TUCSON, Ariz. – On a perch overlooking the pristine baseball diamonds of Cherry Field is the prospective site of a memorial dedicated to one of the finest athletes Tucson has ever known.
Chris Moon was a pitcher who threw more than 90 mph and a center fielder who could throw out a base runner with precision. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the late rounds of the 2007 MLB First-Year Player Draft, but instead accepted a partial scholarship to his dream school, the University of Arizona.
Moon seemingly had everything going for him, but while friends and family had grand visions of watching him play professional baseball, he longed for a different challenge.
In fall 2007, just a semester into his first year at Arizona, Moon told Wildcats coach Andy Lopez he was quitting the team to join the Army. Lopez spent more than an hour trying to talk Moon out of his decision.
But Moon's mind was made up.
"He was legit," Lopez said. "I personally think that if he would have played here three years … I'm not sure he would have been a big leaguer, but he would have had an opportunity to play professional baseball."
Less than two years later, Moon was dead at age 20.
"It was hard to imagine somebody giving up what he had to go serve our country," said Mike Boese, the head athletic trainer at Tucson High and the man spearheading the memorial. "I always tell people, Chris Moon was the high school/college version of Pat Tillman."
Brian and Marsha Moon cried as they watched their son leave home with an Army recruiter in the early morning hours of a chilly February day in 2008.
Only two months earlier, Brian was watching TV when Chris sat down on the couch and said he needed to talk.
"He came to me, I was in the living room, and he sat down and he said, 'Dad, I know you're not going to like this, but I want to do something harder than play baseball,'" Brian said. "And then he said, 'I want to join the Army.' It was really difficult because I wanted to do the right thing as a parent and reflecting on that, that's going to haunt me for the rest of my life.
"I said, 'Well, you know, you've lived our dream to now. I guess it's time for you to now go and live your dream. So if this is what you want to do, then I support you. I don't like it, but I support you in it.'"
Brian said the family didn't feel the enormity of Chris' decision until they watched him drive away. Chris was off to Fort Benning, Ga., where he would complete infantry training. He then joined the 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he enrolled in sniper school in 2009.
Chris excelled there, just as he had on the baseball diamond.
"When we were in sniper school, he was just naturally good at it," said Chris Rush, who was Chris Moon's sniper partner. "The shooting, he was good, but just the way he could move around.
"Whenever we'd do stalking, which is when you sneak up to a target, shoot and you try to not be detected, he'd do it in like 40 minutes when it took the rest of us like three hours."
When Chris Moon told his parents he was joining the Army, there was always a hope he wouldn't get deployed. He'd stay in the United States, train, be prepared, but never actually see the battlefield.
But the Moons knew their son better than that. If there was a chance to get in the fray, Chris would be the first to volunteer.
"We had lots of father-son talks," Brian recalls, pausing for a moment to hold back tears. "I would tell him, 'You're a leader and people are going to look up to you. You have to do the right thing. And when somebody calls someone out to do something, be ready. Be the person that's ready to do it. Be the one that's ready to step up.'"
Chris got his chance to step up in September 2009, when the 4th Brigade Combat Team was deployed to Afghanistan. Chris kept in touch with his family as much as possible, sometimes via satellite phone and later via Skype. He'd tell Marsha he was envisioning eating at his favorite restaurants or his family's home cooking. He'd remark about the mountains and sunrises in Afghanistan and how they reminded him of Tucson. He'd proudly speak in baby talk to his infant niece, Semira, the daughter of his sister, Sunday, as his fellow soldiers listened and laughed.
Chris came home for some R&R on Christmas Day of that year. He showed pictures and told stories.
Brian and Marsha smiled and laughed as Chris spun his tales, but inside they ached because they couldn't protect their son from the dangers they knew he was constantly facing.
It was the most helpless feeling in the world.
"We could just sense this enormous severity and I just said, 'Chris, I wish I could go get you. I wish I could bring you back, but I can't.'" Brian recalls from a phone conversation. "So I said, 'Just take care of yourself. Just watch out for yourself. Don't do anything crazy. Just try to protect yourself.' I didn't know what else to do. What else can you do in that situation?"
Chris went back to Afghanistan in January and Marsha couldn't sleep. She was haunted by Chris' stories, which were only enhanced by her own imagination. He'd call, say the things sons say to their adoring mothers and she'd tell him she'd pray for him.
"His thing was always, 'Oh Mom, don't worry about me, I'll be OK.'" Marsha recalled. "And even in his deployment, that's the same thing. 'Mom, pray for my men, pray for my men. And don't worry about me, I'm OK. I'll see you.'"
But then Chris called a few weeks before his death and his tone had changed. He was finally opening up about the perils of his situation as if he knew his remaining time was limited.
"It was not 'pray for my men' anymore," Marsha said. "It was, 'Mom, pray for me.'"
Brian Moon considered baseball to be the ultimate father-son activity. The two were constantly working toward making Chris the best player in his age group and beyond. Brian recalls cutting a bicycle inner tube in half and tying one end to the rafters of their garage and the other to a baseball bat in order to create resistance to make Chris a stronger hitter. Upon trying it out, Chris, then 10, wasn't ready for the force of the resistance and the bat snapped back and sliced open his forehead. In the emergency room, the two thought better of the idea.
Failed efforts aside, Brian's instruction helped his son become one of the best young baseball players in Arizona. He was on every all-star team and in every select tournament. He hit a walk-off home run in the high school playoffs at Cherry Field in 2006. He threw a complete game one-hitter in the American Legion World Series in 2007.
Brian said he initially thought his son could be an average player, but then Chris would shock him with a dynamic play and he started to believe his son could be a better player than even he imagined.
Oscar Romero, the coach at Tucson High, said he first noticed Chris as a freshman.
He was throwing the ball from foul pole to foul pole.
"That's kind of the ham that he was in a way, and he wanted to make sure that we took notice of him," Romero said. "But he was just so God-given in terms of his abilities."
It didn't take long for Romero to learn Chris' name, but it did take him two more years to call him up to varsity. Tucson High's team was packed with talent and Romero wanted to make sure Chris would play every day. Chris made varsity in 2006, his junior year, and immediately became a star. Whether it was pitching his team to victory, making the game-winning play in the field or delivering the game-winning hit, Chris had a knack for coming through in the clutch.
He finished that season as the Southern Arizona Player of the Year with a .462 batting average, three home runs and 23 RBI. He also had an 8-2 record as a pitcher with a 1.21 ERA and four complete games.
"He would find a way to have the final say in games," Romero said. "He was our guy. That was a talented team, but he stood out. As the year progressed he became, not a loud leader, just a leader by example. The kid would hustle like no other. You never saw a lazy bone in the kid. It was always like it was his first day of practice and he was so excited to get on the field and play the game."
But as Chris' profile on the baseball field started to increase, his mind began wandering to the battlefield. Chris, who was part Navajo from his mother's side, wanted to get more in touch with his Native American roots. He began spending time with his aunt's boyfriend, who was Native American and former military. It was also during this time that Chris participated in a sweat lodge ceremony, a Native American ritual that cleanses the spirit and connects participants to their spirit guides. Chris, who was 15 years old, was given guidance about his future and met his spirit animal, a hawk, which he would later tattoo across his back.
Brian said the first time he ever heard his son mention the Army was around age 16, when he asked his dad if he'd allow him to join after high school. Chris' birthday was in August, so he'd only be 17 when his time at Tucson High was over.
Brian remembers being upset with his son and emphatically telling him he'd never sign an Army permission slip.
"I told him that, 'You already have a challenge, you already have something that can challenge you. Going into the military is for someone that doesn't have any other choices right now,'" Brian said. "That's how I put it; that's how I thought of it."
Graduation came and went and Chris enrolled at the University of Arizona. He seemed to adjust well, making friends with his teammates while excelling as a pitcher and center fielder. Lopez thought he'd be a contributor in the spring.
But Chris' spring season never came as he decided to leave a spot on the University of Arizona baseball team and join the Army instead.
Brian often thinks about the day his son announced his plans. Brian said he could have told his son 'no' like he had two years earlier, but something told him that wasn't the right decision. It was time to let his son follow his own path.
A year later, that couch where the family had their initial talk would be the last place Brian would hug and kiss his son, as he went off to work and Chris went back to his unit for the last time.
Chris' final phone call to his family came from the Arghandab Valley in Kandahar, the southern region of Afghanistan where his unit was performing its final mission, preparing an untested artillery unit to replace them and continue to push for control of a key section of territory.
The fighting had intensified and Chris' company was incurring severe losses. As chronicled in The Atlantic by Brian Mockenhaupt, more than half of the unit's 42 men were killed or wounded during their time in Afghanistan.
Chris was no stranger to firefights, but the constant struggle to just live through the day was taking its toll. His mood grew somber in late June when a roadside bomb killed his mentor, Staff Sgt. Edwardo Loredo.
The adrenaline rush of being in the heat of battle was gone. Chris wanted out. He wanted to go home.
During this time, he confided in Derek Storjohann, a close friend he made at Fort Bragg. Both were in the Arghandab Valley, but stationed in a different spots. In the 10 months they were in Afghanistan, the two never seemed to be in the same place.
In a chat on Facebook a few weeks before Chris' death, Chris told Storjohann of the constant danger he faced. Storjohann couldn't believe it. He was just four kilometers down the road, but the situations couldn't have been any different. Storjohann's unit was clearing bombs from a school near the desert and facing little resistance.
Chris, however, was in the middle of a spring offensive in the part of the Arghandab Valley that consisted of pomegranate orchards, wheat fields and vineyards. As the weather warmed and the leaves and crops grew back, the opportunities for hidden danger ramped up to unfathomable levels. All Storjohann could do was tell his friend to stay safe.
In the year Chris was in Afghanistan, he became one of his company's greatest weapons. He was a talented sniper credited with multiple kills of Afghan fighters, his sniper partner, Chris Rush, said. While Moon's precision drew the praise of his men, it drew the ire of Taliban forces, which often targeted snipers. Rush recalled several instances in which he and Moon were ambushed yet came out unscathed. And those close calls fueled the duo to take out more Taliban forces.
On July 6, Moon's unit was out on foot patrol. Moon and Rush were supposed to be on their way back to the main base three days earlier, but volunteered to stay behind and help acclimate the new men. Rush said every time they prepared to leave the compound, they could hear the rampant gunfire beyond the wall and nerves would set in. They'd attempt to calm those nerves with a tradition, doing a choreographed handshake and pledging to have each other's back before stepping into the fray.
This day was quiet by comparison, but tensions were high. Small comments were made to ease the nerves because they all knew it wouldn't be quiet for long.
The group stopped at a footbridge that led into a pomegranate orchard. Moon knelt behind a wall for cover while the bridge was cleared for explosives. Rush knelt beside him. The two were at the back of the group.
"We're on a knee against a wall looking over into the orchards and I mean, I can't really remember what we said, but I remember the last thing I said was, 'Stay south more,'" Rush recalled quietly.
He was telling Moon to stay far enough from the man in front of him to avoid shrapnel in case a bomb was detonated.
"Then we walked and literally 20 meters later it went off."
Several members of the unit safely crossed the bridge over an active roadside bomb. But when Moon, who was carrying a long-barrel sniper's rifle, stepped into its epicenter, a Taliban fighter in the orchard remotely detonated it. Rush was 10 meters behind Moon – south of him – and was blown back by the blast.
"It felt like somebody punched me in my face pretty hard," Rush said. "Just fell back and was kind of dazed for a second. I heard him calling me on the radio, but I was just dazed and then finally, finally I grabbed the radio and I could hear him yelling. I called and told them we were hit. I started crawling to him, but the dust was so bad I couldn't see anything. And then finally it came down and then I found him. I mean, he wasn't that far away, but still, I couldn't see more than like an inch in front of me."
Moon was at the bottom of a crater that was two feet deep and five feet wide.
Both of his legs were gone — his right leg severed at the knee and his left at the shin. Both of his forearms took shrapnel that left his bones in splinters. He was missing a thumb and his eardrums were blown out. Tourniquets were applied to his legs and bandages to his arms. He was given an IV to replace the lost blood and he was shouted at to stay conscious. He was carried to a medevac where fellow soldiers shielded his body from gunfire.
Rush stayed with him the entire time.
The Moon family had just returned from a Fourth of July vacation and Marsha was home unpacking and overseeing a wrought iron door being installed.
A sheriff pulled up to the front of the house and asked for Brian or Marsha Moon.
The sheriff handed her a card with an Army telephone number on it and told her the Army had been trying to get in touch with her family. Marsha nearly fainted. She sat, started guzzling water and breathing into a paper bag. She refused to take the card or call the number. Instead, she directed the sheriff to call her husband at work.
In between the crackling of the inflating and deflating of the paper bag, she heard bits and pieces of the sheriff's conversation. She told her husband to come home. But he had to make the call first.
Brian won't read The Atlantic article that chronicles his son's death. He doesn't have to. He heard the grisly details that day and has no desire to go back to that place.
"They called me and Marsha made me talk to them and they called me and I got all the details," Brian said. "I don't know if anybody can imagine, but hearing that about your child, it's like, when people say 'surreal,' that's surreal. Like, I can't believe you're telling me this. And just how gruesome [the] details were. And I had to keep that to myself. Marsha didn't want to hear about it."
Chris Moon survived the blast. Doctors had to amputate his legs even more than what the explosion had taken.
They repaired the damage to his arms and for all intents and purposes, he was stable. They transferred Chris to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. It was a good sign. After almost a week of waiting, the family was given the green light to come see him.
The family — Brian, Marsha and Chris' sister, Sunday — sat in various seats on a plane bound for Germany. Marsha spent much of the flight praying and crying. On the morning of July 13, she raised the shade next to her seat and looked out onto the clouds. The sun's rays created a near-heavenly experience as the plane flew over the Atlantic Ocean.
Marsha began to pray.
She looked at the monitor in front of her and saw they were nearing London. It was 9:30 a.m.
"The whole flight I had this ache. I had this huge ache and it just stayed there," Marsha recalled somberly. "I was just a ball of hurt. And then all of a sudden, as I'm sitting there at that time, I begin to feel like these flutters and all of a sudden that hurt and that ball just went away. And at that moment I'm thinking, 'OK, I think he's gone.'"
The Moon family arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center that evening and was immediately ushered into a side room where a man dressed in Army regalia handed them paperwork. The tears and wails and sobs came fast and hard and were uncontrollable. They were too late.
Chris had passed that morning — around 9:30 a.m. — from a blood infection.
Chris Moon was less than a month from his 21st birthday and a month and a half from going home.
It's May 2015. Brian Moon sits in his living room, talking about his son and staring at the couch where he last saw him alive. While he observes his son's passing on July 13, he says his date will always be Jan. 12, the day he said his final goodbye.
Marsha and Brian didn't look at their son on the day of his passing. They couldn't. They wanted to remember him as the son who liked to lounge with his shirt off and sit on his mom's lap, even at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, and have his back scratched and head rubbed.
The son who enjoyed long drives with his dad and was always ready to play catch in the yard.
The only time Brian and Marsha looked at their son following his death was in determining whether to honor his final wishes for an open casket. They kept the casket closed.
More than 3,000 people showed up for Chris' funeral. Even though it seemed strange to some, Marsha hired a photographer to chronicle it. She had chronicled nearly every moment of her son's life before he went to war. He was back now, and in some ways chronicling the occasion seemed like the right thing to do.
Brian and Marsha had a hard time deciding where to bury their son. They had been told many times their son died a hero, but they didn't want him at Arlington National Cemetery. Chris outlined in his will a desire to be buried in Tucson and his parents agreed.
Emotions were still raw as they searched for a place to lay their son to rest. As they stopped to look at a plot at East Lawn Palms, a gust of wind kicked up around them and circled the group before disappearing completely. The plot was near a tree with a beautiful view of the mountains Chris loved so dearly. It was perfect.
His black headstone is a bronzed collage of photos representing his near 21 years of life.
In the nearly five years since Chris' passing, Marsha has been the family rock. She's become a member of The American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., which is a support group for mothers of sons or daughters who have lost their lives in service to their country. She's helped other mothers get through tragedy.
Brian's journey has been different. He freely admits that he's not a people person, so he's kept his emotions about his son's life and death mostly to himself. He still cries, but he does so alone.
"I put [my pain] in a box and I put it on a shelf because I don't know what to do with it. So it just kind of has its own compartment," Brian said.
It's the same type of tough-love approach Brian had always used with his son. Being emotional didn't help anything or change anything; you still had to move forward. It was a similar trait Chris took on in the Army as he watched many friends leave the compound and not come back.
Both Brian and Marsha don't like to deal in what-if's, though Brian sometimes can't help but revisit conversations he had with his boy while he was molding him into a man.
"I always told my son to be the one to step up when someone asks for a leader," Brian said. "And maybe I shouldn't have said all that kind of stuff. I should have told him, 'Be smart and don't raise your hand.'
"I would love to be seeing him play baseball right now, of course. I would love to see the rest of his life."
The life-sized statue of Chris playing baseball and a bronze plaque that will bear his likeness and tell his story — as well as bear the names of every other Tucson High grad who died during military service — hasn't been built yet. But friends and family have been working with Legacies Alive, a nonprofit organization that supports efforts to keep memories of fallen heroes alive, to help raise the money for the project.
The high school also hosts a memorial baseball tournament as a tribute to Chris, and the Omni Hotel hosts an annual golf tournament in Chris' name to help collect funds. The baseball program also has red camo uniforms it wears for special games. All of the jerseys bear Moon's last name. His No. 11 is retired.
Overall, the memorial will cost an estimated $60,000 and the fund is nearing $20,000. Any excess will go toward a scholarship fund in Chris' name.
"We have a name on our scoreboard at Cherry Field, a former baseball player that died in a motorcycle accident, and nobody knows who he was," Boese said. "And I don't want that to happen to this kid.
"I want him to be a reminder and a role model for our Tucson High kids and every kid that comes to Cherry Field to practice or play a game."
Derek Storjohann rubs a metal bracelet with Chris' name on it as he talks about his best friend giving him a direction in life. When Storjohann left the Army, he moved to Tucson, enrolled at Pima Community College, and spent a lot of time with the Moon family. He ultimately transferred to Colorado State where he graduated last weekend with a degree in health and exercise science. He has an internship this summer.
Just a couple months after Chris died, Strojohann and Rush got tattoos of hawks. Rush's is on his back shoulder. Storjohann's runs the width of his chest and has Chris' initials and the Arizona flag in it.
They'll carry his memory forever.
"I don't want to define him by his death," Brian Moon said. "I define his life by how he lived and the kind of person he was and the good things that people tell me about him because obviously as a parent, the most important thing is what people tell you that he's doing when you're not around. That's what defines what kind of child you have.
"Everybody thinks that their children and grandchildren are special, but I always knew that there was something special about him and the way he handled himself. I'm sure there's a lot of people in the military now that are active, and families that have lost kids that were in the military, that can say probably the same kinds of things about their children, too. Just kids that were willing to be accounted for and step up and do things that others wouldn't.
"I think it's an important thing to go into the military and he thought it was an important thing. He wanted to do something important. And he did."
To donate to the Chris Moon Memorial, please visit http://legaciesalive.com/chris-moon-memorial/
Legacies Alive is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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