Yesterday I had the tremendous honor of speaking with the Men of Eye Street at the 65th Gonzaga Father-Son Communion Breakfast. Father Steve Planning S.J. gave me the opportunity (and challenge) of relating my friendship with Erik Kristensen and what it means to be a Man For Others to students born after I graduated from Gonzaga.
This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I was able to keep it together only through the support of my girlfriend, my family, Ed & Sam Kristensen, and the Gonzaga community.
I’ve been asked by a few people for copies of my remarks, so I’m posting them below for anyone who wants to read it. The video above is courtesy of my brother Dave — who flew down from Boston for the event, and to whom I owe so much.
Thank you for your kind words, Al.
And good morning to you all, Men of Eye Street.
I wanted to start off by telling you that I just turned in my master’s thesis for grad school, and as much time as I spent on it, I think I spent more time writing these words here.
Because Gonzaga gave me the great honor of asking me to talk with you about friends I made here, and about what being a Man For Others means in my life.
This came as a surprise to me.
I don’t think I’ve done anything remarkable in my life, or anything that friends of mine haven’t done better.
I wasn’t the best scholar or the best athlete here. Far from it, truth be told.
A few months ago, when a friend of mine on the faculty wrote me a note and told me Father Planning wanted to call me with some good news, I’m embarrassed to say my reaction was:
“Who’s Father Planning?”
I didn’t realize I’d been so far removed from Eye Street that I didn’t know the name of our new President. (my apologies, Father.)
Preparing for today, I’ve been reflecting on the time I had here, and what it did for me. While I hadn’t kept up with the changes in faculty, and hadn’t even really seen all the renovations to the school, I knew one thing:
I’d always had Gonzaga. The part that mattered.
The part that informed who I am as a person.
The part that made me proud to say: “I was educated by the Jesuits.”
When I think about the brotherhood of Gonzaga, I have to start more than 20 years ago when I followed my big brother Dave here. He graduated in the class of ‘89, and I’m grateful to have him here today.
I had lots of the same teachers he did. Sometimes it was a plus, but mostly it just meant they expected more out of me. Such as when I showed up to my European History class on the first day of my sophomore year. My teacher, Mike Carolan, was taking roll and checking off students one by one.
When he got through all the names A though H, this man I’d never even seen on campus turned straight to me and said “ah, John Ismay. Obviously the smaller, weaker, dumber brother of David.”
We all laughed — and I’m pretty sure that’s something he couldn’t get away with at a public school.
What it told me is that having an older brother here who succeeded so incredibly well had marked me. Gonzaga expected me to do more, to do better.
It wasn’t always the easiest thing to follow a guy who graduates second in his class at Gonzaga, and then graduates first in his class at the Naval Academy and receives a Rhodes Scholarship.
It certainly meant that I did lots of extra push-ups at the Academy when upperclassmen noticed my nametag.
But for everyone who said “wow, that must be a tough act to follow,” I’d say “no, it’s not. I’m proud of my brother. He’s the best.”
When you set your sights on things that are really hard to accomplish, it helps to have someone in your corner who can help you along the way, and show you it can be done.
So, Dave: thank you. For everything.
It helps when you have brothers to look up to. Who set the example.
I imagine that many of you students have older and younger brothers here too. These are your blood brothers, but know that your classmates are no less a part of your life. Gonzaga is, at its core, a brotherhood
And it’s a bond that will last your whole life.
It’s the same bond you see in the Class of 1944 here. Many of these men volunteered to accelerate their studies so that they could graduate early and enlist to fight for our country at one of its darkest hours.
If that surprises you, it shouldn’t.
These are Men For Others. Some of the best Eye Street has ever produced.
For you students, you should know that you’re no different than these men. They were just presented with a different set of challenges.
If this was 1944 and not 2014, I am confident many of you would make the same decision.
And why is that?
Because Gonzaga builds men who think of others before themselves.
Plain and simple.
I’ve been asked to come speak with you today largely because of my friendship with someone who represents the very best of the ideal we strive for here at Gonzaga.
His name is Erik Kristensen.
He was my friend, and I loved him like a brother.
I first met Erik on Buchanan Field when I was around 11 or 12 years old. My brother Dave and he played football together.
Erik came to Eye Street as a junior, because his father Ed – a Navy Captain – had been stationed in Japan, and Erik started high school there. Even though he joined the Class of 1990 here halfway through, he quickly made friends and excelled at lacrosse, football, and band too.
Erik’s father Ed, and mother Sam, who we’re honored to have here today, moved from Japan when they received orders to the Naval Academy And Erik made the 60-mile trek from Annapolis to Eye Street every day.
When Erik graduated from Gonzaga, he too applied to the Academy, but was asked to spend a prep year at Philips Andover in Massachusetts before he could begin. Erik was disappointed, but didn’t let that setback keep him down.
So while all of his buddies were going off to college, he quickly found a home at Andover and excelled there too.
At that time, the Navy called his parents away again – this time to San Diego. But that didn’t stop the Kristensens from doing everything they could to make sure Erik had the best education possible.
What an incredible sacrifice.
What a selfless thing.
It’s no wonder that their son Erik was a selfless man. A Man For Others.
Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen was a Navy Special Warfare officer. Naval Special Warfare being the official term for what is better known as the Navy SEALs.
Erik was killed in action in Afghanistan on June 28th 2005. He was leading a rescue mission when the helicopter he was in was shot down by Taliban fighters.
As a SEAL officer, Erik was in command of a Task Unit working to find insurgents determined to kill Americans and destabilize the Afghan government.
You may have read about that mission in the bestselling book “Lone Survivor,” or seen the mission depicted in the recent movie of the same name.
I’m here to tell you today that that story isn’t something abstract. It’s not something that belongs just to the history books. This is a story about men who lived and breathed.
One of whom walked the same hallways you do now.
So, many of you have probably heard about Erik, and seen the memorials to him on campus.
But I’m here to tell you the part of the story you may not know: some of who he was as a person. The friend I knew.
The path he chose was hard.
When Erik was at the Naval Academy, he tried out for the SEAL Teams but wasn’t selected.
So, he went to the Fleet. And it was the summer of 1997 that I first really got to know him. I was sent to San Diego for summer training as a midshipman. I stayed with my brother Dave and was introduced to his circle of friends.
Again, there was Erik.
But here is the kicker: Erik was the first of my brother’s friends to treat me as an equal. Not just a novelty as someone’s little brother, but as a peer.
That meant a lot to me.
Erik had that compassion.
Our paths crossed again and again, and then in 2001, we became roommates.
Erik, who’d been teaching at the Naval Academy, and was nearing the maximum age for consideration, felt the call to try again for a SEAL billet.
This time, he was selected. And he moved from the East Coast back into our old house in San Diego to begin training.
We were all so proud of him.
Lots of people will tell you that Erik wasn’t what some people would call the “typical SEAL.” There’s lots of reasons why, but here’s one that I think come as close to encompassing most of them.
I think back to when I was at the Academy, and those of us who were interested in SEALs and EOD were in competition with each other. We all wanted to be the best operators, the best warriors we could be. Go through the toughest selections, the toughest schools, join the most elite units.
But that doesn’t make you invincible.
That’s something I didn’t know when I was your age.
Back then, I thought wearing a certain badge made you cool — and being cool was everything. It meant you were ‘better’ than someone else.
I know now that’s stupid and wrong.
A Man For Others doesn’t look at things that way. He is inclusive, not exclusive.
The Man For Others looks for where he can serve, and then he does his best.
That was Erik.
Erik was always there for his friends, no matter what.
When we lived together in San Diego, our third roommate was another naval officer named Bjorn who served at a SEAL support command.
On a nighttime training exercise, Bjorn shattered his ankle and could only move around on crutches with great difficulty.
Erik and I were getting ready to go out on a Friday night soon after Bjorn was injured, and Erik asked our roommate why he wasn’t getting ready too. Bjorn pointed to his cast and said he was staying home.
Erik said ‘nope, you’re coming with us’ and then half-carried, half-wrestled Bjorn into his car.
The bar we went to was packed shoulder to shoulder, and that night, when Bjorn needed to cross the bar when nature called, he didn’t see a way to get through the crowd on his crutches.
Erik just said “I got it,” and pointed over his shoulder, signaling Bjorn to follow.
At 6 foot 4 and 230 pounds, he definitely got people’s attention.
The sight of Erik looming across the floor, caused a significant and instant path to appear, allowing the much smaller Bjorn to crutch quickly behind him.
Erik waited outside until Bjorn was done, and then cleared a path back to our table.
None of us asked Erik to do that. It’s just how he was built.
You know, I’ve been asked by lots of people if I can find meaning in the loss of someone like Erik, and I honestly don’t know how to answer that question.
But I can find some measure of solace in keeping his memory alive.
One of the ways to do that is to write about him.
For me writing eventually became something that I didn’t just do for a grade in Cantwell Hall.
I started writing because I found stories, like Erik’s, that needed to be told.
Part of the reason for writing is to try to find meaning in a time of incredible loss and sadness. The wars of the past 13 years have killed and maimed more of my friends than I care to count right now.
The realization that there is no rhyme or reason for the deaths of my friends is difficult for me. But I’ve come to accept it.
At Erik’s funeral I heard more than one person say “What a waste!”
But it wasn’t a waste. It was combat. And in war, the enemy gets a vote in the outcome too.
When four of his SEALs found themselves in a bad way on a mountaintop, they called Erik for help.
Of course he went.
Of course he did.
It couldn’t be any other way.
Not for Erik.
He was a Man For Others.
When you’re a Man For Others, you answer that call.
When you’re a Man For Others, you get on that helicopter.
When you’re a Man For Others, you fight for your friends.
And when you’re a Man For Others, sometimes that means you pay for that with your life.
In the Book of Isaiah, there’s one passage that always resonated with me. I think it resonates for many people in this room.
It’s Isaiah chapter 6 verse 8. It reads:
“And the voice of the Lord said: ‘who will go for me? Who will I send?
“and I said, here I am Lord. SEND ME.”
Years ago, back at our house in San Diego, Erik and I talked about Kairos. For us, it was a formative experience in our lives. Maybe THE formative experience of our lives. More important than the Academy. More important than Dive School or SEAL training.
I won’t speak about what happens in the three days of Kairos, but I can say that it meant so much to me that when I deployed to Iraq, I asked my mom to get me a replacement Kairos cross before I left.
I wore it on my dog tags.
When I was in the alleyways of Mosul looking for IEDs, I carried a machine gun, but I also carried Kairos with me.
I had Gonzaga with me.
So Kairos only lasts three days, but it can stay with you forever. All I’ll say about the experience is that at the end of it you are left with a profound challenge:
What will you do on the Fourth Day?
What do you do when you have to leave Kairos behind, and re-enter the real world?
For me and Erik, it wasn’t something we took lightly.
For guys in our lines of work, training and deployments meant frequent and lengthy separations from our friends. So maybe it was that goodbyes became more meaningful – even if they were routine.
So whenever Erik and I said goodbye, we said: “Live the Fourth, brother.”
It was the last thing I ever said to him.
I’m not here recruiting you for the military. It’s not for everyone. But at its best, it’s an honorable thing to serve. While this may sound trite, it’s true: you can be anything.
You are quickly entering a time in your lives where everything you’ve dreamed of doing will become possible. You’ll leave your parents’ home. Many of you will go on to colleges and universities. And some of you will seek other paths.
You could get drafted out of school and pro ball.
Run for Congress? You only have to be 25.
And NASA has taken astronauts as young as 26.
So what will you do with these opportunities?
Know now that you may not succeed at first. Just as Erik had to try out twice before being accepted for the SEAL Teams.
Know that the thing you’re dreaming of now may change, or you may decide to change course along the way.
Give yourself the permission to do that.
But if you have your heart set on something, don’t let anything or anyone stop you.
Never doubt that you have the ability to achieve the thing you want most.
I graduated from this school before most of you were born. So hopefully this translates.
Seniors, in just a month or so, you will take Gonzaga with you.
To the juniors, sophomores, and freshmen: take this opportunity, and get everything from it you can.
Incoming freshman, you are about to embark on one of the most important experiences of your life. Live it.
I’ve talked about choices you have. Decisions you’ll soon make.
The opportunity you have to make yourself into exactly who you want to be.
You have to decide if you’re up to the challenge has Gonzaga given you. And, if you should ever fail, will you pick yourself up and drive on? Will you accept the help and support of your friends and family?
Know that being a Man For Others isn’t something that’s tied to your job description, or your career.
Being a Man For Others is tattooed on your soul.
So love each other. And help each other. Spend your time here at Gonzaga making the most of it. Live as a Brotherhood.
May God bless all of you.
And remember to always, always Live the Fourth.