We spent four industrious, busy, soul-teaching years in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was there that my teaching ability became more refined and enhanced and I learned how to teach--as C.S. Lewis put it--in the hallway of Christian consensus rather than a room of a particular view. My wife Christy displayed incredible diligence in caring for our son Joshua's pronounced medical needs, and we got to know University of Virginia Medical Center very well as a result. Our daughter Lindsay was born there, sharing a birthday with the revered Thomas Jefferson (April 13th) and managing to enter the world on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the hospital (and we didn't get a discount!).
Overall, I got to know many wonderful young men and women there when I taught at the Covenant School. I can honestly say that--as a group--no cluster of students I've ever encountered worked as hard academically as they did. I had great relationships with a number of them through class, through coaching soccer and baseball, through sponsoring the Rock-Paper-Scissors Society which I created (don't ask). Some, though, rose above the rest as individuals of excellence, honor, trust, and faith.
Bradley Thomas Arms was one such student.
Brad was in my eleventh grade Bible class my first year at Covenant, and we saw a lot of each other each day, given that he was a solid player on our varsity soccer team. He wasn't a loud talker, but he led by example, and you knew that if he was in the defensive zone, a goal for the opponent would be hard to come by. In excellent physical condition, he kept going full speed toward the end of the game when others wilted. In class, he never quit even when his academic schedule was especially daunting. On one quiz, he had a rare bad grade. I asked him if he had had a few rough nights in a row and he said yes. In fact, that quiz had been the third that day in addition to three tests. I said, "Brad, why didn't you tell me? I'd have given you a one-day extension." Brad looked me in the eye, shook his head, and said, "It's my responsibility. No excuses, sir."
Good heavens, I wish students today had a tenth of Brad Arms in them. The educational landscape would be transformed overnight.
The twin pillars of responsibility and honor were front and center for Brad. The 9/11 attacks only steeled that resolve. He attended the University of Georgia (who could blame him for such a fine choice?) but went into the Marines, choosing to serve his country with an unshakeable belief in freedom and duty. Every once in awhile, he was back in Charlottesville, and each time he stopped by my room to check in on me. The last time I saw him was in April 2004, after I had announced I was leaving to take a ministry position in North Carolina. He came in to say hello, and we shook hands, parting for what would be the last time, though neither of us realized it. Looking back, I wondered if he liked returning to his roots in case there wasn't a next time.
In November of that year, I received an email in the midst of a busy Saturday, replete with sermon preparation and fine-tuning the liturgy for Sunday worship. It was a sad announcement that two days before, Brad and his team came under fire in Fallujah, Iraq. A sniper's bullet caught him, and despite the best efforts of his fellow soldiers, he died. I screamed in sadness and anger, then composed myself and staggered into the kitchen, tearfully giving the tragic news to my wife.
Many deaths have affected me greatly. Our dear, sweet son Jordan was the most devastating, of course. All my grandparents have passed on. My friend John Graham at the end of my sophomore year of high school...that hit me between the eyes. But as this Memorial Day approached, my thoughts return time and again to Brad, to the man that he was, the example that shone forth from within him. Taken too soon, yet he died in honorable fashion. He believed in an ideal greater than himself. As the video shown above tells us, he was resolute in the belief that God had a plan for him, no matter what that looked like from the perspective of others. And in truth, the lives and well-being of people around him he raised higher than his own. It was a sacrifice he firmly believed was worth making.
One sacrifice among many, but it's one that I remember well and I'm profoundly grateful for having known Brad and intersected with his journey. Today is a day for thanksgiving and tears. Both are appropriate in equal measure this day, which should not be limited to mere barbecue, burgers, and beer.
Thank you, Brad, and to every soldier who gave all so that we might continue to walk in liberty's light.