Remembering My Brother: Firefighter, Soldier, Father

Soldiers-Son-Funeral

One year ago I wrote a blog in which I reflected on how I lost both my father and a comrade-in-arms five months apart, and I considered how we anesthetize ourselves to such loss.  Little did I know, as I penned those words, that I would experience another devastating loss within months.  My little brother—and my only sibling—was stolen by cancer.


Death hits us close to home, and often robs us of our home.

Like my father and me, Scott served his country (U.S. Coast Guard), but his service was cut short.  Scott was the consummate servant: he was also a full-time firefighter who had a knack for sniffing out fires even when he was off duty.  He called in multiple fires, saving property and preventing injury before they grew beyond control.  Our country lost a valuable servant when Cancer took Scott.

When I discussed death last year, I dwelled on its impact on us personally, how it can drive us into denial or into despair.  The pain of a loved one ripped from our lives often leaves a hole that is never quite healed this side of eternity.  I’ve met more than one person whose anger at God stems from the loss of a loved one.  A fellow Marine once told me he was “not on speaking terms with God” since he lost his father.  Death hits us close to home, and often robs us of our home.


For the first time—as when my father died—I could not negotiate death on my own terms.

That’s where I am today.  I’ve struggled with my little brother’s death.  It’s one thing to lose a parent because you pretty much expect “that day” will come.  But you don’t grow up expecting to lose your sibling.  Scott and I were supposed to grow old together and laugh about our childhood.

But now I’m alone.

Aside from first-hand pain, this past year I’ve learned our pain is amplified when we stop to see those we love suffer.  For the first time—as when my father died—I could not negotiate death on my own terms.  This time others were closer to the loss: Scott left behind three little boys, each of whom needs their father.

I loved these boys tremendously before Scott’s death.  But since he died, my devotion for them has expanded in ways I could have never imagined, comparable only to seeing the birth of your own child.  I felt the death of my brother and the horror of my nephews’ loss almost simultaneously, and I’m still trying to figure out how to manage these two distinct losses.  (The losses are not the same.  My nephews’ loss eclipses mine, and no one can stake a more painful claim to loss than they.)


Let us not forget those left behind, those who live with the visible and tangible loss every day.

On Memorial Day, we recall those who died serving their country defending our rights and freedoms.  Today, we are rightly reminded that all gave some but that some gave all.  But let us not forget those left behind, those who live with the visible and tangible loss every day.  There’s no way Scott can be replaced.  Zack, Ben and Jake will never look at anyone the way they looked at Scott, and neither will Caroline, his young wife.  Nor should they.  Scott is irreplaceable.

Today, as we honor our lost, let’s pause to remember the ones left behind, the ones living in the pain.

KJ Johnson

Karl “KJ” Johnson retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel after twenty years of active duty service. He is the Operations Director for RZIM’s US Ministries and Director for the C.S. Lewis Institute in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @KJ7562.

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