Baltimore soldier known for adventure buried at Arlington

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

As a high school senior, Baltimore native Chris Coffland decided not to join the Army, turning down a coveted spot at West Point in favor of attending Washington & Lee University. Nearly a quarter-century later, just a month before he became too old to enlist, he changed his mind.

So, in December 2007, at 41, Coffland became a specialist in the Army Reserve. He had considered enlisting for most of his adult life but was always involved in another adventure: playing professional football in Finland, coaching in Germany and Australia, exploring Russia, living with Pygmies in Gabon.

But given the choice between a six-figure salary as a corporate recruiter or becoming the oldest cadet in boot camp, he chose the military, joining the 323rd Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Meade.

On Nov. 13, just two weeks after he arrived in Afghanistan on his first deployment, Spec. Christopher J. Coffland, 43, was killed by a roadside bomb in Wardak province. On Tuesday, more than 150 people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to bury a man who always sought adventure and always helped his friends.

"Any decision he made, from a pair of pants to joining the Army, he did not take lightly," said Coffland's sister and best friend, Lynn, 51, a children's clothing designer in Baltimore. "Selfishly, I didn't want to lose him, but in talking to him, I realized this was something he had to do."

Lynn and Chris, two of the five Coffland children, were uncommonly close since childhood despite their eight-year age gap. As adults, they would prowl vintage stores and junk shops in search of art, jewelry and clothing when Chris was back in town from one of his voyages.

Coffland's father, David, said football provided the early spark for his son's intense loyalty to friends and family and his desire for excitement. He was captain of the football and lacrosse teams at Washington & Lee and set off for Finland to play in a professional league.

Soldiers at Fort Meade called him Pops because he was the same age as their fathers, but he could outrun all of them and set the base record with 128 push-ups in two minutes. "He was usually the smallest player on the field, but he wouldn't let anything stand in his way," said the elder Coffland, of Ocean Pines, Md. "That's how he lived his whole life."

After coaching in Germany and Australia, Coffland decided he would go back to school. He enrolled in a graduate anthropology program at Washington State University to study the evolution of culture. He traveled to Gabon to observe a Pygmy tribe but was forced to suspend his studies after he was injured there. His sister said he had explored the idea of doing research in Afghanistan to finish his dissertation.

As Coffland aged, he saw most of his friends from Baltimore's prestigious Gilman School get married, have children and take lucrative jobs, but his sister said he never felt pressured to do the same. He shunned material possessions, with the exception of his art collection and his vintage motorcycle and Camaro, which he stored with family members.

"He was friends with all these very wealthy, successful men, but it never occurred to him that he needed to strive for that just to have it," Lynn Coffland said. "He never worried about whether he had money or insurance or whatever."

Instead of settling down, Coffland kept traveling, making friends wherever he went. His mother, Toni, said she didn't realize how many people loved her son until he died and the family began receiving hundreds of sympathy cards from all over the world. Hundreds of people came to his memorial in Baltimore.

"There were all these strangers saying, 'Your son touched my life' and 'Chris helped me through a tough time,' and I was just amazed," Toni Coffland said. "I had no idea how special he was to all these other people."

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