For many, it was Pat Tillman, the 26 year old man who passed on a chance to play in the NFL and instead became an Army Ranger.
He enlisted in the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks because, as he put it: "At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed... A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven't done a damn thing."
When he was killed April 22 of this year on the battlefields of Afghanistan, this story of a young man who had the whole world in front of him, and then had it tragically taken away from him so quickly, brought the reality of the war— and the sacrifice that over a thousand young soldiers like him have made—close to home.
On the day Tillman's death was reported, it wasn't a story that "three marines were killed today in Baghdad" or "terrorists striking in Fallujah killed three soldiers and wounded dozens more"— news stories that make you feel bad for a moment while you wait to hear the traffic and weather on your local news. Many people felt like they knew Tillman, and that made all the difference in their thoughts on the war and what our brave soldiers are facing each and every day.
While that was true for me as well, there is someone else who brought the reality of the war home to me in an even more dramatic way. His name was U.S. Army Pfc. Stephen Benish, and he was killed in Iraq on Sunday, Nov. 28. I did not know this 20-year-old man, but he has been on my mind since I first heard news of his death.
You see, Private Benish and I graduated from the same high school, Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School, in Clark, N.J. We belonged to the same parish church, St. Agnes. Being 11 years older than him, I cannot say that I remember him, yet he has been in my thoughts constantly.
I often have occasion to drive past the football and soccer fields of my old high school. Now, when I pass the Johnson Crusader fields, I see Private Benish's name memorialized in a sign of "loving tribute" across the street from the fields. I can't help but wonder how many times he might have walked the same sidewalks I have, sat in the same classrooms I had, studied under the same teachers (suffering under some, being forever changed by others) that I had.
Why this over-personalization of someone I didn't really know? I've questioned myself about this as well.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, I found myself filled with a deep sadness (as many of us were in those days), but particularly so when I attended the funerals for two men I scarcely knew. One was 31 years old, the other 28; one was married, the other engaged. They both worked at the World Trade Center, and in a flash, their young lives were lost, their families devastated. Those men, Robert Coll and Brett Bailey, have never left my thoughts and prayers since that day.
Their loss brought the horrors of terrorism to my consciousness, to my heart and soul. As I left their funerals, I questioned myself about my life. What have I accomplished? As a priest, I know I help people, but could I be helping people more? Is there something more that would make me feel I have accomplished something more significant in this world? And, more importantly, what could I do, at that moment, in the face of such horror, such terror, such evil?
Which brings me back to Stephen, and why I feel this connection with someone, who, were he alive, would probably have remained unknown to me.
It has occurred to me that Stephen Benish asked himself many of the same questions I asked myself in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks. He volunteered to help defend this country against those insidious monsters who had come here to do such evil. He enlisted in the Army, and asked to be among those who would go to Iraq. In that, I know he's a much braver man than I am.
Which brings me to my conclusion: why do I mourn Stephen Benish?
Because he is my unknown hero.
Father Jim Chern is a Roman Catholic priest, ordained in May, 1999 with the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. He is a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Orange, N.J. He is a 1995 graduate of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and graduated from Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School in Clark, N.J. in 1991.