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A Marine's Death Brings Together His Dad And His Battlefield Buddy

A Marine's Death Brings Together His Dad And His Battlefield Buddy

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By Michael M. Phillips
Wall Street Journal
Pg. 1

HOOVER, Ala.—Two years ago, Matthew Proctor dropped to his knees in the Afghan dirt and watched his best friend bleed to death.

These days, when dreams get disturbing or guilt eats at his gut, there is one person the former Marine corporal is likely to call: Thomas Rivers Sr., his dead friend's father.

When Mr. Rivers, 60 years old and a pharmaceutical executive, feels himself sinking into black depression or misses the pleasures of raising a son, it is the 24-year-old Cpl. Proctor he confides in or invites over for a boat ride. "He lost a best friend, and in a sense I lost a best friend as well as my son," says Mr. Rivers. "That is a bond we share."

War sunders some relationships and forges others. More than 6,500 Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving gaping holes in families across the nation. Out of duty or kindness, guilt or need, the troops who survived often step forward to fill the voids their buddies left.

After Army Cpl. Benjamin Dillon, of Edinburg Township, Ohio, was killed in Iraq in 2007, one of his fellow Rangers—ravaged by post-traumatic stress—moved in with the corporal's brother. He stood guard at Cpl. Dillon's grave on Memorial Day. "There's no doubt he was looking for a family, and we were, too—to have something to hold on to," says the corporal's mother, Linda Dillon.

Maj. Chad Hubbard took it upon himself to watch over the family of a Marine casualty he had never met, Cpl. Adam Galvez of Salt Lake City. Over the past six years, Maj. Hubbard has written, called and visited the corporal's parents. At first he was driven by a sense of duty. Soon he discovered that the family helped him cope with his own grief over men lost in Iraq.

Messrs. Rivers and Proctor barely knew each other before Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Rivers Jr., 22, stepped on a buried bomb. Now they have a friendship that bridges the decades between them. "They both want to see each other get through this," says Charon Rivers, the lance corporal's mother.

Neither man would say that Cpl. Proctor has replaced Lance Cpl. Rivers, or that Mr. Rivers has displaced Cpl. Proctor's father. But those around them sense a bond that verges on the paternal. Cpl. Proctor and Mr. Rivers hunt and boat together. Through Cpl. Proctor, Mr. Rivers has come to know his son the warrior, not just the high-school student. And he gets a second chance to guide a young man.

Cpl. Proctor talks to Mr. Rivers about problems—his volatile anger, for instance—that he won't broach with his own father. "You need to walk him through how to make his own decisions," Mr. Rivers says of Cpl. Proctor. "I think I need that. I miss that with Thomas."

Among the Marine infantrymen, Cpl. Proctor and Lance Cpl. Rivers stood out. Both grew up in upper-middle-class homes and attended college-prep Christian schools.

Growing up in Nashville, Cpl. Proctor always had the military in mind. Bored in school, he joined the wrestling team and looked forward to the day he could enlist. "He has always been intense," says Dan Proctor, his father, who co-owns an airplane-maintenance company.

Lance Cpl. Rivers grew up slight, at 5-foot-8, but bulked up in high school and played football in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham. In eighth grade, he wrote an essay about wanting to become a Marine. He collected Marine T-shirts and posters and, like Cpl. Proctor, reported to boot camp after graduation.

Both were devout Christians. At Camp Lejeune before their deployment to Afghanistan, Cpl. Proctor stood before the 150 men of A Co., 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and announced he would be holding Bible study. The only other Marine who showed up was Lance Cpl. Rivers, who had a line from Psalm 91 tattooed across his back: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty."

In Afghanistan, some of the Marines used a Ouija board. The two friends would pray nearby to counter what they considered satanic influences.

Lance Cpl. Rivers was nimble enough to cross religious and social lines. He could both profess his Christianity and scrap with the bouncer at a strip club. Cpl. Proctor's outspoken faith irritated many other Marines, leaving Lance Cpl. Rivers's friendship vital to him.

In early 2010, their platoon was sent to a patrol base in a part of Helmand province notorious for makeshift insurgent minefields. The platoon was short of engineers trained to sweep the ground for bombs and Navy corpsmen to aid wounded Marines.

At 6 a.m. April 28, Lance Cpl. Rivers led his first and last patrol out of the base, with Cpl. Proctor, also a lance corporal at the time, as his No. 2. The plan was to relieve another squad occupying a mud-walled compound and retaliate against insurgent mortar teams hitting the patrol base.

Half an hour later, the nine men arrived at the compound. Lance Cpl. Rivers offered to stand guard for a tired Marine. He passed through an opening in the wall, stepped to his left and triggered the pressure-plate of a hidden bomb.

Cpl. Proctor saw dust billow up from the other side of the wall and felt the concussion. He ran into the compound and saw his friend on the ground. Lance Cpl. Rivers's feet had been blown off, and his legs were mutilated. Shrapnel had blown up into his torso.

The Marines swarmed Lance Cpl. Rivers, frantically strapping tourniquets onto the remains of his legs to try to stanch the bleeding. Cpl. Proctor checked on another wounded man and radioed for a helicopter.

Then he knelt beside Lance Cpl. Rivers, who drifted in and out of alertness. Back at Camp Lejeune the Marines had talked about wounds they didn't want to survive. As Lance Cpl. Rivers lay in front of him, Cpl. Proctor remembered his friend saying he didn't want to live without legs.

"Oh my f—ing God," Lance Cpl. Rivers moaned. "My f—ing legs. Just f—ing kill me."

"Rivers—you're fine," Cpl. Proctor told him. "Everything's going to be OK."

As the minutes passed, Cpl. Proctor took his Bible out of his pouch and asked his friend if he wanted to hear Psalm 91.

"Yeah, yeah, do that," Lance Cpl. Rivers said, according to Cpl. Proctor.

"You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday," Cpl. Proctor read.

A corpsman arrived. He performed mouth-to-mouth breathing and pressed Lance Cpl. Rivers's chest to help his heart beat. Still, the pulse faded away. In a calm voice, Cpl. Proctor radioed the command post: "Be advised…time of death 7:11."

Back at the patrol base, he curled up in the fetal position outside his tent and sobbed. He remembers raging at God: "Why would you take away the one Christian brother that I have?"

In Alabama, Mr. Rivers was up early as usual, getting a cup of coffee for Mrs. Rivers. He heard a car door slam outside and saw three men in uniforms walking up the drive. He opened the door. "You're not here to tell me that my son's dead," Mr. Rivers said. The Marines nodded.

Mrs. Rivers phoned Cpl. Proctor's mother, Dee Anne Proctor, fearful she might have lost her son, too. The women had hit it off at a dinner the night before they sent their sons off to war. Mrs. Proctor drove down from Nashville to comfort Mrs. Rivers.

A couple of days later, Cpl. Proctor called the Rivers house from Afghanistan. Mr. and Mrs. Rivers were hungry for information about how their son had died. Cpl. Proctor told them he had read the Bible to Thomas as he faded. He assured them that the death wouldn't be in vain; already nine Marines had joined his Bible study.

"I am here for you…. It's what Thomas would have wanted," Cpl. Proctor wrote to Mr. Rivers. "To watch over you, comfort you, and love you. Something I absolutely love doing. And is actually very helpful and therapeutic. I feel a sense of need to comfort you all. Please allow me to."

Mr. and Mrs. Rivers chose to skip the battalion's homecoming at Camp Lejeune; the thought of watching other sons step off the bus without theirs was crushing. Instead they arrived a few days later for a memorial service and stayed in a rented condominium with the senior Proctors.

Cpl. Proctor showed the Rivers photos of the compound where their son died. Mr. Rivers pushed Cpl. Proctor for details of his son's injuries. "I've been in the medical field for 24 years," Mr. Rivers remembers saying. "I want to know what happened." He found comfort in the description that followed because he realized his son, once wounded, had had no chance of survival.

For his part, Cpl. Proctor felt weighed down by guilt over his friend's death.

"It was Thomas's time," Mr. Rivers assured him more than once.

Cpl. Proctor, his father and Mr. Rivers went to a cigar bar near Camp Lejeune where they smoked and downed Jack Daniel's, Lance Cpl. Rivers's drink of choice. They talked about Thomas and Scripture.

Cpl. Proctor realized later it was at that moment he decided to devote himself to the Rivers family. He saw in his friend's father a man steeped in wisdom he could no long share with his son. "I can be a protégé," he told himself. "I can listen."

On leave, Cpl. Proctor traveled to Hoover before going home to Nashville. He slept in Lance Cpl. Rivers's room, among the trophies from pinewood derbies that Mr. Rivers and his son had entered together.

Afterward, he went to a party at a friend's fraternity house in Tuscaloosa. In Afghanistan, Cpl. Proctor had spent hours daydreaming about conversations he would have with friends once he returned home. He was excited to see a woman he had known in high school, and had thought about while overseas. "How are you?" she asked.

"I'm not too great," he answered. "I just got back from Afghanistan." She excused herself.

Cpl. Proctor was stunned. He collapsed on the floor, crying as hard as he had after Lance Cpl. Rivers's death. His host, Will Long, emptied the room, but another guest barged in and refused to leave.

Cpl. Proctor snapped. He felt the adrenaline of combat. A beer bottle in his hand, he lunged for the intruder's face. Mr. Long stepped between them.

"What is wrong with you?" Mr. Long asked.

Cpl. Proctor soon recognized the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He dreamed of killing his friends and hurting puppies. He chose to talk over his episodes with Mr. Rivers, not his own father.

"I can't talk about episodes of PTSD nearly as well with my father as I can with Tom because I feel Tom can relate," says Cpl. Proctor. They both were traumatized by Lance Cpl. Rivers's death, he reasons.

In the months that followed, Mr. Rivers and Cpl. Proctor grew closer. They would text or talk a couple of times a week. Cpl. Proctor left the Marine Corps last year and enrolled in a Nashville Christian college.

The Rivers family published a short religious tract about their son's death. The booklet highlighted Cpl. Proctor's role, especially how he says he drew other Marines to Christianity—and away from demon-worship—after Lance Cpl. Rivers's death.

The booklet, distributed by the thousands among the troops, further alienated him from many of his comrades, according to Cpl. Proctor and several former members of his platoon.

On weekends, Cpl. Proctor sometimes visits the Rivers family at their weekend lake house. He helps Mr. Rivers whack weeds and clean spiders off the motor boat. They spend hot afternoons drinking beer on the water, Mr. Rivers dragging Cpl. Proctor behind the boat on an inflatable raft.

Mr. Rivers worried that the corporal's father would see him as trying to usurp his role. But Mr. Proctor encouraged the relationship. On some subjects, he felt Mr. Rivers could speak to his son in a way that he no longer could.

"I'm very hesitant to give him advice because he has matured in a pressure cooker," the 55-year-old Mr. Proctor says of his son. "He has a lot of wisdom about him that I don't have."

When Cpl. Proctor met a girl he thought would make a good wife, he pursued her "like some fortress to be captured," his father recalls. It was Mr. Rivers who advised the corporal to ease off.

When Cpl. Proctor was negotiating the purchase of a house last year, his father pushed him to play hardball. It was Mr. Rivers who suggested how big to make the counteroffer.

Last December, Mr. Rivers took Cpl. Proctor to kill his first deer, just as he had done when his son was 10. "It's the first time I've been out here with someone who's not Thomas," Mr. Rivers told Cpl. Proctor.

Mr. Rivers outfitted him in camouflage and an orange hat. They spent two days in the woods, texting to each other over the 150 yards that separated their blinds.

"Should I bag it or wait?" Cpl. Proctor texted when he spotted a small buck.

"If you want it, shoot it. How long are the spikes?" Mr. Rivers responded.

"Can't tell…a foot?" Cpl. Proctor wrote.

"Shoot it," came the response. Mr. Rivers smiled when he thought about how he and Thomas used to text while hunting.

Mr. Rivers striped the young man's cheeks with the blood of his first kill.

In recent months the roles have reversed. While Cpl. Proctor's PTSD has eased somewhat, Mr. Rivers has struggled under a shroud of depression so severe that he thought himself ill and ordered blood tests. One bad night he dreamed he had taken Thomas's place and died in the bomb blast. Another night he saw the incident from Cpl. Proctor's viewpoint, kneeling next to his dying son.

"It was like you're in the bottom of a well," Mr. Rivers says.

On the second anniversary of the death, several of his son's high-school and Marine friends visited the Rivers house. Mr. Rivers felt the walls closing in on him. Normally gregarious, he sat alone in virtual silence.

Later he called Cpl. Proctor, and they talked of Thomas.

"I'm really missing him right now," Mr. Rivers told him.

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