Chris "AZ" Rush
If you were in Beaver Creek, CO this past weekend, you might have noticed them; a group of striking, loud, well-built men in dark sunglasses and dark suits. The way they constantly ribbed each other and told stories of the past might have made you think they were brothers, except for the fact that they come in all shapes and sizes, with different skin tones and varied accents.
You would be right, though, because it’s true; they are brothers.
They are brothers who’ve forged their bonds through the shared experience of preparing for and enduring war, and they had gathered there on Vail mountain to honor, celebrate, and grieve one of their own for whom the lasting toll of that war had become too great a burden to bear.
They came from all over the country, some for only a matter of hours, because they wanted to look Rush’s parents, siblings and nephews in the eye when they talked about the impact he had made on their lives.
I’ve learned that showing up for each other is what these men do.
Several of us gathered in Denver the night before the service, and I marveled at how these guys, some of whom hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, picked up right where they had left off, laughing and drinking, leaning into the nostalgia of their shared history. I had been warned that the guys would party hard and that it would be a late night. By the end of it, I was struggling to keep my eyes open. Still, I tried to rally. I wanted to soak up every word.
The next morning, I was introduced to a concept I had experienced but had never heard named. With a 2-hour car trip ahead of us, and the somber nature of the reason we had gathered looming heavy in the cramped car, the guys decided that what was needed were road sodas. (Yes, that is the official term.)
On our way out of town, we stopped at a gas station, only to find that gas stations don’t sell alcohol in Colorado. We tried a grocery store, only to learn that there is some kind of law that prohibits them from selling alcohol at 9:30 in the morning. Desperation building and time running short, we set our sights on finding a liquor store that was open. This turned out to be no small task.
Enter Joe’s Liquor, a dilapidated, dirty shack of a shop with bars on the windows and door, and Joe himself, a man who came to the door half dressed, half awake, and probably only half sober. I had called ahead and used my powers of persuasion, saying that if he would be so kind as to open up early, we’d make it worth his while. I’m not sure what he expected after talking to me, but I’m sure he was surprised to find that the “we” I had referred to was one blonde woman in heels and 4 guys he was probably glad he hadn’t said “no” to. He ushered us inside.
The memorial service was held in Beaver Creek Chapel; a beautiful, sunlit space nestled into the trees beside the rushing mountain creek for which the community was named. When we arrived, Rush’s family welcomed us with an open wholeheartedness that warmed me to my toes, even as the breeze bounced off the cool mountain creek, giving me chillbumps on my legs and arms.
Their smiles were genuine and generous and tinged with the same pain I saw in the eyes of Rush’s teammates; they were happy to be together, but utterly devastated over the reason why.
Rush’s local friends and family sat on the left side of the chapel and the military contingency sat on the right. That had happened organically and unintentionally, and when James, Rush’s brother, stood to speak, he made a joke about it, which provided a moment of levity amid the otherwise somber service.
I was there as a supportive friend and as a writer, but more than anything, I was there as a grateful American; a civilian who will never fully understand what Rush and his teammates have seen and done but who is deeply, eternally grateful for their willingness to do it.
It was only after the ceremony, when we were standing around becoming more and more comfortable with each other, when we were having lunch and Rush’s dad was making jokes that made the room erupt with laughter, when we were toasting Rush and drinking whiskey until they started vacuuming the floor at the Dusty Boot Bar (a subtle way of kicking us to the curb) and later, when we found ourselves swimming in the resort pool, soaking in the hot tub, and being way too loud for so late in the evening, that I realized what was happening: bit by bit, word by word, the people in attendance were telling the story of Rush.
It was like each person who attended had brought a piece of him with them, and as stories were traded and pictures were shared and tears were cried, they were giving each other gifts; parts of Rush that the other person hadn’t known existed, parts that it felt like rediscovery of him to learn.
For example, no one on Blue team had any idea that Rush was personal friends with James Hetfield of Metallica and yet, there he was in the chapel… sitting on the friends and family side, of course. Based on their reactions to seeing him, though, I’m pretty sure the Blue team guys would have let him sit with us. I don’t know. That’s just a hunch.
A moment that was especially poignant to me was when Colonel Allen stood and shared his memory of the time Rush had been shot on a mission, sharing details that were unknown to his family, only to have Rush’s dad then stand and share what the conversation had been like when Rush called home to give his parents the news, something his teammates wouldn’t have been privy to before.
“How bad is it?”
“How did you know?”
“You’re my son.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
The comfort that came out of those sacred moments of exchange is priceless. Rush’s family got to witness the strength and steadfastness of the brotherhood to which he belonged, and Rush’s teammates got to witness the deeply rooted, loving foundation he had at home.
By the end of the weekend, there was no longer a military contingency on one side and a group of locals on the other. By the end of the weekend, there was a new family of sorts; each person leaving with new connections that are strong and rich and comforting.
In this way and in so many ways, Rush’s life was a gift to the people he loved.
Knowing him meant we had the opportunity to know each other.
And James. It was really, really cool to meet James. We just wish Rush could have been there to introduce us.