When they came to tell Geri Stephenson that her marine was dead,
she didn't have to ask which one.
She knew. She had known ever since Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf got
on television that morning and said, "The marines lost two light
armored vehicles." One of the LAVs was blown up near Khafji,
Saudi Arabia, where Geri's first son, Dion, was stationed. The
news didn't give names, but it said the seven marines killed in
the explosion were the first U.S. casualties of Operation Desert
She knew. Typical Dion. Had to be first in everything.
Death had its choice of Stephensons that night. Dion's younger
brother Shaun had followed him to Desert Storm. Typical Shaun.
Anything Dion did, Shaun did right behind him. Anything Dion
did, Shaun wanted to do better. And the only thing Shaun wanted
more than to be better than Dion was to be exactly like Dion.
That's the funny thing. Shaun, who was 19, had wanted to be in
that LAV that night, wanted to fight the Iraqis alongside his
22-year-old brother, but the brass hadn't gone for it. Instead,
Shaun was on a tank landing ship 200 miles from Khafji.
Geri knew. Schwarzkopf hadn't mentioned tank ships.
All that longest day she had stared through the window,
expecting them, dreading them, hating them. She needed to be
alone with her terror that night, so she and her husband, Jim,
went to sleep in separate beds, she in their room, he in Dion's,
the one with the walls almost entirely covered by swimming
medals and soccer ribbons and prom king pictures.
When they finally came, at 2 a.m., she peeked through the
venetian blinds and saw an Army chaplain and two Marine corpsmen
waiting on the stoop. Two officers from the Bountiful, Utah,
police department waited in a black-and-white on the steep
street out front. Five people, as though the message they bore
was so heavy that it took that many to carry it.
"May we come in, Mrs. Stephenson?" the chaplain asked.
She was sheet-white, wide-eyed and numb.
"No," she said.
Dion was a marine right out of the birth canal, like the
leatherneck himself: his father. Jim Stephenson was the
gung-holiest marine ever to get inside a pair of camouflage
utilities. "I think of myself as a warrior," he says, and he
was. He went behind enemy lines in Vietnam. After his tour he
joined the Army reserves and became a Green Beret. You want a
hard-ass, squared-away bastard, get a marine-slash-Green Beret.
Whatever his boys turned out to be, Jim knew one thing: He would
have them ready to do their duty. "They don't have to be
marines," Jim would tell friends. "But they have to do their
duty." The only confusing part was whether that duty was to
their country or their father.
When the boys were three, for instance, Jim began giving them
"p.t.'s"--timed physical training tests. At six, the kids were
eating C rations. When they were eight, Jim hung a knotted rope
from the top branch of a 30-foot tree in their backyard in West
Covina, Calif., and timed the boys going from the bottom to the
top. By the time they were 10, Jim was bicycling alongside them,
hollering out encouragement, as they ran cross-country. By 16,
the boys had been to Devil Pups, a two-week marine-style camp
for kids, complete with all the discomforts of real boot camp:
no TV, no music and no visits from parents. "Tell you what,"
says the Warrior. "They come back from that, and they're
answering, 'Sir, yes, sir!'" It is never too soon to be a soldier.
Jim's adoptive father, Edward, was a decorated Navy gunner in
World War II whose fixed machine gun was set ablaze by Japanese
fire. Without calling for help, he single-handedly put out the
flames and resumed firing. Jim's adoptive mother, Alice, was a
Wave. When Jim was 14, his father, brother and sister died in an
airplane crash. Jim stood sentry beside the coffins for eight
And yet when Geri bore their first son, Jim could not get over
the fact that he finally had somebody connected to him by flesh,
and he wept like a schoolgirl. "This is me," he said. "My child.
This is my blood." After Shaun's arrival, Geri would gently
complain sometimes that she and Jim never had a night alone,
that maybe the boys didn't need to come with them to the movies
again, but Jim couldn't leave them. "See, I never had the kind
of guidance you need to really excel," Jim would explain. So he
would take the boys even to the weight room, where he often
lifted with an Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And at each task, each challenge, each morning, Jim told his
boys the same thing: "Let's go kick some butt!"
By high school these two boys were like a Doublemint gum ad come
to life. There was nothing they couldn't do, nobody's heart they
couldn't win, no honor they couldn't earn. One time Shaun
arrived at a date's house, and the girl's mother saw those An
Officer and a Gentleman looks that could stop a secretarial
pool--those chocolate eyes, that perfectly square chin, and that
letter jacket festooned with pins and medals--and asked him, "Are
you for real?"
In 1983 Jim got a job as a Delta Airlines mechanic, and the
family moved to Bountiful, where in high school Dion made the
state tournament in swimming three years. Shaun came along two
years later and made state in swimming three years, beating many
of Dion's records. Dion was a star left wing in soccer. Shaun
starred at wide receiver in football. Dion was voted Best Kisser
and captain of the drama club. Shaun was Wally Cleaver polite
and the starting shortstop besides.
"Shaun worshiped the ground Dion walked on," says their closest
friend, David Hearn. "Maybe that was why Shaun was always trying
to outdo him, just to make it even." The truth was, Shaun ached
to do something completely different. Dion was going to be a
marine, but Shaun wanted only to play football and to fly. His
jones for flying began when he was 12 and he saw the Blue Angels
perform. His addiction to football came the same year from
watching the game on Saturdays with the Warrior. Shaun's two
dreams fused magically the day he saw the Army-Navy game on
television. The United States Naval Academy: Here was the most
wonderful place in the world, a place where you could be a
soldier, play football and prepare to fly all at once. Making it
to the Naval Academy became Shaun's one true aim.
"Go after it," Dion would tell him. "You are capable of more
than me. You've got more upstairs." If Shaun made it, he would
be the first in the family to go to college.
"An officer in the family," the Warrior said. "Wouldn't that be
But Shaun failed. He turned down football scholarships from
Weber State and Southern Utah State, but he kept barely missing
the minimum test score to get into the Academy. He took the ACT
three times, the SAT four. By then Dion had graduated No. 1 in
his boot camp, graduated No. 1 from infantry school, jumped from
airplanes at 30,000 feet and scuba dived at 100 feet, and he had
made Force Reconnaissance, the marine equivalent of the Navy
Seals or the Army Special Forces: the marines who were trained
to go behind enemy lines, to gather information, to draw enemy
fire just to learn enemy positions. Basically, the
hell-raisingest marines there are.
"Dad, I want to do what D's doing," Shaun finally said, and it
did not take long for the Warrior to get over losing a Naval
officer and relish gaining another marine. "Well, bud," he said,
"let's go kick some butt."
So Shaun went charging after Dion, graduating No. 1 from the
same boot camp, No. 1 from the same infantry school, soaring
through the same jump school, earning his scuba bubble and
making Force Reconnaissance, only more quickly than Dion had.
Shaun even broke all the obstacle-course and physical-training
records Dion had set at Camp Pendleton. You grow up a
Stephenson, boot camp is basically Gymboree. And yet Shaun
wouldn't throw out that old dream. "I wanted to start right off
being Number 1 in everything," he says. "I had to be if I wanted
to get into the Naval Academy."
His hope was that he and his brother could fight side by side,
but Dion went off to the Persian Gulf in August 1990--raised his
hand to be on the first plane headed there. Before he left, he
and Shaun smoked a cigar behind the barracks at Camp Pendleton.
Six months later Shaun was right behind him.
What's stupid is that Dion didn't have to die. He was assigned
to security duty at a Saudi camp where soldiers rested up from
their long desert patrols. But the sonofabitch only wanted to be
on the front line. He kept insisting that he be sent back with
his guys, the seven others on the LAV, to fight "So-damn
Insane," as he referred to the Iraqi president in his letters
home. What are we waiting for? he would write. Let's go get him!
And so they let Dion go back. He spent uncountable hours with
his mates, patrolling the vast nothingness of the desert in the
LAV, which Dion had dubbed and painted The Blaze of Glory, after
a Bon Jovi song from the movie Young Guns. The guys would be out
there for mind-numbing weeks at a time, seeing nobody else,
showering once a week out of five-gallon water bottles and
staging dung-beetle races to battle the monotony.
Sometimes the sun and the sand and the isolation began to drive
them stark raving bonkers. At one point the vehicle commander
screamed, "What does it matter! We're all going to die out here
anyway!" It was at times like those that Dion would take over.
He would suddenly announce, "Time to scorch a binger!" Everybody
would sit in a circle in the sand in the middle of the night,
bite the filter off his cigarette and smoke it as fast as he
could. They would all get dizzy and then laugh and then fight
and cry and laugh some more. It was a trick Dion had learned
from his father. When Dion and Shaun were little, Jim would
resolve fights by making the boys put on boxing gloves and fight
until they were bloody and exhausted and sobbing, and then Jim
would make them hug and say they loved each other. Bonding, gung
ho-style. "Dion was the one who held that whole vehicle
together," says Ron Tull, the LAV's driver.
Maybe Dion felt something coming, because one night he wrote
each member of his family a letter. To his mother, he wrote, God
has to bring me home to you.... I love you so much. A few nights
later, on Jan. 29, the guys dug in the LAV at a barren outpost
known as Umm Juhal. While Dion slept, Tull got word that recon
had found a column of more than 100 Iraqi tanks heading their way.
"D! They're coming, man! We gotta get up! We gotta go!"
Dion awoke with a grin and said, "This is it, Tully. Time to
kick some butt!"
But the Nintendo war that is waged today does not care all that
much for soldiers and glory and kicking butt, not with
thermal-imaging ground missiles that can kill tanks at 4,500
meters. The Blaze of Glory never engaged in combat. The boys
never got closer to the Iraqis than 1,000 meters. They just sat
and watched as the pilots lit up the distant sky.
But then, suddenly, horribly, it was they who were lit up. A
U.S. A-10 Warthog dropped a phosphorus flare next to the LAV
that made it as visible in the night as a drive-in movie. "Those
freakin' A-10s skylined us!" somebody screamed. Two guys in a
missile carrier next to the LAV jumped out and tried to bury the
flare, but it was like trying to bury an airport searchlight. In
the LAV there was a sickening hush. Surely the Warthog pilot
knew he'd made a mistake. Surely the boys had not just been
marked as enemy by their own Air Force.
Seconds later another Warthog fired a U.S.-made Maverick
missile--the tank killer, the missile designed to break the skin
of a vehicle and then wreak hell inside, exploding like a
grenade and releasing a hurricane of shrapnel, a thousand knives
flung in all directions. Dion was sitting in the back of the LAV
when the Maverick came flying through the back hatch. It hit and
fragmented, churning, burning, severing limbs and heads and
releasing a force so powerful that it blew off the closed and
locked driver's hatch and sent Tull flying after it. Days later
a military spokesman would have an explanation: "Friendly fire."
When Tull awoke, the LAV's tires were still on fire, and what
was left of the 15-ton vehicle was still crackling and snapping.
Tully couldn't feel his broken back or the second- and
third-degree burns on his body or the sand under his hands. All
he wanted to do was crawl back to the LAV. But every time he'd
move, he'd pass out. Not that it mattered. The seven young guns
inside The Blaze of Glory were dead.
God didn't bring Dion home, but Shaun did. Shaun spent Feb. 4,
1991, the day before his 20th birthday, flying his brother's
remains home on the last leg of the trip from Saudi Arabia. He
boarded a Delta jet, one his father had often worked on, in
Dover, Del. Shaun's hands were still bruised from beating holy
hell out of the C.O.'s locker onboard the USS Frederick. That
was just after the C.O. had said, "Shaun, I've got some real bad
news for you. Your brother was killed tonight." Shaun just threw
tearless punches until his hands bled. This time, though, there
would be no hugs afterward.
They pulled into the very ramp their father worked on at Salt
Lake City International Airport. The Warrior did not come to
greet them. "I could've never worked on that ramp again," Jim
says. "Every time I stepped out there, I would've thought about
Shaun was driven up his own street, which was lined with scores
of people holding candles and singing God Bless America. He
walked up the stairs into his parents' room, where his mother
refused to hug him. If you do not let Army chaplains into your
house, they can't tell you your son is gone. And if you do not
hug your grief-stricken other son, the grief can't exist. Shaun
turned and bear-hugged the Warrior.
A week later the whole state threw Dion the biggest, slowest
parade Salt Lake City had ever seen. Folks say that back at the
Cathedral of the Madeleine, where the biggest bunch of flowers
was from Schwarzenegger, cars were still pulling out of the
parking lot and into the procession when the hearse arrived at
the Bountiful cemetery, 15 minutes up the freeway. The governor
cried that day, and flags across the state could only make it
halfway up their poles, and elementary school crossing guards
saluted as the funeral procession passed.
Even Gen. Alfred Gray, the commander of the U.S. Marine Corps,
was there. He had flown back from the Persian Gulf to see one of
his men buried. Afterward Shaun told him, "I want to go back. I
want to go back and avenge my brother's death."
Geri just lowered her head. Gray said, "I'll see what I can do."
But the military usually doesn't send a man to a theater of war
where a family member has been killed, so Shaun was assigned to
recruit marines out of the office in Salt Lake City. "Kind of
hard, you know?" Shaun says. "Trying to get a kid to sign up for
a war where your brother just got killed."
Looked like flying and football were also gone. If Shaun could
not go back and fight and make them notice him, how would he
ever play football for Navy? But then the phone rang.
President Bush was calling to say how sorry he was that Dion had
died in friendly fire, and how proud he was of Dion and what
he'd done for the country. "He was the best," Bush said in a
trembling voice. "A good marine."
The Warrior had one thing to say. There was already talk about
this friendly fire business. The parents of the victims were
beginning a lawsuit against the maker of the Maverick, and the
Warrior would have none of it. "Sir, you did the right thing by
getting into this," he told Bush.
Through that week the Warrior told the papers, "Friendly fire is
a part of combat," and, "If that pilot came to our door right
now, we'd invite him in.... My son's gone, but this pilot has
to get up every day and say, 'My missile killed these men.'
That's a heckuva thing to have to live with." And when the
minicams were gone and the lights were finally off and his
family asleep, the Warrior would bury his face in his pillow and
A few days later General Gray called and asked Shaun what his
plans were. Shaun gulped a little and said, "Well, I've always
wanted to attend the Naval Academy."
Gray said he would look into that, too.
Within two weeks there came a letter from the U.S. Naval Academy
announcing that Shaun Stephenson had won an appointment by order
of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), Rep. Jim Hansen (R., Utah) and
the President of the United States.
It's all you can do to keep from throwing a punch when you are a
22-year-old Force Recon marine with five citations for
meritorious service and one lost brother, and some 19-year-old
midshipman in a bad haircut screams at you about discipline.
It was all Shaun could do to keep from laughing when those
officious upper-class detailers came bursting in for that first
inspection, ready to start barking and pencil-ticking and
pulling down shirts that weren't hung right (top button
buttoned, facing the same direction, colors together), and they
found ... nothing. The room was flawless, every shoe was a
mirror, every corner perfect. You grow up a Stephenson, plebe
year is basically Moose Lodge initiation night.
Inspections weren't Shaun's problem at the Naval Academy. Grades
were the problem. He needed a year at the Naval Academy Prep
School just to make it to plebe year. Didn't matter if the
President or the Pope got you your appointment, if you didn't
have the grades, you were gone. "People think my road was all
laid down by the President," Shaun says. "If I get my
diploma--when I get it--I'll have had to work twice as hard as
He came close to flunking out that year. He had been King Jock
at Bountiful, and he had never had to worry about the books: A
lot of his high school teachers were his coaches. "I had never
taken calculus, chemistry, physics, computer science," Shaun
says of his year at the prep school. "I'd never even used a
computer before." Like his grandfather, like his father, he was
not good at asking for help. Hadn't had to.
And that's when he found someone who could get him through: an
old friend--Dion. "I started to think about how he would handle
things," Shaun remembers. "Dion could talk to anyone. And every
time I started feeling sorry for myself, I thought of what he
went through, and everything I was worried about just seemed so
petty." Besides, in a macabre way, it was Dion who had gotten
Shaun inside the Navy yard. "He paid the ultimate price," says
Shaun. "I wasn't going to let him down."
He let the air out of his pride. He got tutors. He would help
some 4.0 nerd with weapons class in exchange for help with trig.
The grades started rising. Unfortunately, it was the football
that went nowhere.
His plebe year Shaun walked on but never suited up. Every day he
would look at the depth chart for wide receivers, and every day
he would see no change. At the bottom, dead last, it read,
Stephenson. He would practice all week. He was no bigger than
your local grocery sacker, and in practice 230-pound linebackers
would turn him into a smudge mark. Then the game would come, and
Shaun would be sitting up in the stands with his friends, aching
on the inside. "He was a great guy," says George Chaump, then
the Navy coach. "But he hadn't played in a long time, and he was
small, and his feet weren't the quickest."
Shaun's sophomore year Chaump asked him to leave the program. "I
liked him," says Chaump, "but we only had 140 lockers. We had to
keep the size of the squad down." When you have a hard time
cracking that top 140, things do not look good.
And yet Shaun wouldn't let the dream shrivel and blow away. He
went out for lightweight football, a brand peculiar to the East
Coast, which is like varsity football in all ways except that no
player can exceed 159 pounds. "I think Shaun made that with room
to spare," says his lightweight coach, Bill Beckett.
At lightweight Shaun was a vision. Navy shared the league title
his sophomore year and finished second his junior year. Shaun
made all-league. His teammates learned his story. The one
everybody called Recon caught passes and returned punts and was
the inspiration of a team that drew 3,000 midshipmen to the Army
game. And still Chaump had no interest.
Friends would go up to him and say, "This kid can really play.
You ought a give him a chance." But the coach never did. Shaun
was Rudy in a different blue and gold. With only a year left, he
was two rungs below hopeless.
But then Chaump was fired after his third straight loss to Army.
Charlie Weatherbie, a former Air Force assistant, came in. And
then this hit Shaun's E-mail: Anybody who wanted to try out for
the football team during spring drills was welcome. Anybody.
What Shaun had before him was a heaven-sent, platinum-plated
break. He worked out madly with his friends on the varsity,
worked on his speed, worked on his jumping. Unfortunately, the
offense that Weatherbie planned to run was the spread, which
would reduce the number of wide receivers on the field from
three to two and have twice as many running plays as passing
plays. Still, Shaun swam on against the current.
On the first day of spring practice, he looked at the depth
chart and saw that his name was still right there near the
bottom. Then, just to take the odds clear off the tote board, he
broke his thumb. Fine. Put it in a cast. He was not missing this.
Then an odd thing happened. Every night Weatherbie and his staff
would sit down, exhausted, and look at film of 150 kids
practicing, and every night they would find themselves saying
the same thing: "Wait. Run that back. Who's the kid making the
great block?" And, "Was that 18 again?" And, "You know, this
kid, Stephenson? He's getting the job done."
In the spring game Shaun caught three passes for 54 yards--making
one reception as he dived into the end zone for a touchdown
(with a cast on the broken thumb, no less)--and madly blocked
anybody he could find, including the chain holders. Finally,
when Shaun was given the Vice Admiral William P. Mack award as
the most improved player in spring practice, there was nothing
Weatherbie could do. The new depth charts were posted the next
day. At the top of the list of receivers, above the recruited
players and the ones who stood a helmet taller than Shaun, above
the 4.5 sprinters, was the little walk-on from Bountiful who was
somehow missing the quit gene.
He called home and told his mother, "You're going to be going to
a lot of football games next year, Mom."
And still, the happy ending wouldn't come. At the last scrimmage
this fall, before Navy's opener at SMU on Sept. 9, when more
than 20 of Shaun's friends would fly to Dallas to be part of
this joy that grew from so much grief, Shaun tore a ligament in
his left knee. He might be out for three weeks, six weeks, the
year--nobody was sure. As he stood on crutches the night of the
scrimmage, he was completely out of stiff upper lips. All the
marine drained out of him. Player after player came up, all of
them towering over him, gently rubbing his head and leaning over
to whisper in his ear, and yet he could not be strong. He had
come so far.
"I'm sorry," he said through tears. "You just don't know how
much this team means to me."
The Warrior is even prouder of his son in death than in life.
"Because of what he stood for," Jim says. "Dion was willing to
stand up for people in a country he knew nothing about." But
honor and duty and glory are best left to marines and fathers
and warriors. For mothers, war is just another way to get your
son sent home under a colorful cloak. Jim wears his son's death
with pride, but Geri wears Dion's Mickey Mouse watch instead.
There are days she misses him so much that the hands seem to
Michael, the Stephensons' third son, is 14 and the triplicate.
He is handsome, a soccer star and unfailingly polite. He has
already signed up for Devil Pups. Pictures of Dion and Shaun in
their dress blues hang over his bed. The other day Michael said,
"Dad, I might want to do what Shaun's doing."
Geri tries not to hang her head. "I worry," she says. "But I'll
just let him do what he wants and say my prayers every night."
She may need to double them. Shaun spent last summer aboard an
aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, his first step toward
becoming a fighter pilot. The rule is that brothers cannot die
in the same theater of war, but Bosnia is a long way from
Khafji. Geri thinks about it. Shaun followed Dion everywhere
else; will he follow him someday in another long, slow parade?
That is a worry for some other day. Right now Geri has this
wonderfully happy middle to believe in. Turns out the doctors
had no idea how fiercely Shaun would rehab the knee. Instead of
six weeks, he should be back in four. He should start his first
college football game, against Duke, this Saturday, and Geri and
Jim will be there to witness it, just as they will be in
Philadelphia on Dec. 2, when Shaun will be part of that magical
Army-Navy game that started it all for him. And so, three exits
past the place where dreams usually give out, it will finally be
real. After 4 1/2 years of sorrow and disappointment and
setbacks, the fighter-pilot-to-be will be wearing Navy blue and
gold, ready to kick some serious butt. And that leaves only one
Hey, Recon, are you for real?
COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER [Shaun Stephenson]
COLOR PHOTO: INSET COURTESY OF THE STEPHENSON FAMILY [Dion Stephenson and Shaun Stephenson] COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE Eighteen months after his condolence call to Jim and Geri (opposite), Bush met Michael. [Jim Stephenson and Geri Stephenson]
COLOR PHOTO: THE WHITE HOUSE [see caption above--George Bush shaking hands with Michael Stephenson]
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE STEPHENSON FAMILY Dion (opposite, right, with Shaun) won trophies until they filled his room. [Dion Stephenson and Shaun Stephenson as boys holding trophies]
COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE [see caption above--Dion Stephenson's room]
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE STEPHENSON FAMILY The flag from Dion's casket bespoke Geri's worst fears. [Geri Stephenson holding folded flag and standing beside Jim Stephenson]
COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER Shaun kept charging until he passed all the other wideouts. [Shaun Stephenson doing football drill]
Whatever his boys turned out to be, Jim would have them ready to
do their duty.
"Shaun worshiped the ground Dion walked on," says a close
friend. "Maybe that's why Shaun always tried to outdo him."
The state threw Dion the biggest, slowest parade Salt Lake City
had ever seen.
At the top of the new list of receivers was the little walk-on
from Bountiful who was missing the quit gene.