The state of Delaware bestowed on us a leader guided by the principles that could reunite our divided nation.
But 43-year-old Christopher Slutman was not a politician like Joe Biden of Delaware and the other candidates who aspire to become our country’s next leader.
He was from the 1 percent of us who are not rich but constitute our nation’s essential wealth, the first responders and members of the military who stand ready to sacrifice all.
Slutman was both a Marine staff sergeant and a New York City firefighter. He was on military leave from Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, nearing the end of his most recent deployment with the Marine reserves in Afghanistan, when he and two comrades were killed by a roadside bomb on April 8.
After the news reached his firehouse, his comrades made an addendum to the whiteboard on which they keep a tally in black Sharpie of the number of American casualties in the war that much of the nation forgets, but the FDNY would have always remembered even if it had not started with 9/11. The latest addition to fatalities in 2019 was in FDNY red:
“6 + 1.”
Slutman’s name joined that of other fallen members of the company painted on the side of the rig. His was accompanied by his twin distinctions:
“FF/SSGT Christopher Slutman.”
At 11am on Friday, the very day Slutman was supposed to have been on his way home from Afghanistan, the rig rolled slowly to the front of St. Thomas Church, just down Fifth Avenue from Trump Tower, the eponymous Manhattan home of our present leader. The emergency lights were flashing. An American flag flew from the back. A white gloved hand was on the steering wheel. The slate gray sky above portended rain.
Behind the rig came the FDNY Pipes and Drums playing a mournful “Dawning of the Day.” The pipes went silent and the drums began the same slow march they had played at hundreds of funerals and memorials after 9/11 and too many since then. That included rites for three other firefighters who had died while serving with the military during our longest war.
The ceremonial caisson bearing the remains of the fourth such loss now pulled up to the church and stopped. The drums ceased and the whole avenue was hushed as an attentive group of firefighters, Marines, and family led Slutman’s three daughters inside. The girls were wearing white dresses. McKenna is 10, Kenley is 8, and Wesleynn is just 4.
Their mother, Shannon Slutman, stood in the street with her husband’s longtime best friend, Army Sgt. Bruce Weaver. Her eyes were on the flag-draped coffin atop the caisson.
Also present were Slutman’s parents and three bothers. One brother is in the Marines, another in the Army. The third is a firefighter in Washington, D.C. The father is an Army vet and was a volunteer firefighter, as was Slutman’s mother.
“Detail, hand salute!” a voice called out.
Thousands of white gloves rose to dress uniform cap brims as an FDNY honor guard carried the coffin from the caisson. A lone piper began to play “Amazing Grace.” The other pipers then joined in, filling the air with what felt at the center of the chest like the swelling of overwhelming grief. The face of a Marine sergeant standing across the street clenched as he fought back tears.
Shannon Slutman closed her eyes and tilted her head back for an instant before she composed herself. Her left hand raised seemingly to wipe away tears, but instead tucked back her hair. She had told people that she and her husband had discussed that a day such as this could come.
The white gloves lowered as the FDNY honor guard gently set the coffin on a red wooden stand at the base of the stone steps. A USMC honor guard just as gently raised it.
“Detail, hand salute!” the voice called out again,
The white gloves rose again and the band struck up the Marine Corps hymn as the coffin was carried up into the church. The steps were lined by firefighters on the left, Marines on the right.
Inside, the USMC honor guard placed the coffin before the altar. Slutman’s wife and three daughters sat in the front pew to the left. The first speaker was Marine Sgt. Major Christopher Armstrong, who has served 27 years, eight of them in the same unit as Slutman.
“Upon joining the unit, I began observing the Marines; who they watched, how they looked at their leaders, and what they said,” Armstrong told the mourners. “There were a small number of men that when they spoke, silence fell; when they issued an order, the response was immediate; and when they were looked upon, it was with reverence. Christopher Slutman immediately stood out as a leader who was respected and admired.”
Armstrong added, “He didn't pound his chest, he didn’t try to impress or go on about what he was going to do. He just did it.”
Armstrong continued, “He placed his Marines’ welfare before his own, always. Chris never sought credit, but he always gave it.”
Armstrong described how Slutman led his Marines.
“You treat them with firmness, fairness, dignity, and love.”
Armstrong’s love for Slutman now caused his voice to break. He addressed the daughters.
“Girls, your daddy is and will forever be our hero, and this world is a better place for having been graced by such an amazing man,” he said.
FDNY Battalion Chief Chris Williamson spoke next. He said Slutman had received a medal in 2014 for bravery while responding to a fire on the seventh floor of a high-rise building in the Bronx. Slutman had encountered intense heat and thick black smoke from floor to ceiling, but he had not waited for a hose line to cover him.
“Chris crawled on his belly through the smoke to a rear bedroom and found an unconscious woman,” Williamson said.
Williamson did not add that this meant crawling blindly amid flames and toxic fumes in ever increasing danger of being unable to find your way out, feeling around until encountered what your hand recognized as a human form.
“He dragged the woman back out past the fire and out of the apartment,” Williamson simply said, as understated as had been Slutman himself.
Williamson went on to describe a day when the company stopped at a combined Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins.
“Everyone had a cup of coffee in their hand, but I noticed Chris had an extra-large pink milkshake in a clear cup that had about four inches of whipped cream and a cherry on top,” Williamson remembered. “I jokingly said to him, ‘Chris, you’re going to ruin my image of you. Jarhead Marine Corps warriors don’t drink pink milkshakes.’ At this point Chris took a long sip, making sure to get his nose down in the whipped cream, then came up with a pink milk mustache with a dot of whipped cream on the end of his nose.”
Williamson reported what Slutman then said:
“This one does.”
As would be expected, FDNY Commissioner Dan Nigro spoke. He described Slutman as "the type of American we can all be proud of.”
“Chris was a protector of those in danger, a defender to those who needed him, a rescuer to those who needed saving, and a leader who demonstrated his valor on every tour of duty both here and abroad,” Nigro said.
As Slutman was a native son of Delaware, the state’s current governor, John Carney, also stepped up to the lectern.
“Our former vice president and United States senator Joe Biden from Delaware has a prayer that he offers those who lost loved ones,” Carney said. “And that prayer is this: May the time come quickly when the memory of Chris brings a smile to your lips instead of a tear to your eye.’”
The offering of a prayer from a politician in these circumstances might have been expected to cause some of the mourners to shift in their pews and maybe glance at each other. But none of that was apparent as viewed from the choir loft.
Biden does indeed have some searingly hard-earned wisdom on the subject, having lost his wife and daughter in a car accident years ago and more recently his son to brain cancer. And he is enough of a regular guy that he was well received when he stopped into the quarters of FDNY Rescue 1 on the 14th anniversary of 9/11.
Biden paused to speak to the sister of one of the 11 members of Rescue 1 who died at the World Trade Center. He posed for a photo with current members.
“Your reputation’s going to take a hit taking a picture with me,” Biden had half joked.
“Yeah, you’re all right,” one of the firefighters had said.
The firefighter had been speaking not about Biden’s politics, but about Biden himself, his worth as a person as it might have been appraised by their murdered brothers. The firefighter afterward offered a high compliment.
“Genuine,” he said of Biden.
But if being Genuine Joe can make Biden that rare Democratic politician whose mention does not make America's more noble 1 percent grow uneasy at this mention during a line of duty funeral, it does not mean he is a leader such as Armstrong described. He was shaky when running the Anita Hill hearing and shaky when apologizing for it years later. He was back and forth when it came to raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He is not one of those few who are looked upon with reverence and inspire silence when they speak.
But Biden and the rest of us do have a guide to follow in the person of the fallen Marine and firefighter from his home state. Further insight into the way of Slutman came when his best friend, Sgt. Weaver, became the final speaker.
“Chris was the way he was because of his big heart,” Weaver said. “That was at the core of his sense of duty. Every oath he swore was meaningful.”
Weaver invoked his friend’s full name, as would befit a historical figure.
“This country needs more Christopher Kenley Aldrich Slutman. This country needs more firm handshakes. More eye contact. More truth tellers. And more people of heart.”
Weaver said he had managed to speak to Slutman about three days before he was killed. Weaver had to sought Slutman’s advice about a personal problem he was having. Slutman, who called him “Brucie,” had said two things.
One was “Brucie, do what’s right whether or not anyone’s looking.”
The other was “Brucie, keep your mouth shut and be supportive.”
Brucie now summed up Slutman.
“He was everything right about us.”
The service neared a conclusion with a long moment of silence for all those who have fallen victim to terrorism and war. That was ended by a lone FDNY piper playing “The Fallen.” The entire assemblage then sang the National Anthem.
Rain had begun falling outside, as if the sky itself were faring no better than the clench-faced Marine sergeant who had fought to hold back tears earlier. The flag-draped coffin was further covered with clear plastic before the USMC honor guard carried it back out of the church and down to the wooden stand at the base of the steps.
One hand salute was again followed by another as the USMC honor guard again passed the coffin the FDNY honor guard, which carried it to the caisson. The band played “Going Home” and then “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Slutman’s wife was standing with their daughters out front under an umbrella. Two buglers began playing “Taps” and the mother pulled the youngest girl to her. The middle girl leaned into her mother.
Commissioner Nigro presented Shannon Slutman with her husband’s helmet, which had been respectably scuffed and battered while he was saving lives. The oldest girl reached over to touch it and gave it a little loving tap.
At that indelible instant, we as a nation became all the more obligated to unite and do what’s right, whether or not anyone’s looking, to be truth tellers and people of heart. The three girls returned with their mother to one of the vans that would follow the caisson bearing their father's casket.
The band struck up “America the Beautiful,” and America had never seemed more wrenchingly so as the procession started down along 11 blocks of uniformed firefighters and Marines and other members of that other 1 percent. The sky beyond the foot of Fifth Avenue was brightening, but the rain kept falling, leaving the living with a chill.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the FDNY band will be at the Memorial Gate of Arlington National Cemetery for Staff Sgt./Firefighter Christopher Slutman’s internment. Another memorial is said to be set for Wednesday in Delaware, and if Biden does not already plan to attend, he should. He should sit at the back and not talk, but listen. He and the rest of us could still learn much from the true leader that Delaware bestowed on us.