We dug in deep, and shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ with all of our might
In the fall of 2003, my college football teammate Tony Tabasso and I contributed an article on CPT George Wood to our college football newsletter. Woody was a vibrant and talented officer in the US Army. But back in college, he was our fun-loving, wryly intelligent brother on the offensive line. In 2003, CPT Wood was the company commander of the 1-67 “Death Dealers”, in the Army's 4th Infantry Division. The 4th ID, or “digital division” as it's known, is the most technologically advanced armored division in the world. He was deployed in Iraq in the spring of ‘03, and patrolled the “Sunni Triangle” region, where hostilities were still commonplace. However, we never imagined that our article, Ammunition for Life, which began as a cheerful homage, would actually serve as a tragic foreboding of his last few days. In writing the profile on George, I enjoyed recalling those heady days with him. The double sessions, the goofy inside jokes, the impossibly wonderful memories that we shared as part of a championship team. But in writing the article, I thought that, in terms of his safety in Iraq, the odds were with us. Of the 100,000+ service members deployed there, we figured George would surely be safe. But George did not walk the safe path; his mission was rife with righteous peril and his leadership was fraught with enemy menace. George was killed by an IED on November 20, 2003, and in all likelihood, never read our distant salutation to a friend and teammate.
CPT Wood was an anomaly in the boisterous world of college football. For George, saying a private grace before meals or teaching himself to play Pink Floyd songs on the guitar was as natural as pushing around defensive ends. (I still think of George when I hear “Wish You Were Here”, though ironically, George exchanged his lead role from behind his helmet cage for a walk on part in the war.) His was a coarse exterior that housed a very sharp and penetrating insight into truly important matters. He was an outsider who never gave it much thought, a teammate who didn’t need to be reminded of it. Wild and yet grounded, rough and yet eerily sophisticated, Woody held an insouciant disdain for pretense and posturing. Hewas O-Line, in every sense of the word. I think back to my impression of him at his first practices. This big, unpolished kid would just work. And work some more. No complaints, no fear. He was fanatically devoted to football and improving as a player, but didn’t care that his M.O. was not flash and refinement. He preferred to measure himself by the standards of his toughest critic, himself. He developed into an integral part of the teams of the early ‘90’s, and earned All-Ivy honors, the Sid Roth Award (most valuable lineman) and the Offensive Red Helmet Award in 1992. Woody then financed MA degrees at Cortland (History) and SUNY Albany (Classics) under the ROTC program, and became fluent in Latin, Ancient Greek and German, after being stationed in Germany for 4 years, where he and his wife Lisa had a daughter, Maria, now 11.
Though George wasn’t especially vocal, he could expound expertly on some of the most arcane subjects. He would spend hours talking about football technique and handling defensive stunts, but he didn’t talk much about his personal goals or ambitions. He wasn’t in it for the acclaim in college, and he certainly wasn’t in Iraq. Thankless danger and violence was his vocation. Tough and dogged, yet light hearted and self-effacing, Woody took the victories of the team as his own pat on the back. And as fiercely loyal as he was to those closest to him, he was just as loyal to the goals of the team, to the aim of achievement. CPT Wood was a loving father and husband, a talented athlete and a devoted friend. But he was also a keenly incisive scholar, deft leader and committed teacher. Upon hearing of his passing, I humbly sat in audience of his final lesson: his own life. George served as an example of what is possible if we live our convictions and radiate our principles. To be sure, the whirring demands of life often seem overbearing and vexing. But George’s singularity of purpose enabled him to cut through life’s morass and live according to the foundational priorities of God, family, country, and team, in that order. He orchestrated his life according to a standard of clarity and simplicity, and refused to be deterred from his objectives. But simple is not necessarily easy. In George’s case, simple meant sacrificing not merely one’s time or treasure, but one’s most sacred gift. He died as he lived, devoted to the mission in front of him.
We move through life oblivious to our own mortality. Absorbed in our trivial concerns, forever groping for the inconsequential, we often forget that to live a life worth living takes sacrifice and courage. But George did not. As tragic as George’s demise was, and as much heartache as it surely caused, I take pride in having known him, and comfort in that his valor and fortitude will forever resonate through the spirit of those who knew and loved him. It is said that every warrior wants a good death. Giving one’s life on one’s own terms, for one’s most personal and triumphant dedications…if ever there is any such thing as a good death, perhaps we found our beloved, heroic example.
On a blustery Thanksgiving weekend in 2003, over 800 mourners gathered in Utica, NY to pay their final respects to George, offer condolences to his family and celebrate his extraordinary life. The funeral Mass concluded with a series of reflections by many of George’s closest friends and colleagues, all of whom movingly shared their own admiration and anguish or conveyed eulogies from fellow officers. Choking back grief, each offered his profound respect and deep gratitude for George’s service, personal qualities and friendship. A final, wrenching chapter of George’s military service concluded the memorial at Cavalry Cemetery, during which Captain Wood was awarded the Bronze Star and interred with full military honors and a 21 gun salute. As the names of the ranking officers then present were read, each stood and faced the assembly. When CPT George A. Wood was called upon three times, and three times he did not answer the roll, the finality of his demise evoked a pervasive, crushing sadness. Clutching the American flags presented to them by the Army Honor Guard, George’s mother and wife exited the chapel in bereft silence.
Rest in peace, my friend, and glory.