The First to Die
Credit: Courtesy the Childers Family
A gold star from the American Legion hangs by the front door of the Wyoming ranch house. The house is yellow, with a green shingle roof. It sits on a rolling, wind-beaten piece of land that's nubbed with sage. In the distance snow-dusted peaks jut up in every direction: the McCullough Peaks, the Absarokas, the Bighorns, the Pryors, the Beartooths.

Joe Childers greets me at the door. He's a strapping, generous-spirited man with a bulbous nose and spiky gray hair. He wears a Carhartt jean jacket and muddy cowboy boots. A tire gauge rests in the pocket of his denim shirt.

In 1990 Joe retired from his life of far-flung travel with the Seabees. He did two stints in Vietnam and then bounced around to nearly every corner of the world – Midway, Okinawa, Puerto Rico, Paris, Madrid, Jamaica, the Central African Republic. It was a fine career, affording a far better life for him and his family than continuing to work in the steel mills of his native West Virginia would have. Now he's a roustabout for a Wyoming oil company.

Mostly, though, he likes to lose himself in the work of this 125-acre ranch a few miles west of Powell, in the northwest corner of the state. Joe has owned this beautiful, ragged spread for more than 12 years, and it's his true love. Irrigating his fields with canal water diverted from the Shoshone River, he grows alfalfa and silage corn, and raises Black Angus, donkeys, mules, and Belgian draft horses. Old agricultural implements – harrows, rakes, sickles, grain drills, yokes, and horse-drawn plows – lie rusting everywhere.

Joe grabs two Bud Lights from the fridge in the barn. "Boy, Shane sure loved this place," he says. "Whenever he was on leave he'd come stay with us. He loved to go on long runs up there in those foothills. He'd just take off and be gone for hours. Last time he was here was around Christmas. We had a couple of feet of snow. He hitched up the Belgians to the sleigh and took off across the fields. You should have seen him up there, driving 'em."

By then Shane already knew that he would in all likelihood ship off for Kuwait. The Childerses have had a curious and long-standing relationship with the Middle East, as though their familial fate keeps circling back on itself. Living in Tehran at the end of the shah's reign, fixing locks and security cameras at the embassy and occasionally caring for the pleasure horses of the shah's rich friends, Joe witnessed firsthand the beginnings of America's toxic relationship with the Islamic world. All around him the country was unraveling. Nearly every day there were demonstrations or explosions or clouds of tear gas hanging over the city. Joe and his wife Judy, along with their three young children, were there for all of it. "Those were Shane's first memories of life," Joe says.

In late 1978, when all nonessential personnel were told to leave Iran, Judy and the children went home to West Virginia. In February 1979 Joe, along with most of the diplomatic staff, was briefly held hostage by Islamic fundamentalists who took over the embassy in a little-known precursor to the infamous hostage crisis that would shock Americans nine months later. "They stormed the gates and yanked down the American flag," Joe says. "They held us at gunpoint and marched us over to the ambassador's residence, and kept us there for a day." This anti-Americanism was still so new to Joe that he didn't recognize the full fervor behind it. He says, "I guess I wasn't as scared as I should have been."

We wander inside, where Judy is busy sorting boxes of sales orders that arrived this morning from Avon. She is a short, sturdy, direct woman from Idaho Mormon country, with a warm smile.

We sit down in the living room and Judy produces several family albums. She shows me a picture of Shane riding a horse in Spain, another one of him at a formal embassy function in Nairobi with Adi, stunning in her evening gown. "Here's one when he was just a little bud," Joe says. It was taken in Puerto Rico, where Joe worked at Roosevelt Roads Naval Base. Shane is holding a palm frond that's three times his size. He looks at the camera with those brown eyes, eyes that seem to look through you and on toward some distant beckoning future. The image is slightly blurred, as though Shane is moving too fast for the camera.

In high school Shane held himself to a demanding but unpredictable standard of perfection. He argued a lot, especially with his mom, and could be insufferable when advancing his notions. He had a fierce intolerance for bullies of any kind and did not hesitate to confront them. He played catcher in Little League. He hunted squirrels, fished for crappie and bream. By his sophomore year he was already molding himself to be a Marine, gulping down raw eggs, doing hundreds of sit-ups, running untold miles, and reading all the literature on the Corps he could find. He signed up for an early-entry program and never looked back.

Judy serves up three enormous steaks, extra-rare, from their private herd. "You know," Joe says, carving into his meat, "I've been around animals all my life. It's almost always true that if one in the litter's going to die, it's going to be the best one. Pigs, chickens, horses, cows – that best one, you watch him, he's gonna up and die on you."