Reprinted by permission
of
The Hartford Courant
April 23, 2003

Shane Comes Home

Most Americans know him as the first Marine killed in Iraq. But his final journey
reveals a most remarkable life of madcap energy, intense achievement
and the fiery love of a raucous family.

By RINKER BUCK, Courant Staff Writer

POWELL, WYO. - The distance between Palos Verdes, Calif., and Billings, Mont., is a long way over the mountains and the rivers of the American West, nearly 1,000 miles. But that night, the night that the Marine he was escorting home arrived at the United Airlines cargo bay at the Billings airport, Capt. Kevin Hutchison felt his mind playing tricks on him. The vast terrain between Montana and the far-off, sunny beaches of L.A. seemed inexplicably joined.

Shane Childers, Citadel Class of 2001, was a "Marines' Marine, the kind that all the enlisted men and officers like to boast about."

It was nearly midnight on Saturday, March 29, a cold, clear night in Montana. Eight days earlier, Hutchison, the leader of a small Marine Reserve detachment in Billings, had been awakened at dawn with the news that he would command the "casualty assistance" detail for a Marine lieutenant killed during the opening hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom, shot in the stomach while leading his platoon in an assault on a pumping station at the Rumeila oil fields of southern Iraq.

Hutchison, a personable, sophisticated Californian, didn't have to be told how important this assignment was, and not only because the Marines are meticulous to the point of obsession about proper military burials and about providing assistance to the "families of their own." Hutchison knew from a flurry of press reports that the deceased Marine, Lt. Therrel Shane Childers, had received intense national attention when identified as the first American killed in action. In death - as in his remarkable life - Shane Childers had achieved almost totemic significance.

As a blue conveyor-belt truck unloaded Childers from the hold of a Boeing airliner, Hutchison stood respectfully on the cold cement floor of the cargo bay, feeling exhausted, but strangely alert. Shane Childers was finally home, back in the snowy bosom of the Bighorn Mountains where he belonged.

The burial detail was now "good to go," and Hutchison was determined that every last detail of the funeral on Tuesday, every possible kindness to the Childers family, would be executed flawlessly according to Marine tradition. But there were also disquieting images and thoughts. As Childers' coffin was lowered from the airliner, Hutchison was surprised to see a plain cardboard cargo container, not the flag-draped casket he expected.

Laura Richardson, the cheerful, beefy funeral director from Wyoming, waved aside the offer of help from Hutchison's three-man escort detail and adroitly muscled the heavy cargo box into the hearse by herself. The door to the hearse shut, and Hutchison was unnerved by another sensation, an epiphany, he thought. He prided himself on being a most disciplined Marine, but now he couldn't make his mind behave. A strange mind-wander, like an emotional compass, overwhelmed him.

He stood in a cold cargo bay in Montana. But his mind, uncontrollably, raced southwest over the mountains to California. "I just felt right about it, taking this Marine back to his family," Hutchison said a few days later. "But then I couldn't prevent my mind from returning to my home, too. I'm from southern California. I spent my teenage years surfing the L.A. beaches. If this had happened to me, I kept thinking, I would want to be taken back to that special place, too.

Shane Childers was back and we would be escorting him that night down through the badlands to Wyoming. I wanted to do that. I knew the route well. But my mind just kept saying, `Oh, take me home too, take me home. Carry me to Haggerty's reef below the cliffs at Palos Verdes and give me back to the surf.'"

The midnight ride south through the bad lands along the Montana-Wyoming line was like that too, eerie and lonely, a brain meld of mountains and surf. With the two other Marines in his detail, Hutchison stepped into his rental car and fell in line behind the taillights of the hearse, following I-90 west for a few exits, and then turning south for Rockvale, Bridger and the Wyoming line. Under the moonlight, the snowy peaks of the Bighorns, the Pryors, and then Polecat Bench down near Powell came into view.

Icy patches along the high mountain passes glittered in their headlights. Hutchison's mind-wander returned. Oh, take me back. Shane, we're bringing you home. Big, black Montana sky merging southwest toward aquamarine Palos Verdes.

The hearse and escort detail reached Powell about one o'clock in the morning. As the fierce Wyoming winds turned up dust devils in the parking lot, the Marines watched as the funeral director unloaded the cargo box onto a wheeled dolly, rolled it into the viewing room of the funeral home and removed the cardboard container to reveal the flag-draped casket.

Hutchison decided to view the body that night. This is an important step in the Marine burial tradition. "Presentability of the remains" is a sensitive, heart-wrenching issue for the family, and Hutchinson knew from a couple of prior burial details that the family had to be properly prepared. He was also charged with making sure the dress blue uniform that had been tailored for Childers at the national military mortuary in Dover, Del., and all of the ribbons on Childers' chest were meticulously correct.

As soon as the casket was opened, Hutchison noticed two matters of concern. The green "fourragere," a braided cord that Marines wear above the ribbons on their chest, was missing, but Hutchison had anticipated that. He had already asked the Marine Casualty Assistance office dispatch a fourragere by Federal Express, so it would reach Powell in time for the family and public viewing on Monday. Hutchison was more troubled by the condition of Childers' body, particularly his face, which looked emaciated, dehydrated, its skin tone almost black.

Shane Childers knew at the age of 5 he wanted to be a Marine.

By this time, Hutchison had already spent a week with Shane's parents, Joe and Judy Childers, sitting around the dining room table of their modest frame house on their 125-acre ranch west of Powell, conversing, drinking coffee, laughing at their stories about their son. He had instantly adored the Childers, feelings he was confident were returned. Judy Childers is stout and warm, a no-nonsense military wife and mother. Joe Childers is a classic piece of work. A retired Navy Seabee construction engineer who had served two stints in Vietnam and then had been stationed around the world, Joe is also a blacksmith, devoted horseman and rancher, and a grand, entertaining tall-talker.

"Oh, my Shane, you know?" Childers had said to Hutchison across the dining room table. "You should have seen him come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, hitch my Belgians up to the sleigh and then jingle out across the snow to feed the cattle. You should have seen that boy ride a mule up into Jack Creek. Then he'd come back, break down my combine and fix it. There wasn't anything he couldn't do. Shane."

From the Childers, and the many Marines who'd called about him, Hutchison also knew that Shane was a Corps legend. He was a Marine's Marine, the kind that all the enlisted men and officers like to boast about. This wasn't the usual glorification after death, obligatory verbal honor conferred on the first killed in action in Iraq. Hutchison could tell that by now - the stories were just too plentiful, too consistent in detail.

Shane was particularly celebrated for his physical conditioning, his athletic prowess. Every morning, wherever he was stationed - at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Camp Pendleton in California, Quantico, Geneva or Nairobi - he rose an hour before dawn and ran 10 miles, before Marine PT class. At 30, he was known to be in better shape than most of his 18-year-old enlistees, fresh from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.

He had climbed Mount Shasta in California four times, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and, on long weekends from The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., roamed the Appalachian Trail. In Wyoming, when he visited home, it wasn't unusual for Shane to hop on his mountain bike and ride 25 miles up over the Pryors. Home by noon, he would help his father dig a new foundation for the house, or a neighbor carpet his entire downstairs. Inexhaustible, manic about exercise, strikingly handsome and fun-loving, Shane raced from event to event, interest to interest.

As one particularly close cousin put it: "Shane? Forget it. You couldn't keep up with him. Sometimes I thought that his only purpose in life was wearing other people out." This meant many things to many different people. Robbin Whitten, the wife of one of Shane's former commanding officers, first met him in Paris in 1993, when Shane was briefly assigned to the Marine security guard at the American Embassy during a diplomatic conference.

"Oh, Shane Childers, wow, you know?" Whitten said. "He was like the Esquire model, the picture in Vanity Fair, the poster boy that every Marine commander wanted in his unit. Very courteous, very military in his bearing, but also very, very charmingly informal, even vulnerable. We called him `Traffic-Stopper.' Believe me, when that Marine walked down the Champs Elysee, every girl in Paris noticed."

Staring into the open casket at a much-altered Shane Childers, Hutchison knew the family would be upset by his appearance. There wasn't an entry in the Marine manual for this one. After asking the funeral director to have her cosmetician work on Shane's face, adding some cheek rouge and facial color, he decided that, in the morning, he would tell Judy Childers as much as he could - all he knew about Shane's ride from the battlefield in a Medivac helicopter, the effects of not being embalmed for four days while he was transported from the morgue in Kuwait to an air base in Germany and then Dover, Del., then the long ride home to Wyoming in the cold cargo hold of an airliner.

Shane's mother needed tangibility, specific explanations, as much detail as he dared to give her so that she was prepared and her shock would be eased. Right there, Hutchison began rehearsing what he would say to her tomorrow, a mantra for the morning. "Mrs. Childers, ..." No, no. That wouldn't do. Across the dining room table, Shane's mother had already chided him for that, a half-dozen times, holding up her hand. "Capt. Hutchison. Sir. You call me Judy and I'll call you Kevin, OK? I've already told you. You're part of our family now."

So, Hutchison began again. "Judy, you're going to see your son tomorrow, but he's not the son you remember. OK? May I explain?" That's what Hutchison said to himself, practicing for the morning, as he left the funeral home with his Marine detail and drove three blocks east to the Lamplighter Inn. It was nearly 2 a.m. As he undressed and prepared for bed, the wind whipped around the corners outside, gently rattling the windows, and trucks whined out on the highway to Cody.

It had been a long, dense day, full of tasks and confusing imagery - the last round of phone calls confirming Shane's flight, the drive to the Billings airport, the midnight escort down through the Bighorns, black Montana sky merging southwest with the curling waves at sunny Palos Verdes. Now, fitfully falling asleep, he rehearsed once more his morning mantra for Shane's mother. "Judy, you're going to see your son tomorrow, but he's not the son you remember. Okay?"

* * * * * *

Joe and Judy Childers met at the USO in Oxnard, Calif., in 1968, just before Joe returned for his second tour in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee, building helicopter pads and repairing bridges during the sudden fury of the Viet Cong Tet Offensive that year. They were married in July 1969, and shortly after took off for a Seabee assignment at Midway Island in the Pacific. The variety of their assignments around the world would be expressed by the birthplaces of their three children. Sandra, the oldest daughter, was born on Midway in 1970, Shane was born in West Virginia in 1972, and Sam, the youngest, was born during Joe's tour of service in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.

Judy knew that she had married an armful, an energetic dreamer and doer who always had a dozen outdoor projects, or several broken horse vans, going on at once. But she was the first to tell all of Joe's Seabee pals that she was no cupcake herself. Naturally matriarchal and take-charge, she adroitly managed her rambunctious brood during Joe's frequent absences.

"I had escaped the Mormons of Idaho, and Joe had escaped the Baptists of West Virginia," Judy liked to say. "So this seemed to make perfect sense. We never looked back and just jumped right into life."

In the fall of 1977, just as the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution was gathering steam in Iran, Joe was assigned the "one man post" at the American Embassy in Tehran. The family lived in a four-apartment house at 18 Alley Sharood, five blocks from the embassy, and it was a very anxious time.

"Life in Tehran was very unstable then," Judy said. "At night, there were gas stations blowing up all the time and no one could sleep because of the pro-Khomeini or pro-Shah demonstrations. They all banged pans out in the street until very late."

Islamic fundamentalism, however, could not cure Joe Childers' itch. He was as energetic, as wildly in love with horses, as ever. In the evenings, or on weekends, he ranged out across sprawling Tehran and to the countryside beyond, shoeing horses at the Farrabad racetrack, jawing with horse-breeders, visiting the farms of his new Iranian friends. There were frequent trips north to the big estates up on the Caspian Sea, where Childers shod the horses of friends of the shah. On Saturday mornings, when he boarded the train, Childers hoisted Shane up first, then passed along his blacksmithing tools.

Shane was 5, very physically active, insatiably curious, and always a big hit on the horse farms. Later, as an adult, Shane enjoyed regaling his friends with crazy tales of gadding about revolutionary Iran. He had loved those horseshoeing junkets with his dad.

"Shane was the kind of kid that, when he woke in the morning, you knew that you better keep him busy," his father said.

"He was kind of like a good old hot-blooded horse that way, you know? Wear him down. But I remember his turning point, quite well. In Tehran, in the evenings, we used to like to take him to the swimming pool on the embassy grounds. It was right behind the Marine barracks. One night, when I was pulling him out of the water, he looked me in the eye and said, `Dad, see those Marines? That's what I want to do.' That was at age 5. There was never any question about it after that."

With tensions mounting in Iran, Judy and the children returned to the United States in December 1978. Joe, after briefly being taken hostage by demonstrators at the embassy, left in a hurry in February 1979. For the next 10 years, while Joe worked as a Seabee at the big naval shipbuilding yards in Gulfport, Miss., the family would know their first long stretch of stability - or what passed for stability in the Childers' household - settling into the small hamlet of Saucier along the Little Biloxi River.

When he wasn't working in the naval yards, or out shoeing horses, Joe took Shane on new junkets, up to the big horse auctions in Pennsylvania or Virginia, or taught him to hitch up teams of ponies. Their small rural farm in Saucier filled up with animals, blacksmithing tools and cannibalized tractors, and Shane grew up fishing and camping all summer on the surrounding riverbanks and woods.

Everyone who knew the future Marine as he emerged into adolescence unfailingly mention three qualities - ferocious energy, fearlessness and endless curiosity about other people. On the school bus, bullies twice his age who bothered his friends or younger brother were quietly taken out. Along the Little Biloxi, where he ran barefoot and swam all summer with friends, everyone would stand at a safe distance when they found a copperhead snake, watching Shane catch and kill it.

"I remember my son coming up from the river one day and telling me that he was never afraid of anything as long as he was with Shane," said Becky Moore, a Navy chaplain's wife who got to know the Childers in Mississippi after Joe began shoeing their horses. "That was the effect Shane had on people. He was never afraid of anything."

In 1990, while still a senior at Harrison Central High School in Gulfport, Shane pre-enlisted in the U.S. Marines' "early entry program." No one was surprised or the least bit concerned about how well he would do. "We'd all spent the last two years watching Shane wolf down raw eggs for breakfast, doing pushups and running God knows how many miles a day," said his older sister, Sandra.

"He had all these Marine books already. I don't know what they possibly could have done with him at boot camp. He was already a Marine." Shane's timing was fortuitous. He entered boot camp at Parris Island on July 17 that year, two weeks before Saddam Hussein stunned the world by invading Kuwait.

As the first President Bush rallied an international coalition and began a rapid buildup of forces in the Persian Gulf, everyone in the Marines was now on the fast track. Assigned to a 500-man rear "replacement unit," Shane arrived in Saudi Arabia in February 1991, just 10 days before the ground war began. His unit unloaded ships at the Saudi docks for two weeks, and everyone was jealous when Shane was moved forward as a driver for a light armored vehicle in Kuwait.

Already he had achieved an important milestone, reaching a combat zone just eight months after enlistment. "Shane felt real proud and lucky about Desert Storm," his father said. "He didn't want to be in the Marines unless they used him for something real."

After two more years of seasoning at Lejeune, during which he signed up for every kind of specialized training he could wrangle out of the Marines - survival camp, night navigation training, jump school - Shane received his first big break. In 1993, he was selected for the highly coveted Marine Security Guard course at Quantico in Virginia, which would make him eligible for work at embassies abroad.

After graduation, Shane pulled down plum assignments at Geneva, Switzerland, Paris and Nairobi, Kenya, and began living a life straight out of a glossy Marine Corps brochure. During the week, Shane occasionally had to pull uniformed duty out at the guard posts, but he also worked a lot of evenings in civilian clothes, escorting ambassadors, visiting dignitaries and their wives to glittering social functions. In Switzerland, on weekends, he kayaked or sailed on Lake Geneva, or climbed the Alps.

Within a month of reaching Nairobi in 1994, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, and after that went on safari almost every weekend. It was a quick climb for a boy from Harrison Central in Gulfport, but as his embassy work drew to a close in 1995, friends and relatives began to notice that Shane was edgy, impatient, almost manic about his future.

A classic, driven perfectionist, he needed a new challenge, and his closest friends and mentors in the Marines began to hear something else. It nagged at him, socially, that no one in his immediate family had a college degree, and he knew he wouldn't rise any further in the Marines unless he acquired one himself.

"Shane was always thinking 10 steps ahead of where he was," said Steve Whitten, a former Marine master sergeant who was the detachment commander of the Marines at the Nairobi embassy. "We would talk endlessly into the night about that because he knew he had to get that college degree. ... I was the one who told him about the Marine enlisted commission program, which would allow him to get his degree and jump into the officer class. He was instantly crazy about doing that."

By this time, Joe Childers had retired from the Seabees and found his small dream ranch in Wyoming, 125 acres of irrigated flatlands in the high desert west of Powell, right up against the rising plateau of the Polecat Bench. Childers quickly filled the place with antique farm machinery, cattle and mules, and Shane loved visiting on leave from the Marines, and frequently hiked or rode mules up into the peaks.

Once, visiting home and talking with his sister, Shane suddenly blurted something that she could never forget. "God, Sandy, what am I going to do? I haven't accomplished a single thing with my life yet."

Sandra laughed hysterically. "Oh, God, Shane, that is just so you. Do you mind if I tell you about just one tiny little fact?"

"No! No! I don't mind. What's the fact?"

"Shane. Get a grip. You're 23 years old."

* * * * * *

On Sunday morning, when he woke at the Lamplighter, Capt. Hutchison was concerned about Judy Childers. Through the long ordeal of learning about her son, and then waiting for his body to return, Judy had not yet broken down. Joe had done most of the best crying so far, and he was unashamed of it. He wasn't afraid to wrap his big, bear-like arms around Seabee pal Robert Reagan, or his close friend John Van Valin, and bawl his head off until he felt better. Then he went out to the barn for some quality time with his mules.

But Judy was different. She'd always been regarded by her children and friends as the emotional keel of the family, stoic in a crisis. Over the weekend, as family members and friends gathered in Powell from West Virginia, Texas and London, they whispered in the corners of the house: Judy was holding too much in.

Reagan felt he knew Judy well, and in some respects was even closer to her than to Joe.

"Ah c'mon everybody, let's relax about this," Reagan said to a few friends outside the house on Sunday morning. "I know Judy. When she blows, she blows. And make no mistake about it. She will blow."

One of Hutchison's obligations as the leader of the burial detail was to present the family with the fallen Marine's "initial personal effects." These are the few articles of jewelry or personal possessions removed from the body before autopsy and embalming. (By tradition, a Marine's dog tags, which Hutchison would retain for the moment, are tucked into the flag that is removed from the casket, folded in a tight triangle and given to the family at the grave.)

As he drove over to the Childers' on Sunday, Hutchison rehearsed once more what he would tell Judy about Shane's body. But first he would hand her the clear plastic bag containing the initial personal effects - Shane's picture I.D., his watch, and a lanyard flashlight that he had worn around his neck when he went over the line into Iraq.

When Hutchison arrived, Judy and most of the family were still in the dining room, dawdling over breakfast coffee. Biting his lip, Hutchison looked boyish and hurt handing her the small bag of personal effects, but he knew that it was best to do it straight out. Judy wasn't surprised to receive the bag, but she wasn't prepared either, at least not when she saw Shane's watch.

Her eyes welling with tears, Judy looked first to Hutchison, then Joe, and to other members of the family, and finally started to cry. "He's not coming back, is he?" she moaned, looking up at Hutchison's face. "Up till now, I just thought of Shane as on deployment." Joe did his best to comfort her, wrapping her in his arms and crying too.

They opened the bag and shared in their hands Shane's watch and his lanyard flashlight, talking about how these objects reminded them of him. Soon, other shivers of crying passed through the house. Gently, waiting for the right moment, Hutchison brought up the difficult subject of the condition of Shane's remains. "Judy, you're going to see your son tomorrow, but he's not the son you remember." Then he explained the effects of dehydration on a body, and Shane's long, arduous ride home from a field hospital in Kuwait. Eventually, everyone seemed to agree with Joe that they could all see Shane at the private viewing in the morning, then make a decision about whether the casket should be opened for the public later in the day.

He felt that it was important for them to confront the remains. "I don't want to wake up some morning a few weeks from now and expect to see Shane come diddly-bopping down the road to see us," Joe said. "We have to accept that he's gone."

Judy spent the rest of the morning on the couch in the living room visiting with her sisters and a few women friends, occasionally crying again. Joe and Robert needed to get out of the house, so they headed off in Joe's battered blue Toyota pickup for Powell, to goof off in the feed stores and tack shops. At noon, when they weren't back in time for lunch, Judy called into Powell and chased them down. A little later, when the two old Seabees blew back in, Judy stared them down from the dining room table.

"Robert," she said. "Joe's late, and it's your fault."

"Hey, c'mon Judy," Robert said. "I was just the passenger on this deal. Joe was driving the pickup."

"No, Robert," she said. "When you're here and Joe's late, it's your fault. That's the deal."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Robert said, looking across the room to no one in particular. "Don't you just love this gal?"

After that, it got even better, Robert thought. Out in the yard, the Childers grandchildren were scrambling around and rolling in the dirt. One of them knocked the plaster head off the ornamental donkey in the front garden, and Judy blew her stack.

"Oh, this is good, this is good," Robert said, drawing on a cigarette out front with the men. "She's really piped now."

In the afternoon, the grandchildren and several of the visitors from out of town began pestering Joe for a hay-wagon ride. With a coterie of middle-aged men trailing behind him, Joe headed for the barn, harnessed and hitched his matched Belgians, then set up a small stepladder so everyone could get over the freeboard of his hitch. With his grandson, Aksel, on his lap, Joe slapped the reins on the team and trotted off with the harness jingling.

By evening, the feeling on the Childers place in the Bighorn basin was gentle and warm. Neighbors and volunteers from Powell had been cooking all week for the family and its guests. Judy and her friends were relaxing now, talking and going through the photo albums. After taking Shane's Marine buddy, Bill Hendry, out to feed the cattle, Joe gathered with his Seabee pals and brothers under the shed-roof tool shop adjacent to the house, the doors thrown open to the sun falling on the mountains.

They were laughing, sharing stories about Shane. Joe and Shane up on top of the house, re-roofing on a hot day, hiding beers in their nail buckets so Judy couldn't see. The day Shane got thrown by the big black mule and crushed his new cowboy hat. But there was also a sense of life interrupted - not just Shane's unfinished personal agenda, but the web of relationships that would never be resolved or enriched.

Shane's younger brother, Sam, had done a good job all week keeping his emotions in check, but everyone could sense that an inordinate burden of Shane's loss rested on him. Though separated by only a year and a half, Sam and Shane had never managed to become close as adults. Shane had left home for the Marines when Sam was a sophomore in high school, and then the family had moved from Mississippi to Wyoming.

When Sam entered the service, he deliberately chose the Navy so that he wouldn't have "to fill Shane's shoes," and then spent 8 years as a damage control specialist on Navy ships. For several years they had been based only an hour away from each other in California - Camp Pendleton and San Diego - and Shane had been among the first to cradle young Aksel in his arms, elated to have a nephew. But, most of the time, one of them was overseas on deployment, and a much-desired brotherly rapprochement had never come off.

Now, at least, Sam was talking about it.

On Sunday night, waiting for his father to return from feeding the cattle, he stood out by the barn and looked off to the mountains as the sky turned pink and baby blue. "Shane and I were typical brothers," Sam said. "We fought a lot as boys. He was very social and stood out in a room, and I did not. He was competitive and an athlete. If you had a political argument with Shane, he had to win. Shane was the leader in everything, period. If he was there? He would lead."

After he left the Navy and became a field engineer for a power supply company in Illinois, Sam had begun to look forward to a period, maybe 10 years away, when Shane would finally leave the Marines. He would be around more, less pressured and intense. Sam was pretty sure that, if they worked at it, he and Shane could finally grow close. They would be brothers, real brothers, as middle-aged men.

In February, just before Shane deployed for Kuwait, Sam's company scheduled him for training out in California, and Sam had called ahead to schedule a brief visit with his brother. But when he arrived on the West Coast and called down to Pendleton, he learned Shane's unit had shipped just two hours before.

"That's pretty much the whole scene, right there," Sam said. "How is a younger brother in my situation supposed to react? Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I'm trying to look at the good side. I was born in Puerto Rico, I was a baby in Iran, and then raised in Mississippi. My parents gave us a very interesting life."

The days since Shane's death had been hard on Sam, particularly all of the media interviews. As the younger brother of the first serviceman killed in action, Sam had been interviewed by all the local papers, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, People and USA Today. Katie Couric had interviewed him for NBC's "Today." But Sam felt it was all an exercise in inexpression. Beyond the basics, it wasn't easy being articulate about a brother with whom he had never been close.

There was one other frustration about dealing with the media. Every reporter seemed to have heard a different account of what happened to Shane in Iraq. As the week progressed, the family was confused, torn between versions. But finally, from one television station in California, they were able to learn that a reporter from the Orange County Register had actually been embedded with Shane's unit and saw what happened on March 21.

After approaching Pumping Station No. 2 at the Rumeila fields in the murky confusion caused by a pipeline fire, Shane's unit was flushing disorganized units of Republican Guards out of their underground bunkers when the Iraqis tried to flee on a motorcycle and an unmarked pickup truck, the newspaper reported. In the hail of AK-47 fire directed at the U.S. Marines, Shane was hit in the lower abdomen.

Though the Childers will have to wait for an official battlefield report, the Orange County Register account indicated that Shane had died almost immediately, and not on an operating table in Kuwait as they had originally heard.

* * * * * *

In 1998, at the age of 26, Shane was accepted into the prestigious Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, under which exceptional enlisted men could obtain their college degrees and then be commissioned as officers while still collecting their active-duty pay. After attending the program's prep school at the Miramar Marine Air Station in San Diego, Shane was admitted to The Citadel military college, where he majored in French.

Typically, he moved through college at a frantic pace, cramming in extra credits and summer immersion courses - in Africa, France, and at Middlebury College in Vermont. It was at The Citadel, really, where the Shane Childers legend thrived and became irreversible.

He was outspoken in class and maniacal about his studies, sometimes reading five books on a single subject over a weekend just to complete a short, 10-page paper. His morning runs around the campus, his weekend triathlon and mountain bike meets, made him a sports hero, too. It wasn't simply that he consistently made dean's list, that he was worshipped by the younger cadets, or even that he became known for carousing quite well at the trendy downtown bars. Big Man On Campus didn't quite capture it all. Everyone in the Marines, it now seemed, had heard of Shane Childers and his unique, kinetic appeal.

But The Citadel meant even more than that to Shane. For the first time since he was a teenager, he was freed from the tedium of intensive military training and deployment routine, and he was changing. On vacations in Wyoming, he was still the same old crazy Shane, rising at dawn to ride his bike, fixing farm machinery, power e-mailing his girlfriends and professors from a laptop set up on the dining room table. But he was rounding out now and becoming more tolerant, reading novels, biography and relationship books.

He liked nothing more than meeting someone new, querying them about their life and their issues, and then flooding them with books and suggestions about personal self-improvement. Jonna Walker, one of the younger, West Virginia cousins who became quite close to Shane during his Citadel years, complained to him one weekend that she was bored at work and stuck in a dead-end job. She liked mowing the lawn at night, but not her paying work.

Within a matter of days, Shane had cruised the book stores, found titles on resume-writing and self-help, wrapped them all up and mailed them with a note. "Jonna. Here are some books that might help. Semper Fi, Shane."

"He was this fascinating contradiction between attention deficit disorder and intense focus, always racing from interest to interest," Jonna said. "That's where the Marines and The Citadel came in. He needed that discipline to somehow focus his energies and love of people."

Christopher McRae, a French professor at The Citadel, was particularly close to Shane and thought he had witnessed important growth in the young Marine. His mentality was still very much that of a Marine - "freakin" and "good to go" were favorite phrases - but he was also learning to shed some of his obstinate independence and ask for help.

During his Citadel years, Shane was often needled by the Marine wives in his circle, and his cousins and friends, to settle down and find the right woman to marry. He'd had several "near misses" - for years, he'd been in love with an Israeli Army officer he met in the Mideast, and then he'd had a disastrous love affair with a single mother he met through Jonna - but Shane's busy schedule, his commitment to the Marines, always seemed to torpedo the relationships.

The issue was unresolved at his death, but at least Shane could ask for help now. He and McRae had shared several anguished conversations about it. Jonna's sister, Jessi Walker, was the "other" cousin back in West Virginia, and she and Shane often spent weekends together during his Citadel years. Spunky-bright and slender, a bundle of fun, she was the artist in the family, a photography major in college, famous for showing up at family events in spiked hair, funky clothes, with all kinds of outrageous talk about her future.

Shane goaded her mercilessly about her lifestyle, sent her art books and museum postcards from all over the world, and they often talked late into the night on the phone. In the spring of 2000, during his second year at The Citadel, Shane called her one night and explained that he didn't have a date for the big social event coming up - The Citadel's spring Marine Corps Ball. Would she come as his escort?

"Oh, it was so comic," Jessi said. "He wanted me there, he knew that we would absolutely have a great time together, but he was terrified that I would embarrass him in front of the Marines with how I looked. I immediately told him I would go, just to box him in, you know?"

Shane sounded happy, but an hour later he called back. "Ah, say, look Jess, what color is your hair now?"

"Red, Shane."

"OK, red. Now is that artsy-fartsy red? Or just red?"

"Red, Shane. My hair is red now. Is that OK with you?"

"OK! OK. Red. Now look, about the dress. Can you just pick out something plain, like black? I mean, you know. We don't need to be shocking people or anything."

Jessi got him back good for that one. She picked a shimmering, hot purple gown. But when she got to Charleston for the weekend and they reached the ball and all the Marines beamed to see her and Shane together, Jessi knew that it would be fine, just fine.

Shane was dashing in his dress blues and effortlessly courteous and fun, and Jessi enjoyed the Marine atmosphere - all the hunky guys in their crew cuts, their manners, their lingo, their striped trousers and brightly polished shoes. It was obvious that they all considered Shane a star and would do anything for her. If she needed her drink refreshed, a Marine ran to the bar. If Shane wouldn't dance a fast number, there was always a younger, even hunkier Marine "good to go" for the floor.

She had a wonderful time. She just loved doing The Citadel up right with Cousin Shane.

* * * * * *

On Monday at noon, the funeral home in Powell sent vans out to the Childers place to bring the family in for the viewing of the body. When they arrived, Capt. Hutchison was there, fishing the green fourragere out of a FedEx package so he could place it properly on Shane's uniform. He was glad now that he had over-prepared Judy. Still, this wasn't going to be easy.

After the casket was opened, Hutchison escorted Joe and Judy inside the viewing room. They stood in front of the coffin for a long time together, crying and holding each other, trying to make the best of this last, uncomfortable sight of their son. When they slowly stepped back out to the main reception area, Judy sat on the couch and Joe buried his face in her lap and cried. He was laboring manfully for her, trying to be good and to comfort her, but this was just awfully hard right now, having just seen Shane.

After they had calmed down a little, Judy had kind words for Hutchison. She thought that he had done the right thing, telling her the worst before she saw Shane. "Kevin Hutchison was right," Judy said. "That wasn't really my son in there, and he did look very dehydrated. But I think that this was the right thing to do for everyone."

After Joe and Judy left, the funeral home slowly filled with mourners, a lot of Marine couples who were old friends of Shane, and strangers from town who felt obligated to pay their respects to the first serviceman killed in the war. The ranchers, with their big Stetson hats held respectfully at their sides, and the Marine couples, with their erect posture, seemed like Norman Rockwell portraits up by the open casket. They were portraits of a country in the aftermath of war.

Robbin Whitten, who had first met traffic-stopper Shane in Paris in 1993 and who later considered herself his "den mother" in Nairobi, stroked her husband's back while she cried. It was hard for her to pull herself away from Shane.

Jessi and Jonna Walker, fresh in from West Virginia, made a touching portrait, too. At the casket, Jessi rested her cheek on Jonna's shoulder while they both cried arm in arm, two lovely and expressive sisters together, wondering what they were going to do now without crazy, madcap, considerate, vulnerable and strong cousin Shane. They'd never see him again in dress blues.

After the rest of the family left, Sam Childers remained behind to greet the public, making an effort to speak with everyone who came in. He was joined by his brother-in-law, Sgt. Richard Brown, who'd delayed deploying to Kuwait with his own Army unit after Shane was killed.

They stayed there together, greeting everyone, until almost 9 that night. Later, Sam seemed almost refreshed by the experience, his new assumption of family responsibility, a last deed for the brother he regretted not knowing better.

"Well, that was certainly a first," Sam said back at the house. "I shook hands with strangers all day. I sure wish Shane could have seen that."

* * * * * *

With full military honors, Shane Childers was buried the next day at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Powell. The graveyard stands on a slight rise east of town with an expansive view down through the valley to the Bighorn massif. Earlier, almost 1,500 people - ranchers, townspeople, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and hundreds of local war veterans - had crowded into the gymnasium at Northwest College for the funeral.

It had taken nearly an hour for everyone to get over to the cemetery, and for the Marine guard and veterans groups to form their lines, but now the chaplain was finishing his prayers above Shane's casket. Civilians jumped and babies wailed as the Marines fired their 21-gun salute.

Unseen, from behind the trees of the opposite hill, the bugler sounded taps and all the Childers women wept. Capt. Hutchison and his detail folded the flag from the casket, tucked in the dog tags and handed it to Judy Childers. As the crowd slowly stepped forward, some to greet the family, some just to linger, the men held their Stetsons and their VFW caps against the brisk Wyoming wind.

At that moment, the sky above shifted, as if accepting the end of Shane Childers' 30-year journey and his long return from the deserts of southern Iraq, and maybe even embracing a family in anguish. A large bank of puffy cumulus clouds rolled over the Bighorns, blocking the sun and revealing a soft, blue haze down low near the peaks.

The more tender light and shadows seemed to evoke other vistas, even meaning. Shane Childers would never see the Bighorns again. He'd led a Marine's life, cut short. But perhaps it's a mistake to measure in years such things as service, intensity, self-improvement. Valor in battle, or even something as simple as just being there for your friends and the younger cousins, can't be toted up according to the calendar and the clock.

There was something else in the snowy Bighorns that afternoon. Mount Kilimanjaro was there, and so were the Alps and Mount Shasta, and maybe even Lake Geneva and Capt. Hutchison's distant, dreamy cliffs at Palos Verdes.

All of them were joined now under Shane's last sky.