by COL Barry Willey, USA (Ret.)
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” 2 Timothy 2:2
“Choosing the Harder Right”
When I learned back in October of 1970 of the tragic death in battle of my friend and spiritual mentor at West Point, Jon Shine, and thought of the powerful and eternal impact he had on my life, and that of so many others, I committed then to telling his amazing story to others.
His selfless lifestyle and his courage–at West Point, in the Army and in combat in Vietnam–have inspired me and many others whom he contacted during his life to live for Christ. As I have shared my Christian testimony over the years with many people in many settings, it has always included Jon Shine’s inspiring life. Jon’s death was a launching point for, and an inspiration to, building in other men’s lives the character, vision, and example of his selfless, sacrificial life.
To the Christian believer, life is all about serving the living Christ and living one’s own life in a sacrificial way–serving others, leading others, helping others, providing for and protecting others…and if called to do so, dying for others. While on earth, believers want to seek first His Kingdom, to be a disciple and to help others become disciples. When those are our priorities, all other necessary and needful things in life are generously provided (see John 16:33). But when other things push God and His priorities aside, then one’s perspective becomes temporal and shallow–well-meaning as it may be. When compared to an eternal perspective on life, all other perspectives simply pale and fade into insignificance.
Jon Shine’s perspective on life was eternal. He surely thought and felt earthly, temporal, and physical thoughts and emotions. But the thrust of his life was eternal–how could he please the Lord and help others see their need for the Lord. This outlook was shaped for sure by many people and experiences. But perhaps most significant of those experiences and people was one man who also had that eternal perspective on life and wanted to share it with Jon.
Paul Stanley was that man, but the story of Jon’s development as a disciple of Jesus Christ goes farther back than Paul’s life. We must look at the “generation” before Paul to a man who had a profound impact on Paul’s life while a cadet–Joe Caldwell. From Joe we can count forward and see six “generations” of reliable or faithful men, as Paul talked to Timothy about, who desired to serve Christ and serve others.
Jon Shine was touched by and touched many in a ministry of multiplication. Senior cadet Joe Caldwell’s relationship to Plebe cadet Paul Stanley was very similar to Jon’s and mine. Joe was an All-American quarterback for the Army football team during its heyday in 1958 and 1959. It was tops in the nation and Joe was tops on the team.
He was also at the top of his class academically. He took Paul Stanley under his wing and invested nine months of his life in Paul. As Paul explained it in a letter to me:
“(He) modeled (a life of Christ), we prayed often together, went out on ‘basketball evangelism’ after the football season was over.
We memorized many passages of Scripture together and spent hours and hours in studying the Word and praying over it.
We grew so very close. I am the godfather of his only child, a son he never knew. Joe was killed in a car accident four years after his graduation while getting his Masters Degree in Michigan. Joe had a broad testimony, but according to his wife, Gigi, I was the only one he ever invested his life into so intently and intentionally.
My life was ignited by his love and investment…and it has never stopped. You know the rest.”
The rest is that Paul Stanley has powerfully touched hundreds if not thousands of men’s lives through this kind of ministry of multiplication. Paul resigned his Army commission in 1970 and joined the Navigators ministry, for whom he now still works as a senior executive. Theirs is a ministry of discipleship…of faithful men teaching other faithful men the ways of Christ. Gwyn Vaughn, another committed officer, came along and picked up the ball from Paul. With the support of ministries like the Officers’ Christian Fellowship–another group, different in scope than the Navigators, but equally dedicated to helping build cadets into disciples for Christ and sharing their faith with others through prayer, fellowship, and Bible Study.
In 1969–Jon’s last year and my first–Paul Stanley’s focus was on a handful of men he felt would carry on a ministry of multiplying disciples for the Lord. He (a second generation) invested his life in Jon (a third generation) and did many of the same kinds of things that Joe Caldwell did with him–prayer, Bible Study, evangelism experiences, and Scripture memorization. He was investing time in Jon’s life that would reap eternal rewards.
Paul also took me under his tutelage and spent quality time, over many weekends, sharing and modeling Christ for me and for other first year cadets. He also spent much of his free time with the more senior cadets who would be leading the ministry at West Point and then beginning their own ministries once they got into the Army. Jon then took me and several others as his charges (a fourth generation of believers), maturing believers who wanted to learn about and grow as Christians. This generational look at Jon’s spiritual impact on lives will be addressed more in the final part of this series. Now it is time to look briefly at his West Point days and how God used him and worked in him to do His will.
New Cadet Shine
At West Point, Jon was embarked on the experience of a lifetime, with challenges that would stagger most people his age, but he would quickly rise to the occasion and establish himself as a pillar of moral character and spiritual strength that would powerfully and positively change all those he encountered.
New Cadet Jon Shine experienced the blur of “R” Day or Reception Day, like thousands before him; survived it, and was assigned to a room with two roommates, for their first night of “Beast.” To Dave Jamison, his new roommate from Arkansas, Jon was “the first person I talked to ‘as an equal’ that night.” Dave was overwhelmed and confused by the craziness and chaos of that day and could only think about why he had gotten himself into this mess. Ready to quit then and there, Dave wasn’t sure about this new guy.
“Jon warmly introduced himself saying something like ‘we can make it if we work together,'” Dave remembered. “My first impression was formed when he announced that he prayed every night, hoped we had no difficulty with that, and then proceeded to kneel in prayer by the bed.”
Dave also found it fascinating that Jon never failed to read his Bible every day during his cadet experience.
Learning to deal with the pressure was one of the goals of the Fourth Class System and the upperclassmen were very good at dishing it out.
Of course they had all lived through it and were intent on making each successive class’s experience even harder than theirs.
Dave Jamison’s description of Jon’s confident, positive attitude and willingness to use his talents and skills to help his buddies is worth recounting:
“Jon’s attitude was clearly one of his strongest attributes. He never faced a challenge that dampened his enthusiasm, and his outlook became infectious to all those around him.
During the early days of Beast Barracks, memorization was a key to survival–a feat Jon mastered like no other. In anyone else, such a photographic memory would have instilled jealousy, but for Jon it garnered admiration. He memorized passages so easily that he always had time to help those of us who struggled to remember even a brief phrase. I also recall occasions when he would state something during required recitation to attract the squad leader and save my hide. He knew I was having trouble and it was no coincidence when on a few occasions my turn to recite didn’t come up.”
Jon’s attitude and approach to life at West Point–using his talents to serve others–were unique. Jon’s Christian faith added a dimension to his life that further bolstered his self-confidence and gave him an inner peace and spiritual plumb line that kept him focused on service to others, while he unashamedly served his Lord.
Jon daily prayed his personal prayers in his room, but would also learn another prayer, which all first-year cadets had to memorize–the Cadet Prayer.
The Cadet Prayer is a powerful summation of a cadet’s intention to live according to a “higher standard.”
One poignant phrase in that prayer is a petition for strength to “choose the harder right instead of the easier, and never to be content with the half-truth when the whole can be won.”
Jon Shine lived that part of the Cadet Prayer to the fullest. His life as a cadet, and later as an Army officer, epitomized choosing “the harder right” over the easier wrong.
Attracting attention to himself to take the “heat” off of his fellow classmate was certainly a choice he made that was risky and much harder than choosing to remain silent–smug in his self-confidence and ability to memorize all required Plebe knowledge–and watch his classmate suffer at the hands of upperclassmen.
Time and again, as a new cadet, as an upperclassman, as a new Army lieutenant, and as a combat platoon leader in Vietnam, Jon would choose the harder right–even during the last hours of his life.
Love for God, love for his fellow man, and service to others marked his 23 years on earth…and choosing that “harder right” instead of the easier wrong was becoming routine procedure for Jon and was never done for the praise of others. In fact no one else really knew of Jon’s propensity to make that harder but right call, save for those he was helping. Only after many years have passed is his story becoming known. Others now need to hear it.
Jon’s confidence and persistence allowed him to make the gymnastics team his Plebe year and he continued to apply his strong athletic abilities to that endeavor as a Yearling.
He was now a high bar specialist and lettered his second year on the team. He also followed suit from his first year by volunteering to teach Sunday School again, this time for eighth graders from families that lived on the installation.
Additionally he was a faithful participant in the weekly cadet chapel Wednesday morning program and was selected as the Cadet-in-Charge of that event. Jon was growing in his Christian faith through these many activities that gave him an opportunity to study God’s word, prepare lessons, and share his faith.
Perhaps most significant in his spiritual maturing process was an encounter he had with a field house maintenance man sometime during his first or second year at the Academy, the exact time being uncertain.
Exactly when Jon made a specific decision to become a Christian and when he had the encounter with Hank Rhinefield is not what’s important.
What is certain and what is important, though, is that Jon was greatly touched in his heart and encouraged in his faith by a humble janitor who lived out his faith on a moment-by-moment basis. Hank, a middle-aged man when Jon’s brother, Al, met him as a cadet half-a-decade earlier, loved cadets and loved sharing his faith with them.
As cadets would come and go to the field house for various athletic events and team practice for track and other sports, Hank would “catch” them individually, either in the locker room or on the field house floor.
He would gently but firmly inquire as to the beliefs of each cadet he would meet. Some would be annoyed and ignore Hank. Others were interested and listened to his stories. A few would even want the faith that Hank had and often would commit their lives to Christ then and there.
Al Shine, Jon’s brother, was one of those who several years earlier was convicted in his heart that he needed to become a Christian after his encounter with Hank, but waited until he got back to his room and could study his Bible and think over the things Hank had told him.
He became a Christian in the quiet of his room with a simple prayer whispered to the Lord. Al eventually shared what he had experienced with Jon and encouraged him to seek Hank out when he got to the academy. Jon did just that.
Hank’s approach was simple. Over the exit to the field house he placed a large sign with John 3:16, inscribed upon it (something that today’s civil libertarians wouldn’t stand for). Hank would then use that verse and personalize it for each cadet he would engage.
“For God so loved Jon Shine that He gave His only begotten Son, that if Jon Shine would believe on Him, Jon Shine would not perish but have everlasting life.”
Hank’s enthusiasm for living as a Christian got Jon fired up and he never lost that fire or desire to serve. One of Jon’s extracurricular activities during his senior year would be taking a lead role in the spiritual development of several Plebe cadets within his company, while also providing spiritual leadership and encouragement to his classmates and fellow Christian believers throughout the Corps of Cadets. Jon met Captain Paul Stanley at Fort Benning, Georgia during his senior trip and Paul encouraged him to take such a key spiritual leadership role within the Corps of Cadets. Paul Stanley would soon be stationed by the Army at West Point as an Admissions Officer and became a spiritual mentor to Jon for his final year. Despite his many other activities and duties, Jon was very desirous of leading in this meaningful way–personal and corporate Christian maturity–a path he had followed faithfully since becoming a cadet and was not about to abandon now.
In a very telling letter dated April 1969, to his older brother, Al, then serving in Vietnam, Jon weaves some powerful spiritual insights. Here are a few:
“Spirit still working overtime here. Last weekend Don Moomau preached here and then spoke informally Sunday afternoon. He was All-American LB (linebacker) at UCLA in ’53 and now is a minister in the LA area. His testimony and real, sincere and honest talk was, I think, one of the best we’ve had this year.
He was competing with Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, a singing group, for an audience and didn’t fare too well, but I have found real peace in this matter. I figure that with the speakers we bring up, if we do our work well, we can just leave the rest up to the Lord.
“This week we have started a new (Bible) study over here in (Companies) F-1 and H-1 where I now live. We have 2 firsties, a yearling and 3 plebes…
“This weekend I am CIC (cadet-in-charge) of a Protestant Retreat…up to Deer Hill in Wappinger’s Falls. We have about 60 guys coming, including several on the football team. I think athletes can often have a good ministry here at Woops (slang for West Point) because most guys are so sweaty. However, I am somewhat against the emphasis I see sometimes on guys being effective because of all the neat things they do–we non-champions can be used, too.
“My best wishes for a prosperous and low silhouette. Psalm 27:1, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear; the Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?'”
Jon’s enthusiasm for Christ and serving Him wholeheartedly as a cadet was beginning to have a marked impact on many around him. His professionalism was evident to all, but even more evident was the joy in Christ he demonstrated. It was infectious.
Committed to Men
For a confused, lonely, and scared Plebe named Barry Willey, from Indianapolis, Indiana, Cadet First Classman Jonathan C. Shine was an unlikely hero. On the last day of the transition period between Beast Barracks and the academic year, when all the upperclassmen return from their summer duties, trips and vacations, Jon confronted me while they stood in formation ready to march to the dining hall for dinner.
His simple question to me as I stood at a stiff position of attention, chin well to the rear, was, “Cadet Willey, would you like to participate in a Bible study in the company after duty hours?” Somewhat taken aback, but pleasantly relieved that there were other Christian believers within the Corps of Cadets, I muttered a quick, “Yes, sir!”
That brief encounter changed my life. A relationship had begun that would last a lifetime and have a profound impact on the way I lived–as a cadet, as an officer, as a husband, and as a father.