Tuesday, May 3, 2016, will forever rank among the darkest days of my adult life. On that date, a childhood friend from Arizona, someone I had grown into manhood with and whose boundless optimism had forever been a source of strength, gave his life saving others on the battlefields of Iraq. Special Warfare Operator First Class Charles Keating IV laid down his life defending others, cut down in his youth by a band of barbarians loyal to a medieval death cult.
To think that a man such as Charlie—who epitomized the very essence of youthful optimism, confidence, and the joy of life—is gone is nothing short of staggering. Several hours after receiving the news of Charlie’s death, I sat in numb disbelief and grief as an election season that has descended into nothing more than tribalism and rage played out on the television. Unable to contain myself any longer, I turned off the news, sat down beside my wife, put my head in her lap, and sobbed. The agony and helpless rage of the loss flowed out of me in a way that hasn’t happened in many years.
I wept for all the lost chances. I wept for all the dreams that had once seemed within grasp and ours for the taking, only to see them slip away with the steady advance of the years. I wept for the loss of hope and integrity to fear and opportunism. I wept for a country that now seems so self-absorbed, many can only feign appreciation for those who make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.
I wept for a generation of Americans who are more concerned with imagined privilege, “safe spaces,” and self-validation than appreciation for the men and women thanklessly defending them in far-off lands. But most of all, I wept for the 14-year-old kid with laughing eyes and a smile on his lips whom I can still see in the hallways of our elementary and middle schools. I wept for the memories of when we would chide each other over who worked harder in sports (he was the champion runner and I was the champion swimmer).
For the time in eighth grade when I first awkwardly asked a girl out, and Charlie stood grinning over my shoulder saying, “What? I don’t want to miss anything!” For the pride and awe I felt when he first told me he’d earned his coveted Trident. For all those missed opportunities when I could have spent more time with him, told him what an inspiration he was to so many, and how he comprised the very best of what I strive to be. For his wife, family, and friends left behind, I wept.
The Day the Music Died
Charlie’s death brought the sense of an ending, an ending to a world I once knew that has changed in ways I still cannot truly describe or fathom. In a country that daily seems to grow more divided on every conceivable issue, the loss of a man so pure and brave indeed makes the world seem a much darker and lonelier place.
Climbing into bed that night, my wife took me into her arms once more and wiped the tears from my eyes. Kissing me softly she said, “It’s been a bad day. I’m so sorry.” As I drifted off to sleep that night, I remembered a refrain from Don McLean’s “American Pie”: “And in the streets the children screamed / the lovers cried and the poets dreamed / but not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken / and the three Men I admire most / the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost / they caught the last train for the coast/the day the music died.”
In the morning the sun rose to a different world where one of our heroes had been laid low, and those who remained were forced to carry on and find the proper way to pay tribute to a man larger than life. Charlie extolled the virtues that all men strive for; he was always comfortable in his own skin, never afraid to be who he was—a trait many of us struggle with all our lives. He knew what he wanted in life, and he lived his dreams to an extent most of us can only marvel and envy.
Above all, he was a patriot. He was a patriot in a way beyond merely love of country, but in that he treated all people with kindness, consideration, and respect. He truly encapsulated the type of man we all seek to become, and that makes his loss that much more painful.
A Man Who Will Not Be Defeated
Over the past week I have reminisced about Charlie’s life and the man I am so privileged to have known and called a friend. I have read old emails from him, recalling all the good times when we were young, and lamenting all that has been left unsaid.
During all of this reflection I came upon a Navy SEAL credo that captures how Charlie lived his life: “The man who will not be defeated, cannot be defeated.” Charlie was a champion in every sense of the word. Moreover, he sought victory with his ever-present grin. As our fallen champion is laid to rest, I know in my heart that he would encourage all of us to live by that creed as he did.
Charlie left footprints on the hearts of all who knew him, and though our tears lay us low today, in the days, months, and years to come, his spirit will live on in all of us as a beacon of strength. That is his legacy, and it is now our task to shoulder it in his stead no matter what obstacles lay beyond the horizon.
You were, and always will be an inspiration to me, Chuck, and the world is a far lesser place without you. But I will not be defeated. Farewell, dear friend. How I will miss you so.