she is today without the village of people who have stepped up.”

Warns Legacy

To call Bobby Warns an American hero falls so short of the mark of what he was that I hesitate to use that descriptor.  I fear that any words I might string together will fail in my goal to honor him appropriately for the way in which he lived his life.   However, I will co-opt someone else’s writing to fulfill my intent.  When I think of Bobby, as well as our other fallen brothers, my mind often wanders to the words of the poet Maya Angelou in “When Great Trees Fall”:

And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always

irregularly. Spaces fill

with a kind of

soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.

Bobby lived a life that provided many others the permission as well as a gentle demand to live their uniquely best lives.   While his time in this world was too short, how he lived created impact that will last forever.  When he departed this world, he left behind a set of great friends, the mother of his child and an incredible family.  And he left behind the miracle that would become Payton.  The powerful circle of life that Bobby was a part of continues seamlessly through her.  He is undoubtedly bursting with pride as he looks down on who Payton has become.  It has been almost 15 years since Bobby’s family and friends eulogized him in the special way they did.  As this chapter of our story closes, it is only fitting to hear more words about Bobby.  Words that come from some who know him best.  Words that provide a window into a great life.  Words that sustain life in a way that will keep his memory alive forever.

Jared Grimschied:  “Bob truly lived for others.  Everybody says that about others but I think it is nonsense most of the time.  We’re selfish by nature.  We’re civil and make kind gestures and are probably willing to sacrifice for others a good amount of the time, but Bob was different.  I’ve never met anyone who seemed physically unable to be happy if someone else was sad or worried.  He had to fix it first, even at the expense of his own happiness.  There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about this.  I routinely make a conscious effort to be a little more like him in this regard, because as I’ve gone through life and have met new people, I really started to appreciate how rare and precious this quality is.  It also makes me sad and angry that he wasn’t able to share it with more people, especially Payton.  But at the same time I feel fortunate that I was lucky enough to have him as a friend.”

Brad Dobbs: “It gets repeated often that we must live a life that is worthy of such sacrifices, and this is true.  We must also build a world that is worthy of such sacrifices.  It is not enough to simply have fun, but those who live must continue to give to society, to improve our world every day so that past and future sacrifices, when necessary, contribute to the long-term betterment of society.  Bobby isn’t here, so we must pick up the loss and contribute what he would have.  I also think we have a duty to create a world in which Bobby would want Payton to live.”

Mike McVay: “I had the honor of spending Memorial Day weekend with his family for the first 12 years after we got home.  Getting to spend time with his family, his friends, basketball coach, neighbors, and other taught me a lot about who Bobby was growing up. Hearing stories of how polite and respected he was, how dedicated and determined to accomplish goals, and the different views he had on life in general made me even more proud of our brother and the impression he left on people throughout his life.”

Matt Renkas: “I learned a lot from Bobby and carry it with me today.  As a Marine, I try to follow his example.  Being in the thick of things with my Marines and making the best of any situation that is presented.  Bobby taught me to never let go of who I am no matter what the situation is.

Ryan McGranahan: “When I think of Bob, I think the quote by Jack London sums him up completely:  The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Katie (Warns) Riesch:  Bobby was my brother, and he taught me more than any other single person in my life.  I am so proud of him.  I so miss him.

Erin LaBrec:  “I feel incredibly blessed that I got to be a small chapter of his life.  That he chose to love me.  That he chose to share that portion of his life me.  That he chose to be Payton’s father.”

Bob Warns:   “Bobby is a man.  He did what a man does.  I think he is a guardian angel.  He has earned that.”

Bridget Warns: “We are so very proud of Bobby’s service to our country and his sacrifice.”

Payton Warns:  “I hope that my father sees that I am just like him.”

Thank you Bobby.

Bobby Warns 2




1Taken from the video tribute of Bobby Warns’ funeral, which had been recorded for his unborn daughter Payton.  Darrell Boeck and Mark Lamkin of Creative Images created a short video summary, which can be found at

2 Robert Warns, Bobby’s Father, spoke these words at the end of his eulogy for this son.  He then turned and faced Bobby’s casket and rendered a hand salute in what I consider to be the most emotion evoking and appropriate tribute I have ever seen.

3The differences between light, medium, and heavy machine guns have to do with ammunition size, weight of the weapon, and the targets the weapons would be used against.  We had Squad Automatic Weapons (SAWs), a light machinegun used in our rifle platoons, and M240Gs, a medium machine gun used by the machinegun section in Weapons Platoon.  At the battalion level, the Heavy Machine Guns Platoon employed M2 .5O cal machine guns and MK19 40-mm automatic grenade launchers.

4They say that adverse conditions don’t build character; they reveal it.  On this day, there were so many heroic actions by people who revealed incredible character.  Many of them were done by Eric Abbott.  His calm presence, quick assessment of the situation on the ground and call for casualty evacuation saved a life, I believe.   His actions that day, as well as many others, are appreciated and were in line with the ones of so many revered Marines who came before us.

5Nese F. DeBruyne; American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved May 11, 2019, from

6In no way am I trying to intimate that a single-parent situation on its own is unfair.  There are many people who choose to be a single parent and do it incredibly well.  My point about the lack of choice that Erin had in this.  To me, that is what was inherently unfair.

7Barb Wentworth was the Key Volunteer Coordinator (KVC) for Golf Company.  The mother of Andy Wentworth from Third Platoon, Barb was charged with keeping the families in the company apprised of what was happening.  This was a critical role in every reserve unit, and Barb took it to a whole different level.  A tireless worker and passionate advocate for the military, Barb was quite literally a godsend for us while we were gone.  There never was an issue too large or too small for her.  She always took the time to keep our families aware of what they needed to know. I trusted her judgment and her heart completely.   A large part of the success we had during our deployment was directly because of her.  And outside of my grandmother, she makes the best apple pie in the world.

8Carson Frame; As Fewer Americans Serve In The Military, Veterans And Non-Veterans Socialize Less. The American Homefront. Retrieved May 17, 2019, from

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