In the darkened living room of a small, wood-frame house in northeast Houston, several members of the Stephens family are watching a home videotape that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Looking directly into the camera, Army S. Sgt. Christopher Stephens announces that he has been ordered to pack his bags for combat duty in the Persian Gulf.
“I really don’t want to go, but I have to,” Chris says. “In case something does happen … I don’t want you to grieve too hard for me, because life goes on.” Then, flashing a smile, he concludes, “I think I’ve lived a happy life.”
Drue Stephens-Hines, 26, Chris’s kid sister, weeps as she stares at the television screen. “There’s my baby, there he is,” she says. “I can watch that tape over and over. It keeps him alive.”
Chris Stephens taped this video message last November in Frankfurt, Germany, as he prepared to leave for Saudi Arabia with the 3rd Armored Division. The sense of foreboding he expressed turned out to be prophetic. Stephens, 27, was killed on Feb. 26 when the Bradley Fighting Vehicle he commanded was hit by Iraqi fire.
During the funeral at Houston’s Greater Jerusalem Baptist Church on March 9, Chris’s brothers Edmund, 31, Willard, 30, and Timothy, 25, sat rigidly in the front pew. Like Chris, whose uniform had been neatly pressed for the open casket ceremony, the three brothers wore dress greens, with stripes identifying each of them as United States Army sergeants. Like Chris, they had all fought in the gulf. Michael, 29, a cook at a Houston diner, was the only Stephens brother who didn’t participate in Desert Storm.
While other GIs celebrated the overwhelming American military victory over Iraq, Edmund, Willard and Timothy were left with an irrevocable sense of loss. They bowed their heads humbly at their brother’s funeral as they sat alongside his widow, Jennie, 27, and his five children, Alesio, 10, Christopher Jr., 9, Demetrick, 7, Rodrell, 6, and Dominique, 2.
Although the Stephens brothers served in different units, by chance they were all deployed to the front lines in Saudi Arabia just a few weeks before the start of the allied ground offensive. “I thought, ‘All four, I could lose all four,” says Emma Stephens-Bell, 50, the matriarch of the family. “At first I was falling apart. I prayed a lot. It never crossed my mind that the Army would send some of my sons and leave the others. Knowing them, they would volunteer anyway.” Despite her own anxiety, when her sons groused in letters about how the sand made it impossible for them to stay clean, Emma fired off a Xeroxed letter to each of them. “My dears, you’re in the military, in a war,” she wrote. “This is not a country club.”
Emma, who moved to California five years ago and works as a switchboard operator at Cabrillo College in Aptos, put an American flag in her living room window for the duration of the war, rolling it so only four stars showed. “The only positive thing is that just one of the boys died,” she says. “But the pain still goes so deep, you can’t imagine it.” To vent her frustration, Emma smashes inexpensive dishes in a big metal container in her yard. “I just want to destroy things.” she says. “I don’t know why.”
Of the six children Emma raised, Chris had the unique and magical ability to summon the sun on a dreary day. “When I was pregnant with Chris, I went bowling for eight months,” Emma recalls. “I was a happy person. That must have passed on to Chris.” Charles Etta Jones, 70, Chris’s maternal grandmother, describes him as a born comedian. “If he couldn’t make you laugh,” she says, “you didn’t have a laugh in you.”
It was Chris who pulled the family together when his parents separated. Because Emma had asthma, the entire family moved to Colorado in 1970. But father Willie Stephens, now 56, a car mechanic and Baptist minister, was dissatisfied with his job there and returned to Houston the next year. Chris, Will and Michael joined him in 1974. Three years later Chris, then 14, wrote his mother and begged her to come back. Emma says the letter “touched my heart.” She agreed to move back in with her husband until their youngest child, Tim, finished high school. (The Stephenses divorced in 1984, and Emma eventually moved to California and remarried.)
After Emma’s return, everyone in the Stephens household worked hard to make the feeling of togetherness last, “I taught my children they should depend on each other,” says Emma. “We are a family.” A natural pecking order soon emerged, based on age. Chris deferred to his elder brothers. Will and Eddie, who made sure everyone completed their chores and homework. In turn, Chris looked after his younger siblings. “Everyone knew if they messed with us they messed with Chris,” says Tim.
As a cornerback for the Smiley High School Eagles, Chris earned the nickname Ironhead for his physical toughness. He was hardheaded in other ways as well. “He was a very precise person,” says Eddie. “With Chris, you did it, and you did it right the first time.” A compulsive neatnik, Chris was livid when his brother Michael went to school without shoelaces one day. “Chris was always a snappy dresser,” says Tim. “He was never wrinkled. And you couldn’t be with him unless you were clean and pressed.”
The girls flocked to Chris, and in his junior year one became pregnant with his daughter Alesio. Even though the romance was short-lived, Chris remained on good terms with the mother and, says Tim, “made sure Alesio was taken care of, that she had food and clothes.” During his senior year, Chris married Jennie Paden after she became pregnant with Christopher Jr. In addition to receiving financial help from his mother, Chris took a part-time job at a department store to support his pregnant wife. Soon after he graduated from high school in 1981, he joined the Army.
Willard and Edmund had enlisted two years earlier, and Chris was determined to follow their lead. Likewise, Tim signed up in 1984. “I advised them not to join,” says Emma. “But they didn’t listen to me.” For the brothers, the Army represented the quickest way to get ahead. “The Army is a way to get started in the world,” says Eddie. “You get a chance to move up.”
Chris had expressed an interest in data processing but, after signing up, was assigned to the infantry. His family continued to grow as he shuttled from Fort Stewart, Ga., to Fort Hood, Texas, en route to a long-term posting to Germany in 1986. His brothers say the Army helped Chris mature. Most of all, they were impressed by the sense of responsibility he passed on to his children. “Chris brought his kids up to say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ” says Tim. “But they knew he was a fun daddy too.”
By chance, the four Stephens brothers all found themselves stationed in Frankfurt as the crisis in the gulf began to unfold. In the weeks before they left for assignments at the front, the brothers were surprised at how introspective Chris had become. “We told him all of us would be okay,” says Tim. “But he kept saying he thought something would happen there. Somehow he knew.”
The news of Chris’s death took five days to reach all his brothers. “When it happened, nobody tried to call us,” says Will, a sergeant with a communications unit, who is still very uncomfortable talking about Chris. Eddie, a switchboard operator for a communications unit, says he “cried and cried like a baby.” By contrast, Tim, a truck driver who ferried food and water to the front, was too shocked for tears. “I just sat outside for hours,” he says, “and all I could think was, ‘He knew.’ ”
Chris”s siblings all felt a unique bond with him, observes his grandmother Jones, because of his ability to respond to each of them on their own terms. Tim liked his playfulness, while Eddie most respected his seriousness. And everyone appreciated his selfless devotion to the family. “He was like a railroad connection; he got them from all directions,” says his grandmother. “That’s why it hurts so deep. It was like ripping out the center of the family.”
For his children, the younger two of whom still wonder why he is not coming home, there is a special message on the video Chris made. “Y’all need to keep on top of your grades,” he said. “What do you say to drugs? You say no to drugs. Drugs is the wrong way. Keep going to church and keep praying. Whatever y’all do, don’t forget. Daddy loves you very much.”