By Don White
Fort Lewis, in Washington State, was one of the military installations constructed as a result of WWI. In less than 90 days a city of over 1000 structures was built for an army base that would become intimately connected to our rural Eastern Oregon church nearly 100 years later.
My friend Chance left this world exactly three years ago as I write these words (July 9th). He was one of the kids in the church youth group when I became the pastor at his family’s church, and got acquainted with him and his kooky humor.
Chance would frequently walk into my office during my first year at the church. The next year he would come in with crutches tucked under his arms. Later still, he’d come in on a wheelchair, rolling his way behind my desk just to say hello, and see what kind of candy I had that day.
If bone cancer had not taken the young man’s life, I would have expected him to be an army truck driver. At the top of Chance’s loves were big rig trucks and all things military, and that is how our church came to be connected with the 100-year-old army base. It was a relationship that was sealed as we watched battle-hardened army Rangers tearfully drape a flag over Chance’s casket, and carry him out of the packed high school gymnasium where his memorial service was held, marching in perfect locked-step formation as respectfully as if they were carrying one of their own.
And in their minds, he was indeed one of their own.
The relationship between a teenage cancer patient and the elite Army Rangers of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment began with a surprising request.
When the Make a Wish Foundation (which arranges the most wonderful experiences for children with terminal illnesses) asked the fifteen-year-old what he wished for, he said he wanted to visit Fort Lewis. The officials on the base were shocked – and flattered.
Chance’s family and our entire church were overwhelmed with the steadfast support and loyal friendship Chance received from the Army Rangers of Fort Lewis, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were pressing on. He received phone calls and visits from Rangers of nearly every rank.
When the time came for Chance’s visit to the Army Base (along with his parents and three younger sisters), it quickly became one of the greatest highlights of his life. The Rangers pulled out all stops to give Chance and his family the best possible experience, and they succeeded.
Chance was not a guest in their midst. He was a fellow soldier. When he arrived they issued him standard Army Ranger camouflage fatigues along with their official beret, and they had him line up (while in his wheelchair) for inspection the following day with the other Rangers.
I saw Chance shortly after he came back from the base. I said, “So I hear they made you an honorary Ranger.”
“No,” he said, resolutely. “They made me a Ranger.”
On the day of his memorial service, I had the privilege of sharing that conversation with the Rangers who came down to honor him.
I was not there at Fort Lewis with Chance and his family, but from the stories I heard, the videos I watched, and the photos I saw, I can easily imagine Chance among those Rangers, dressed head to toe in the army combat uniform they issued to him.
There Chance is in his wheelchair, among the men with buckskin-colored berets, surrounded with the rich and glorious history of the army battalion that went back to Omaha Beach in Normandy France to campaigns in Korea and Vietnam. These were the soldiers that led the way in Operation Urgent Fury, rescuing American Citizens in Grenada. These were the soldiers that led the way in Operation Just Cause, toppling the ruthless dictator of Panama.
Among the men surrounding Private Chance Rodgers is a soldier with a bronze star, another with a silver. And there nearby is the Ranger who would soon receive the medal of honor at the hands of the President himself. Chance is literally surrounded by heroes.
The soldiers eagerly introduce Chance to all the standard Ranger gear and weaponry. They give him a tour of the base and demonstrate tactical battle procedures. After all, he is now a Ranger and must get acquainted with it all.
Fellow Rangers roll Chance out to the firing range, and one says, “Chance – this here is an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. A gas operated, air cooled, light machine gun with a quick-change barrel, it can use either linked rounds or rifle magazines.” His eyes get big.
“You wanna try it, Chance?”
He smiles and says, “Oh, yeah.” And when the Rangers carefully place his hands on the gun, his finger on the trigger, Chance becomes a warrior.
Chance, with his missing leg and metal prosthetic, couldn’t help but notice the soldier with the silver-colored hand. “Afghanistan,” said the Ranger. “I tossed an enemy’s live grenade back at them. Lost my hand in the process.”
Private Rodgers and his family are later taken out to the helipad, where another Ranger says, “This, private Rodgers, is a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk standard assault transport. It can carry eleven fully armed troops and a crew of three. It’s got a rotor diameter of over fifty feet, with two 1,500 horsepower turboshaft engines, and can fly 180 miles per hour with a range of nearly 400 miles, and can reach an altitude of 19,000 feet.”
Chance’s jaw drops. Then he hears the words, “You wanna ride?”
Fellow Rangers then lift the wheelchair-bound private off the ground and securely strap him in for the ride of his life.
If you went to visit the hilltop memorial gardens where Chance now rests, you’ll see “Honorary Army Ranger” inscribed in his granite memorial stone, along with the official shield of the Rangers of Fort Lewis, Washington. Our church, and especially Chance’s family, will always have a special place in our hearts for that 100-year-old army base, and we’ll never forget that day when our young Chance became Private Chance Rodgers, of the U.S. Army Rangers of the 75th Regiment, 2nd Battalion.