The Incomparable Chris Callan
It is impossible to, in writing try to do justice to Chris. The struggle to describe him without hyperbole, without exaggeration and especially without clichés is monumental. The problem is that Chris was simply an incredible person. That was obvious to so many who knew him through the Army, Special Forces, the Special Forces Association, the parachute/skydiving communities, the Liberty Jump Team, the police, friends, and family.
I met Chris, almost thirty years ago, in a what would seem like a very unlikely place, Army ROTC at the University of Rhode Island. Like everyone who has met Chris, I was struck by his ready smile, funny, sometimes goofy, sense of humor and his towering intellect. He exuded confidence and capability beyond his years. One could tell even then that Chris was a Rock Star. He was like David Bowie and hanging out with him was like being an accountant who happened to be David Bowie’s friend.
Chris left URI and enlisted in the Army, active duty, Infantry. When he left, it felt like starting a moving and not finishing it. In 2000, while deployed to Kosovo I ran into Staff Sergeant Chris Callan in the chow hall. I stuck my hand out to shake and Chris gave me a bear hug. A year later I was at Fort Bragg for a school and ran into Chris the lobby of Hardy hall. In 2002, I was in the lobby of Moon Hall, and there was Chris. We hung out, caught up and went our separate ways. The funny thing was that with Chris, I never felt like any time had passed between us. It seemed to be a pattern between us.
I didn’t see Chris again until 2009 or 10. He had left active duty and was in 19th Special Forces Group and the East Greenwich Police Department. I was a cop in Providence and winding down my time in the Army Reserve. We would meet for drinks every year or so. The time in between was bridged by a lot of messages back and forth. Most of the time it was to talk about History, especially that of Special Forces or geopolitics or after I started writing books for me to ask Chris technical questions about bullet wounds and explosives…you know the type of stuff you expect an experienced Special Forces soldier to know about.
During this time Chris revealed a side of him that I had never known existed. A passion for watches. Specifically, Seiko dive watches. For him, watches were not mere jewelry, not an accessory but a precision tool that he would have to trust his life to. His love of Seiko’s was a monument to their durability and harkened back to a time when a man was judged by the watch he wore.
Like a good friend will, Chris got me hooked too. We both lusted after Seiko’s Captain Willard commemorative but neither of us could justify paying that type of money for a watch. When not sharing articles about vintage Seiko’s Chris would take a deviant turn and send articles about Russian made watches. We each had a Russian Paratrooper (possibly Soviet era) watches that we had, at different times, traded Russian soldiers for when we were in Kosovo.
Chris was a natural athlete known to run down to the bottom of the Forty Steps in Newport, dive into the bay and swim out. He was an avid Rugby fan and player. Chris was a lifelong runner who ran with the Hash in Singapore. According to Chris that was how he found out to get the best breakfast outside of a hotel in Asia, was in the Pubs. For all his athleticism he was very humble once telling me; “When I was in the Infantry, I was a PT stud. I would finish the run and go back to pace other runners. When I got to SF…I was just average.”
Chris had a passion for history. He could tell you the names of all the Astronauts and mission dates of every Apollo mission. He could have taught a masters class on the history of both US and UK Special Forces. His knowledge of World War Two was nothing short of encyclopedic. It is little surprise that his love for Skydiving and his passion for World War Two history led Chris to the Liberty Jump Team. The Liberty Jump Team are a group of soldiers, retirees and civilian who jump out of vintage C-47 Dakotas onto World War Two drop zones. It was the perfect fit for Chris.
Chris was the senior Jumpmaster at the Rhode Island National Guard’s Annual international parachute contest, Leap Fest. In this capacity Chris with his decades of experience with military parachuting and civilian skydiving oversaw twenty other Jumpmaster ensuring that parachutists from all over the world jumped safely. He met and made friends with paratroopers form all over the world from Italy to South Africa. No doubt they benefited both from his easy-going, confident, manner and his wealth of experiences. Surely the drinking, storytelling and singing the nights after jumping didn’t hurt either.
I thought the world of and admired Chris for all his talent and accomplishments there was one person who was thoroughly unimpressed with him. That was Chris himself. He was uncomfortable anytime anyone mentioned his being a Green Beret or a combat vet with any sort of awe. He just felt he was doing his job. Once when I was pointing out his accomplishments, he told me the following story about his time as a Green Beret. “I was in a country in Asia and had to brief the Chief of Mission, you know basically like briefing a general. But this one talks to the President of the host country regularly and our President too. I briefed him. He asked my opinion about one or two things and I gave it. The briefing was over, and I went back to the team house. I walked in and the Team Sergeant told me it was my turn to clean the latrines…I went from briefing an ambassador to cleaning toilets in the space of a few minutes. That was part of life on a team.”
Chris was the type of person who put other people before himself. He once agreed to meet with a close friend of mine who was contemplating enlisting into the Army with the goal of trying out for Special Forces. Chris had a rough day. It would have been understandable if he had asked for a rain check. Of course, he didn’t. He felt it was important to mentor a future soldier. Or the time that I was devastated by the senseless loss of one of my soldiers. Chris offered to drop everything to drive me to the funeral that day. That was typical of Chris.
Chris had a goofy sense of humor and razor wit. His smile was big, bright, and genuine. When he laughed, I mean really laughed. It was impossible not to join in and laugh with him. Chris loved to make others laugh and would gladly be the source of that laughter, the butt of the joke. If he was laughing hard, at something particularly funny, he would tip his head back and the sound would disappear. For those that knew him well, for those that loved him, they treasured those laughs.
Chris was a committed family man who adored his children. He told me that had transitioned from being an active duty Special Forces soldier to the National Guard because he was worried about the toll the pace of deployments was taking on his family. He worked hard to provide for them and to be there for them. He never complained or talked about the challenges of juggling work and being a good father. Those weren’t hardships, that was what you did.
We were supposed to meet and get a beer the week before his last jump. Plans changed and for no good reason I cancelled. We could meet up another time. I was, of course, wrong about that.
My first inclination is to think, selfishly, about my loss. It would be easy to think of the discussions not had, drinks missed and camping and canoe trips that will not happen now. But the loss of Chris is not my loss alone. It is a profound loss that we will all share. The Army, Leap Fest, the skydiving community, and the Liberty Jump Team, will all be diminished for Chris’s passing. His family and friends will all feel his loss for the rest of our lives.
Instead I will try to remember how lucky I have been to be friends with Chris. We were friends for almost thirty years. Instead of dwelling upon that loss I will try to focus on that friendship. I will expect him to just pop up in my life as he always did. Until that time when we meet again, old friend, Requiescat in Pace.
Photo: Joe Girouard, gratefully used with permission from Joe Girouard Photography.