CJ Stewart—Wounded Warrior on a Mission

By on January 1, 2014
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By MARILYN TINNIN

CJ-Photo-Page23June 15, 2010, dawned no different than any other day for 21-year-old CJ Stewart, U.S. Army medic. His platoon manned a small outpost near Kandahar where enemy attacks were a daily occurrence. In the few weeks of this first deployment, he had become quite accustomed to the sights and sounds of war, the rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and the machine gun fire.

It was noon. His platoon had just finished filling sand bags and had stopped to eat lunch when the attack began. With the first explosion, CJ started for his aid bag. Just before he reached for it, a second explosion knocked him off his feet. “I just remember it being loud, deafening, in fact. There was a tower close to where I was standing, and I thought it had been hit. When I looked back I happened to look down the right side of my body and saw it was covered in blood,” he says. It was surreal, but he was calm as he grabbed a tourniquet and started walking toward the aid station.

CJ-Taliban-Sign-Page26Once there, he got a good look at what was left of his right arm. The RPG had struck the building above him crushing the bones, tendons, and nerves below his elbow. The skin on his forearm was gone, and he was losing a massive amount of blood. But oddly, the most excruciating pain came from his thigh where a piece of concrete about the size of a piece of gravel had gone through his flesh and exited the other side. It was a 40-minute transport in the back of a truck to the next aid station where the battalion surgeon wrapped him up and put him on a helicopter to Kandahar. The doctors at Kandahar performed the first of his 40 surgeries in an effort to save his right arm. He is thankful for their tenacity. He could so easily have lost his arm.

CJ-Soldiers-with-Guns-Page26He went from Kandahar to Bagram for a second surgery, from Bagram to Germany for yet another surgery, and from Germany to Washington, D.C., where he was admitted to Walter Reed Hospital. Such was the itinerary for CJ between June 15 and June 20, 2010. He arrived on Father’s Day, and Robin and Chuck Stewart were there to greet their son.

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The call that CJ had been wounded came just a few hours after the attack. Robin was leaving for work when the telephone rang and the caller ID read Fort Campbell, Kentucky. She knew before she said, “hello” what it meant. CJ had prepared his parents well telling them that the bad news would come via telephone from Fort Campbell, but that the worst news would be a knock at the door delivered by a person in uniform.

CJ was able to talk with both of his parents even before he left Afghanistan. Hearing CJ’s typical, upbeat spirit in his voice was great comfort, but it wasn’t a great surprise. Robin and Chuck had seen their son tested so many times before. The first status update the Stewarts received said, “amputee.” That was a blow, but the Stewarts did not doubt CJ’s resilience. They knew God had given him an extra dose of courage, strength, and a firm faith in Jesus Christ. He would get through this.CJ-Military-1-Page26

It was later that they discovered the potential loss of his arm was the least of his worries in the beginning. His heart actually stopped during the first surgery. CJ describes seeing the words on his medical chart, “Patient underwent resuscitation,” as almost impossible to comprehend.

Forty surgeries later, this once right-handed, wounded warrior—who has retrained himself to use his left hand—had absolutely no doubt in his mind and heart that God had some major plans for him.

CJ’s Role Models

He was actually named Charles Allen Stewart, III. As is so often the case, friends and family trying to differentiate in conversation between the baby and his father, began calling him “Chucky” or “Little Chuck,” nicknames his dad did not like at all.

Chuck decided his son needed a designation that didn’t smack of anything babyish and something that he would not be ashamed to answer to when he was older. He came up with the name CJ, which is short for Chuck, Jr.

The rugged, athletic, tough guy whose lifelong dream was to be a soldier had a rather shaky beginning. He was born in Bossier City, Louisiana, on February 20, 1989, and was almost immediately diagnosed with a digestive disorder that required three surgeries and an extended stay in the neonatal unit. Doctors from around the country consulted on his treatment. Thankfully, he came through that early trial without any long-term effects, and CJ laughs that it was just a foretaste of what was down the road.

The Stewarts moved frequently in CJ’s childhood—something that could be daunting for some children. Not so much for CJ. They were a close family, and wherever they went CJ could count on two constants; they would join a church, and he would play sports. And within that framework, he would make lots of friends.CJ-Child-with-Flag-Page30

The Stewarts eventually settled in Madison. CJ enrolled at Madison-Ridgeland Academy and jumped into sports—playing football, baseball, basketball, and soccer. “I loved high school,” CJ says. He has a great affection for his alma mater and claims he never wanted high school to end. One of his favorite things these days is going back often as a Young Life volunteer.

Chuck Stewart shares his son’s enthusiasm for all things athletic. If CJ was playing in a ballgame, Chuck was there. Throughout CJ’s growing-up years, the father and son also followed their favorite college and professional teams. At least once a year, they took a man trip to a ballgame in some unfamiliar place like California or New York. As a child and as a teenager, it was pure fun for CJ, but as he looks back, he sees his father’s intentional and very wise strategy. It was about much more than a ballgame. Sharing their interest in sports opened a level of communication on deeper things that could never had happened if Chuck Stewart just sat his son down one day and said, “I am going to teach you about life.”

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Chuck Stewart is firm in the belief that raising boys to be godly men requires quality time, as well as quantity time. The conversations, the trust, the bonding that occurred because they were sharing something they both enjoyed paid spiritual and moral dividends in great ways, especially after CJ’s injury. Reflecting on his father’s role over the years CJ says, “He was always there in the right way. When I was in high school, he didn’t come to practices and complain about the coaches, none of that. But for the games, he was there. Same spot, same seat, that kind of thing. And it was a comfort thing. That was the thing. I knew my dad was there.”

In his earliest years, CJ also enjoyed the company of three grandfathers. Two had served in Korea, and his great grandfather lost a leg in the Philippines during World War II. It may have been precisely because of these grandfathers CJ so loved and respected that the desire to be a soldier was so great. His memories of small town Veteran’s Day parades when these former soldiers filed past and the crowds cheered touched his heart in a profound way. He was mesmerized by the selflessness of men who gave so much, who represented—in CJ’s mind—everything that was good and honorable and definitive about manhood. The words “Greatest Generation” captured his imagination and his heart. He adored his grandfathers and longed to be like them.

When CJ was an eighth grader, his Social Studies teacher asked the class, “If you could be born in any other time in history, what would it be?” CJ quickly answered, “1923.” His classmates asked incredulously, “Why would you want to be born right before the Great Depression?” CJ’s answer was, “Because I would have been 18 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and I could enlist.”

His Opportunity

After high school, CJ enrolled at Mississippi College. He majored in Administrative Justice and thought he would go on to law school not to practice law, but he thought those degrees would equip him for something like the FBI or a U.S. Marshall. He liked the rigors of something so structured and demanding.

CJ-Graduation-Photo-Page25He was restless. College was fine, but something did not seem right. There was something else he wanted more than that college degree. He yearned to be a soldier, and the tensions in the modern world made that dream seem very close. He began to pursue his options, discussing enlistment with both Army recruiters and his family. With his family’s blessing, he enlisted. And he had no doubt that this was exactly God’s unique plan for Charles Allen Stewart, III.

CJ graduated from Basic Training at the top of his class with awards for Marksmanship and Physical Training and received the Distinguished Honor Graduate designation. As a side note, he also developed a reputation as the spiritual leader among his peers. Nothing overbearing, but nobody could be around CJ for long before discovering exactly the driving force in his life.

The training to be a medic involved two distinct courses. He had a six-weeks course in civilian EMT school, and then a 12-week course in San Antonio at Fort Sam Houston, where he learned how to treat the injuries that were typical in a war zone. By the time he deployed in May 2010, CJ was prepared and eager for combat. Only a supernatural calling could cause someone to be so incredibly enthusiastic and eager to jump in harm’s way!

CJ-and-Scott-Steele-Page25Scott Steele, local radio celebrity and believer, remembers when the congregation at Broadmoor Baptist Church prayed specifically for CJ a few days before his deployment. “I put my hand on CJ’s right arm when our pastor encouraged our church to pray. Thirty-five days later, a member of our ministry team informed me that CJ had been injured in Afghanistan. I immediately reached out to Chuck Stewart through Facebook and invited him to dinner. I thought our family could offer a few meals and some spiritual encouragement.”

Reality

Three years later Scott is still marveling that in his effort to minister to the Stewarts, he is the one who has received the great blessing. “…It turns out they were the ones encouraging me! I’ve grown more as a man, husband, father, and child of God than I ever could have imagined because of the way the Lord has been glorified through the Stewart family.” He adds that their incredible faith, courage, and determination have had such an impact on him personally that he lives with a new sensitivity to the battle young people face every day because modern life is its own war. It is his personal calling to be a part of the Board of Directors of the CJ Stewart Foundation.

CJ, during his 18-month recovery and rehabilitation at Walter Reed, had the opportunity to observe countless families who, like his, were processing the enormous life changes that war inflicts on its victims. In CJ’s words, it is a “dark place.” To see families with no spiritual foundation grappling with the fallout of a disabled family member affected CJ greatly. There were many breakups and he saw so many people walk away simply because the demands and the challenges—both personal and monetary—were bigger than one regular person could manage. It is a heavy reality for even the most spiritually minded, but for those who have no foundation in Christ, there is absolutely no refuge and no hope.CJ-Purple-Heart-Page26

“Families…” he says with a sigh. “I can’t tell you how many families broke up from that experience over money, over the time spent in Walter Reed, over someone losing a job because of staying to take care of someone. So many families broke up when someone said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m 20 and you’ve lost both arms and/or both legs. I’m out.’”

Never before had CJ been so sensitive to family dynamics and the impact the whole thing can have when crisis hits. Simply by being there and observing, he came to have a heightened sense of how much one’s family history contributes to one’s ability to withstand the kind of trial he faced.

It was an incredibly sad place to be, and CJ did indeed thank God every day for the faith that had been instilled in him by family and significant others who had invested in his character throughout his life. The strength to endure came from that very grace. Even though he was not sure what was coming next, he never doubted that God was in it. Therefore, it was going to be okay—and much better than just okay.

CJ’s Dream Takes Shape

CJ-Foundation-LogoAlthough CJ’s plan for a military career had been derailed by his injury, his passion for the discipline and lifestyle was as strong as ever. Did God intend to use that training in some way? Key principles to everything in his belief system were the following: (1) He was created for a purpose. (2) God had spared his life for that purpose. (3) The only two things he could completely control were his attitude and his effort.

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During those long and difficult days at Walter Reed, CJ spent much time considering that purpose. It was there during his 18-month rehabilitation that the CJ Stewart Foundation was born. CJ’s perception was that he had not “lost” anything in the entire experience since nothing in this life was his very own to begin with. He knew that God had mercifully prepared him in advance with the coping skills to face his injury and the adjustments that came with it. He knew, too, that he had a great heart for kids and a keen awareness that he had been immeasurably blessed by having a father who had so beautifully modeled for him what it meant to be a godly man.

He had seen the struggles of some of his fellow soldiers whose entire identity had been wrapped up in the military, and how broken their lives were when that dream was taken away in an instant. He was aware of the heartbreaking statistics of boys who grow up without fathers. He now had a platform, a story to tell, and a personal understanding of what an overwhelming challenge really looks like. He could definitely help other young men who think life is stacked against them. We live in a culture where there has never been a greater need for boys to become godly men. CJ wants to help make that happen.

Down Range and Camp Kickapoo

By the time the old Camp Kickapoo near Clinton was up for sale, CJ had a board of directors, a mission statement, and a plan for reaching out and providing a place, an experience, and a program that will equip boys to be men of character, substance, and faith.

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The CJ Stewart Foundation has a three-phase plan to bring new life to this 193-acre property that has for many years nurtured young men as a Boy Scout camp. The vision includes a new name— Down Range. In military jargon, Down Range refers to deployment overseas, usually in a combat zone. CJ sees everyday life as a combat zone for Believers since modern life is filled with obstacles, challenges, disappointments, and an enemy seeking our destruction.

Battle-Tested-Bands-Page23“Only the strong survive,” he says, and he wants to be sure there are many who are strong and ready. Down Range will use team sports, obstacles, and rope courses and the outdoors to instill the values and the faith in young people—the values and the faith that God so graciously allowed CJ to embrace and that he desperately wants to pass on as his legacy to others.

There are also plans for Down Range far beyond the ministry to boys who need a role model. Couples, families, corporate retreat—there is not an individual or a group left out of the blueprint. CJ is hopeful, and certain too, that God is going to bring this together. Funds, talents, people, equipment—everything. After all, He has already done immeasurably more than CJ Stewart could ever have imagined or dreamed!

The foundation hosts its first fundraiser on April 8 when Tim Tebow comes to Jackson to speak on the foundation’s behalf. “His heart and his story run parallel to what our mission is, “ says CJ. Check the website www.cjstewart.org for more information.

ROBIN AND CHUCK STEWART
Parents’ Perspective—In their Own Words

Robin Stewart, CJ Stewart’s mom reflects on her son. She carried him, loved him, and knew he was special long before anyone else did!

CJ-Baby-Pic-Page30As you can see, {by these photos} my sweet little man has always had a smile on his face. He was the happiest baby. Such a pleasant child to be around. Everyone loved CJ. I don’t believe he ever met a stranger. He loved playing outside and anything with a ball. I do believe his first word was “ball.” He absolutely loved sports and played them all! He was very competitive yet always the little encourager to his teammates. His coaches called him the quiet leader.

CJ-Elementary-Page30He also loved working with kids and participated every year helping out with sports camps. He and a few of his buddies would often pop into my first grade class to read and mentor those precious students of mine. And now those kiddos are seniors, juniors, and sophomores at MRA—and once again CJ is involved in their lives as one of their Young Life leaders.

In high school, he was involved in Sports Ambassadors traveling and sharing the Gospel through sports during spring break. He was so excited to be able to share his faith at a juvenile prison in Guatemala. He came back with an empty suitcase because he gave away all of his stuff. I remember the week after Katrina he came home asking me if I still had a box with all our board games, because he and several buddies were on a mission. They were gathering up games and balls and heading out to all the area churches to play with all the kids who were displaced and living at the shelters. He felt that would give the parents, who were already stressed from not knowing if they had a home to return to, a much-needed break from their kids with cabin fever.

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There are so many more stories going over and over in my head of how he has always put others first. Sharing his gifts and talents with the younger kids. Giving away his baseball glove after his last game his senior year to a young man who thought CJ hung the moon. He was always aware, and occasionally I would remind him, that the younger boys were watching and to be a positive role model.

Was I surprised he emerged from his injuries with this passion and purpose? I would have to say no, not at all. His passion and purpose has always been part of who he is. He’s always been a very caring and giving individual. That is why when he told us that he wanted to join the Army to become a Combat Medic I wasn’t surprised at all. He loves his country and loves helping others. It was the job that he had prayed for. The job he could not wait to train for. The job to deploy for. It was his calling.

It was tough not being able to be there for CJ in those early days before and after each surgery. I was ready to hop a plane and fly to Afghanistan or Germany but was told I needed to wait. He would be stateside soon. Then some pictures were emailed to us by a friend of a friend who just happened to be in Germany, and when I saw his smiling face—that sweet smiling face—I knew in an instant he was going to be fine. That whatever had happened to him was going to be okay. That smile was a smile of acceptance and, “don’t worry about me, Mom—God’s in control!”

CJ-at-Walter-Reed-Page26While at Walter Reed with CJ, I witnessed things that no child should ever have to go through. Those were so pretty tough days—the surgeries, the pain, the challenges, and the unknowns, but I’m so very thankful that we serve a God who answers prayers. During those days, I saw a young man turn to God and seek His will for his life. I saw him accept what had happened to him and embrace that God gives His toughest battles to His strongest soldiers. That God had given him a story to share with others who may be going through pain, challenges, and unknowns too, and that there’s no obstacle too big for God to overcome.CJ-and-Wife-Page27

As soon as CJ was able to start learning to write left-handed, he did. Seeing him writing with his left hand with his right arm in a sling, brought back sweet memories of a little boy of about 4 years old coming to me with a rope asking—almost demanding—his mother to tie his right arm down because he wanted to be a lefty like his sister and the grandfather he shares his name with. I had to remind him of that and to be careful what you wish for. We both had a good laugh that day. Some days we just needed a good laugh.

The days I shared with CJ while at Walter Reed, although they were some of the toughest days of my life, were also some of the most precious and beautiful days. I can say that I’m closer to God now because of the journey I was so blessed to travel with my son. Seeing my son draw closer to God, seeking His will for his life, sharing the vision God gave him, and witnessing how God places individual in CJ’s life to help at that very moment with the foundation is truly a blessing! I cannot wait to see the young lives that are going to be touched and changed for eternity with Down Range.

Chuck Stewart, CJ’s proud father, shares his thoughts on his son’s journey.

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CJ, Robin, sister Megan, and Chuck

 

We were warned early that CJ would have a lot of bad days and we would need to be very patient during those days when his anger would take over for a while. But CJ never had a bad day. He recognized early that he was where God wanted Him to be and was being prepared for something special. I know people have a hard time believing that, but he never wavered.CJ-Pushup-Page25

Forty surgeries and more pain than I thought the human body could endure are hard to watch your son experience, but CJ reminded me that he had two great examples of men (his grandfather and great grandfather) who lived with daily pain. He lost over 30 pounds in a month fighting bacteria and told me that for a week, the smell of water made him sick. Yet in all that, he continued to remind us of Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.”

CJ-Speaking-in-Gym-Page27I’m not surprised CJ wants to help young people. Kids have always flocked to him. Most 24-year-old men have no desire to be a role model, but he relishes the chance to be a positive influence. The Foundation started with a disability check and has a vision that will cost millions of dollars to execute. He is so steady and reminds me daily that the battle is the Lord’s and our job is to simply be faithful.

We live in a world of instant gratification. CJ understands that he has a lifetime purpose and simply puts one foot ahead of the other knowing God will open the right doors on the right days.

Go to www.cjstewartfoundation.org. Check it out. It would be hard to NOT want to help here!