The war in Iraq turned into personal tragedy on Nov. 7 for College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C., when it buried a 21-year-old Marine killed in Iraq.
Lance Cpl. Andrew David Russoli was one of three Marines, all assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) at Camp Lejeune, who were killed by a roadside bomb attack near Nasser Wa Salaam Oct. 20.
According to his pastor, Michael Usey, Russoli’s responsibility was to protect Iraqi civilians and police from attacks and intimidation by insurgents. When the Marines received a tip there was a bomb in an open field, Russoli and two other Marines jumped into an armored Humvee. As they approached, insurgents watching from a distance detonated a large improvised explosive device. Russoli died instantly.
During the subsequent engagement, Marines killed two terrorists and detained four others suspected of involvement in the attack.
Hundreds of family and friends crowded into his funeral service at College Park Baptist Church, a 500-member congregation affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists.
Usey, who baptized Russoli as an 11-year-old not long after arriving as the church’s pastor in 1994, said the young Marine lived “an unfinished life.”
Russoli grew up in the youth group at College Park, and also took part in other youth groups and in Young Life. He was a natural athlete, wrote poetry and loved movies, but his first love, Usey said, was being a Marine.
Russoli had previously been awarded a Purple Heart for injuries he received during his first tour, which ended in September 2004. His parents received a second Purple Heart at his funeral.
Usey said Russoli had toyed with going to college in Florida when his time in the Marines was up, and he was taken with the idea of becoming a firefighter. “From now on, I want to save lives,” Usey said Russoli told him over lunch after the Marine had participated in a worship service and received a rare standing ovation.
“He told me wonderful stories of Marines connecting with Iraqi children, and giving away some of their own food to these kids, collecting supplies for Iraqi schools, toys for injured kids,” Usey recalled. “He also told me he had nightmares, that some of his favorite movies he could no longer see. He had been a part of a military action that had resulted, not only in the deaths of many of the enemy, but also of some civilians who were either caught in the field of fire, or who were shielding the enemy. Their faces haunted him. This is a reminder to us all that our servicemen and women carry on our behalf psychological as well as physical wounds.”
“This conversation revealed a part of Andrew that I like so much,” Usey said. “He was able to be both a fine Marine and to be critical of the myths of war.”
“And where is God in our grief?” he asked the congregation.
“God is not responsible for our beloved Andrew’s death,” he said. “God did not cause Saddam Hussein to torture, to starve, to maim and to kill his own people.
“Nor did God start America’s war with Iraq.
“God was not the one who sent Andrew off to war. Andrew chose that road, out of a deep part of himself, which as you know was equal parts courage, honor and bravado.
“And God certainly did not cause evil cowardly men to explode a bomb that killed him and two other Marines 12 days ago.
“Human beings did this, not God. Human freedom, to act and to choose, is given to us by God, and it’s a wonderful and terrible thing. Every human being may choose good or evil, and the rest of us must live with the consequences. Fortunately for us, God’s specialty is bringing good out of our evil acts. If we let God, God will work with us to morph the evil (both done to us and by us) into good. In that sense, God is our divine alchemist.”
As of Nov. 10, at least 2,055 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense.
Usey, the son of a Navy commander, grew up in San Diego, Calif. He graduated from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in 1980, and from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., with an M.Div. in 1983. He did doctoral studies at Emory University in Atlanta and for four years was assistant editor of the national newspaper Baptists Today.
“In my understanding, this life is boot camp, meant to toughen us and to prepare us for the life to come,” Usey said at the service. “For the next life with God is, in my opinion, one of service. This is life is about forging a soul out of our commitments and loves; this life is about learning to give your life away. In short, this life is about learning to die to self and live for others.”
“You can live until you’re 80 and not learn that, and I’ve buried a few that never did learn it,” he said. “And you can be 21 and know that the secret of life is service for God and your fellow human beings.”
“Andrew knew how to serve,” he said. “He was a serviceman in the moral and noble sense of that word. He did not live a long life, it was unfinished, yet it was filled with bravery and valor.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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