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Remembering Johnny: A Memorial Day Tribute to A Fallen Hero

This is a special guest “open letter” by Brad Israel.    

It took me almost a year to write this tribute to my friend Johnny Craver after his death and there is not a more appropriate time to revisit this story than on our nation’s Memorial Day weekend. I originally sent a briefer version of this letter to his family while I was in Afghanistan fighting our global war on terrorism just as Johnny did. In my eyes, Johnny symbolizes what American values are (or should be): God, Family, and Country.

 Remembering Johnny.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 9.15.35 AMIt was not until our days at the Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC) that Johnny and I truly got to know one another. I first met Johnny in May of 2005 at Officer Candidate School (OCS) and spent almost every day of the next year with him. Like all three hundred of the other potential officer candidates, I had a deep respect for the man that would become one of our distinguished honor graduates.

Truth be told, Johnny was “the honor graduate” in all of his peers’ eyes; the only reason this award was not bestowed at our graduation ceremony was due to his rather terse words with the Battalion Sergeant Major about  the Sergeant Major’s poor physical fitness program which revealed mediocrity in the institution. Having the courage to speak your mind in the military, against the philosophies of your chain of command, is not usually beneficial; Johnny could not have cared less. He not only taught most of the classes, but trained the instructors on how to do their jobs that summer! Who was this thirty-seven year old honorable leader whose mere presence radiated a degree of confidence and ability that put us all in awe? And who was I, attending both a private high school and college, in addition to traveling the world out of the pocket of his hard-working father, searching for the next adventure. I was lucky to even know and learn from such a selfless patriot.

I remember the first few times I approached Johnny, I was somewhat nervous that this Airborne Ranger might rip my head off for asking some ignorant question that a typical college graduate with only basic training under his belt would ask, but this was not Johnny’s style. Johnny’s charismatic personality and candid nature towards his peers was truly inspiring. He gave an initial respect to each person he met and it would remain this way so long as you never betrayed him…I pity the miserable souls that did.

Due to Johnny’s attitude and experience, I immediately recognized him as a leader but did not know he would become a future mentor. He loved to teach and to help develop those who desired to become better. The time, energy, and effort he put into me seemed effortless, but will resonate with me for a lifetime.

I can recall a nightly ritual at the OCS “lights out procedure” where Johnny would tell us stories from the best Ranger competition, being stationed in Hawaii, Ft. Bragg, Panama, and being a Ranger instructor at the 4th Ranger Training Battalion (a place I would soon grow to know and hate!) A dozen or so of us would all gather around like little kids at story time when our fathers or grandfathers would tell tales of Flambeau or some fictional character that became our childhood hero.  Disregarding the rules during a lights out procedure, which consisted of standing at the position of attention outside of our rooms in absolute silence, waiting to recite the OCS Alma Mater, Army Song, or whatever other patriotic chant the night cadre wanted to hear, we would willingly get caught and “smoked” in the hallway into the early morning hours while our arms reached complete muscle failure time after time. Johnny taught us the zero count to all exercises and confidently yelled it as loud as he could after every repetition which further infuriated the cadre; “You can’t smoke a rock!” he would say. Those ten minutes of “story time” where we could escape and share a laugh or ask questions to someone who had experienced more than the school house of TRADOC was crucial to our sanity. More than just entertaining and informing us, it nourished our spirits allowing us to keep things in perspective and focus on our goals..

Where Johnny would take care of us during the week, his wife Natalie looked after us on Sundays. She was an angel to all of us starving, faith-seekers who attended church more or less for an escape from hell. For those that are not familiar with the life of an OCS candidate, we not only had lights out procedures, but also had to march everywhere to the beat of a drum, wear childish ascots, had time hacks for everything, extremely specific ways to address the cadre, abide by a very detailed list of rules, regulations, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for both garrison and the field, and had dining facility procedures (DFAC procedures). On a good day, a candidate had approximately three minutes to eat, which usually consisted of getting your food, eating it while walking to the tray rack, and then out the door not with a full stomach, but only indigestion and heart burn. However, on Sundays we were marched to the Airborne Chapel and had about two hours where not one cadre member would bother us. My weekly routine usually consisted of listening to the sermon, singing a hymn, saying a prayer, and then sneaking out the back to call home on the payphone. The married guys like Johnny would normally spend the entire two hours in the church parking lot with their families, much like prison visitation hours. I cannot think of one week that went by where Natalie, and their kids, Savannah, “Bubba,” and Emma were not standing by anxiously awaiting the arrival of their hero.

Natalie’s treats were delicious and incredibly high in sugar and fat…the two ingredients we craved the most! From the homemade brownies, cookies, and cakes to the pizza, chips, and soda, we cleaned out the back of the car every time. I imagine it was a sight to see, as all of us malnourished “prisoners” stuffed our faces often forgetting to take time to breathe. We were always so very grateful for Johnny’s family to consider the rest of us– that was the type of people they were.

At IOBC, Johnny and I were in the same company and platoon (3rd platoon, Delta Co.). For a prior service Sergeant First Class (E-7), IOBC was almost like a paid vacation minus the field problems for him. He knew the material for each week better than the E-7 instructors and again, usually taught the lessons. It was out on our field problems that Chip (my roommate, good friend, and the first individual I met when I joined the military), Joe (one of the best West-Pointer’s and friends I could have), Justin (the most laid back, good-hearted Infantryman in our class), and I all got to really know Johnny. Johnny had a gift for knowing when to take charge when to be a team player. He mentored us all in preparation for Ranger school. From his constant pestering to actually explaining priorities of work in a patrol base and how to set in the “text book” ambush, Johnny played the perfect role of a Ranger Instructor. He exhibited professionalism with a blend of passion and pride towards his work that motivated us all to become better officers.

On our recovery days after field problems, the cadre would demand weapons maintenance to perfection, which translated into twenty-four hour operation. There is only so much you can do to take an M-4 carbine assault rifle passed on from class to class and get it clean. They were cleaner than most M4’s one would find at an airborne line unit, but these rifles have been used and abused by hundreds of second lieutenants who have passed through the infantry course. So after about twelve hours of non-stop cleaning on my rifle that may have only fired a magazine or two, Johnny and I would go ride around Ft. Benning and look for deer or just talk about life, football, and the military. He would drive me out to Camp Rogers to antagonize me occasionally or show us the five mile Ranger run (which he made us run countless times in the darkness before first light). Johnny was a master at harassing me; he knew how to get under my skin and would do it intentionally because he knew how mad it was making me. There has only been one other friend who would did it as relentless as Johnny, but whom I could never get mad at because I admired so much (Lyon Newell).

After our 5 mile Ranger runs, we often ate breakfast at Camp Rogers (only being allowed into the dining facility because we were with Johnny) and would then head out to Camp Darby to do some terrain reconnaissance so we had a better understanding for the objectives, vegetation, river crossings, hills, and linear danger areas that would all come into play when we were on patrol. I even ran into a Ranger student, Apache pilot, who was a good friend of mine from home, Jensen.  Johnny was able to keep tabs on him so I could track his progress and send it home to his family.

Our introduction to the Four Winds restaurant was one of my best days at Ft. Benning. Johnny took Chip, Joe, Andy Smith, and I out to this quaint, hidden treasure, which was tucked away on a county highway out near Camp Darby. It always had a decent crowd inside, either senior citizens (most likely retired military) or Ranger instructors and their families which surprised the hell out of me because it was in the middle of nowhere! The walls were decorated with two things: pictures of famous Airborne Rangers from the past and big buck heads that were all killed in the area. The old ladies that served our burgers and sweet tea in mason jars all knew and loved Johnny; he had been a loyal customer for years and made numerous unsuccessful attempts in coercing them to let him hunt on their property. Johnny would tell tales of the Rangers on the wall and knew where all the big deer had been bagged. To this day, Four Winds still remains the best burger I have ever had. The Ranger burger was your traditional choice, which consisted of about three pounds of heavy beef and had been “walked through the garden.” Four winds was not just an eatery, it was an experience.

It was in the late fall of 2005, Chip and I had about enough of Johnny’s relentless taunting on Alabama football and decided to enlighten him on what a “real” college football atmosphere was like: the Iron Bowl. The day started with an early wakeup and linkup along highway 280 just west of Phenix City. Johnny and Andy were standing by in Johnny’s navy blue pickup with strict orders from their wives to behave and make it home as soon as the game was over…time would reveal that neither of these rules were obeyed. I had my brother, Sam Winter, and Wells Griffith with me; all who decided it would be a good idea to stay up late that Friday night drinking after we cooked some steaks. We began drinking upon arrival into Auburn, somewhere around 9:00 am and continued even harder switching from beer to whiskey before noon. Johnny did not realize the “A” team I had brought along from my hometown which would eventually get the best of him! Chip’s family friend’s secured a nice piece of real estate near the stadium and hosted an incredible tailgate with kegs, ribs, chicken, sandwiches, and finger foods. The atmosphere for the Iron Bowl was electric and the day was only getting better, despite the ugly Orange that surrounded us. Alabama fans were hopeful, the Crimson Tide was 9-1 and this looked like the year to beat Auburn. Our beloved friend Tim (a crazy Bostonian Irishman who was an All-American defensive lineman, heavy drinker, and friend of ours since OCS) appeared right before kickoff after his infamous disappearing act in Columbus the night prior. This was when I left the group to go into the stadium with my brother and friends because our tickets were not together. I still regret it to this day because once Johnny and the crew got into the stadium, he was so excited to see the field that he plowed over a trash can and did a few combat rolls before getting back on his feet and proceeding to their gate. The guys said it was priceless and I think they laughed about it for the rest of the night.

After an incredibly disappointing game (Auburn stomped us), Johnny and Andy went back to the tailgate for a rollup on the number of times Brodie Croyle was sacked. Johnny had been going strong all day and decided it was time for a “power” nap if they were going to stick around. I do not believe Johnny got up again until Andy received the final call of the night with the threat from both wives that the boys would be sleeping outside if they did not get home immediately. I estimate near 1:00am, the two partners in crime made it back to their families and both most likely slept on the sofas until they could successfully maneuver themselves out of the “dog house.” It was one of the best days I had outside of work with Johnny. Chip and I estimated that it took Johnny about two weeks to finally admit he had been under Natalie’s restrictions ever since the game; all he would ever claim was, “Natalie does not run anything in my house, but my bath water!” We all knew that was a lie.

The next time we all got together for drinks was following our “Blue Cord” ceremony the night before graduation from IOBC. This time the wives were wise enough to supervise our activities at the Cannon Brew Pub. It was a night full of reflections and highlights on the last five months. There were so many stories to be told where did we begin from Johnny ripping into our Lebanese exchange officer on a road march because he was such a pathetic excuse for a military leader, me throwing Fagan out of the car at 25 mph, all the Big Tim Cullen downtown Columbus adventures, deer hunting, being lost in the woods because some moron in the platoon could not land nav, the night patrol he, Eddie Flores, and I conducted when we wiped out an entire platoon, to the early morning runs, and taking over McKenna urban village for two weeks in the winter. We had grown close that fall, and I swelled with pride knowing this fine group had become my good friends.

My parents arrived late that evening and hosted a reception for us after the IOBC graduation ceremony the following day. I am so thankful they got to meet Johnny, as well as the rest of the guys I spent almost every waking hour with that fall. We all got a kick out of Johnny’s Harley which he proudly sported to the reception and ensured all of downtown Columbus heard as he revved the engine to let us know of his arrival. Johnny spent well over an hour that afternoon helping my Mother find her lost puppy that took off into some shady areas of downtown Columbus; needless to say, he came back with the dog. It was a bittersweet afternoon. We were one step closer to actually “becoming” infantry officers, responsible for much more than ourselves, and inches closer to Ranger school and an inevitable deployment. It was scary knowing that we were all headed in different directions spread across the globe to start all over with a new group of friends and head into combat.

The last dinner I had with Johnny and the boys was two days before we would head off to Pre-Ranger. He gave us some final words of encouragement, and passed off one of his ranger tabs to each of us. A well-honored tradition current Rangers do with guys they want to succeed and join their ranks; the tradition says it is the “drive-on” tab, which you sew on the inside of your patrol cap the night before you report to Camp Rogers. Some say it is for luck, others say you look at it during the intense moments of the “suckfest” and it reminds you to never quit. I think it is both, but more importantly it was a symbol of friendship stating, “Don’t let me down, I believe in you.”

We all made it through Pre-Ranger successfully except for Tim who got pulled out because he had some issues to clear up with the city of Columbus (he would start with Chip and Joe and breeze right through in one shot). We all passed the physical fitness test the first morning of Ranger school, the single largest event that denies potential Ranger students from getting into a class. The rest of the week would be easy…or so I thought.

On the land navigation course midway through RAP week, I was SOR’d (serious observation report) for using my red lens flashlight in the swamp. There were probably dozens of other ranger students doing the same thing, but I was the only one dumb enough to get caught. I was sent to the “gulag” at the end of the day and told I would be a day one recycle and have the chance to start again with the next class…my morale could not have been any lower. This was on the 5th of March and near the end of the month, I had convinced myself that I had endured the “BS” of being a slave for every work detail on Ft. Benning long enough. The next class was not going to start until the 1st of May and the details would only get more ridiculous since the Best Ranger competition was only weeks away, by that time, the class I started with would be graduating. It was terribly embarrassing and I was so ashamed that I didn’t want to stick around to see that day. I had talked myself out of wanting to become a Ranger and was under the impression that I would be okay with that. I had been so convincing that I even talked my Dad into supporting me, despite his philosophy of never quitting anything you have already started. I woke up on April 1st with plans to go to the Colonel’s office and tell him to take his Ranger tab and shove it. Johnny showed up around mid-morning out of sheer fate.

He brought some books, magazines, and Bubba to come cheer me up. I told him I was turning it in and there was nothing he could do to stop me. I knew he would be disgusted with my decision, but I did not care. I was absolutely miserable, and I was going to miss one of my best friend’s weddings in Key West if I continued to rot in the gulag. Johnny looked at me for a minute and said something we had all heard come out of his mouth so many times at IOBC while he was preparing us for Ranger school, “There are guys with tabs and guys with stories, do not be one of those guys with just a story. You will regret it for the rest of your life.” That was all he said to me and then we just talked about when he was moving to Ft. Hood and meeting his unit in Iraq for the rest of the visit. When Johnny left, I thought long and hard about my decision and what he had said to me. I knew deep down he was right, but I wanted immediate comfort to relieve me of this suffering. I decided to stick it out and ended up making it straight through when I picked up with the May class. I know if Johnny had not shown up that day, I would be “tabless” in Korea bad mouthing Ranger school because I did not make it.

Every time I think about making a decision based off emotions, I thank God for bringing Johnny into my life and sending him to save me that morning. The day that Johnny would change my life and the course of my military experience would also be the last day I would ever see him. By the time I graduated, the Craver’s were starting their new life in Texas and Johnny was a week away from linking up with the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad. We spoke a few times on the phone before he left which was always hard for me since we were not all deploying together with Johnny there to guide us. We emailed as often as possible, usually taking a week or so to hear back from him. The last email I received from him was very brief, but powerful. At the end of his email, he said my father had been emailing him regularly and that my family was some of the finest people he had ever met. I wish I could have told him how much that meant to me.

I will never forget the early morning on the 13th of October 2006, I was a brand new Rifle Platoon Leader, only being in the unit (173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Vicenza, Italy) for roughly 3 weeks. I knew absolutely no one upon arrival, and my Company Commander, now a Commander in the most elite unit in the world, known as DELTA to the public, had taken me under his wing as a younger brother. He assigned me to take over 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry; the worst platoon in the company, in dire need of strong leadership and an aggressive approach to training for combat. We were loading up our gear in the buses at 0400 hours to begin our long trek to Grafenwoehr, Germany for a 5-week training exercise where we would cover over 200 miles on foot from range to range, training mission to training mission. My Commander approached me and said to call my father before we left as he had reached the CQ desk at Battalion stating an emergency need for me to reach back. I ignorantly decided to call him from the bus as I sat next to my Platoon Sergeant and new platoon. Dad had a crack in his voice, but remained strong as he delivered the gut wrenching news of Johnny being killed in action by a 200lb roadside bomb while he was on foot maneuvering his convoy through a heavily trafficked area near Baghdad. The blast threw Johnny over 50 feet covering him in shrapnel and severing a limb so severely that there was no ability to apply a tourniquet. Johnny lived long enough to be airlifted off the battlefield and found peace in knowing he was safely in the arms of his brothers when he passed away. After hearing this, I could not speak, tears ran down my cheeks, and the knot in my throat felt as if someone were strangling me. I could not breathe, but tried to remain as calm as I could so my guys would not see me this way. I could hear Johnny’s voice in my head telling me to keep it together and be the leader these men needed and to reserve your emotions you have the proper time to grieve.

Words will never describe how devastated I was when I received the news of Johnny’s death. I did not think someone like Johnny could be killed in war; he was just too damn good at what he did. There are still more tears to shed and things to say about how much he meant to me. Natalie asked me to be a pallbearer at her and Johnny’s request; it tore me up that I could not make it home from overseas to be there for her, his family, and see my brothers. Johnny would have told me my place of duty was right where I was to train my men and prepare them for our upcoming deployment, it still did not make it any easier for me to digest. My father went to the funeral in my absence and even helped fly some of the soldiers that could not afford to travel so they could pay their respects; he told me it was the most moving funeral he ever attended. Hundreds of appreciative patriots lined miles of the road from the church to the cemetery holding American flags proudly overhead as Johnny’s family and loved ones rode by. These Americans did not know Johnny, they were children, fathers, mothers, veterans, and citizens from all walks of life stopping to honor this noble soldier. When my Dad shared this news with me, I ensured I was alone this time, off on a foreign dirt road, on a U.S. Army base in Germany, where I wept for hours as I honored my friend. I swelled with pride envisioning the scene back in Texas, where the little town of Leonard will forever keep one of our finest soldiers. I do seek comfort in knowing that Johnny, like the rest of us, voted with his own two feet to serve our country because he believed in God, Family, and service to Country. He accomplished more at age thirty-seven than most will achieve in a lifetime. Johnny lived a fulfilling life; a life of purpose, direction, and values. That will always keep him in the ranks of our Nation’s finest.

This Memorial Weekend, while we all get caught up in the excitement of the summer, spending time with family and friends, attending parties, fishing, swimming, cooking, and relaxing, I challenge you to take a minute to stop and honor the families of our fallen Soldiers as well as the Heroes themselves. The sad reality is there are thousands of stories like this that have forever changed the life of a spouse, child, parent, relative, or loved one.  Every day is a struggle for them and it will never be the same because they were robbed of their most precious thing in this world. I pray that the loved and lost are looking down on us, smiling and happy, knowing we appreciate their sacrifice and love them for what they stand for.

May God be with them and may God Bless America.

Brad Israel

CPT, SF

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