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The Ultimate Price
Rick Reilly
October 02, 1995
It took his brother's death in combat to help fulfill Shaun Stephenson dream of playing football for Navy
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October 02, 1995

The Ultimate Price

It took his brother's death in combat to help fulfill Shaun Stephenson dream of playing football for Navy

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"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.

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