As we made final preparations to cross the line of departure and invade the city of Marja, the Taliban’s last uncontested stronghold in Helmand province, I heard secondhand about the Saints’ victory in the NFC Championship Game. Days later, we boarded helicopters and headed into combat — most of us for the first time.
This was war as our fathers and grandfathers fought it. We were carried into battle by the soles of our boots, lived off of what we carried on our backs, and dug our homes in the earth every night. We shared the hardships common to every combat Marine dating back to Iwo Jima. Each night, we huddled together for warmth as our fighting holes filled with cold rain. Each day, our minds raced with the uncertainty of what lay in the next treeline.
Five nights into the operation, I received a call over the radio from my company commander: “Mustang Three-Actual, this is Mustang Six. Good news, brother: Your Saints just won the Super Bowl.” I couldn’t believe it. Remember the magnitude of what was going on at that moment in New Orleans. Barely five years after the city was brought to its knees by Hurricane Katrina, its hometown heroes had just won their first Super Bowl five days before Mardi Gras.
About a week into the battle I received a “Moto-Mail” — an e-mailed message printed in Afghanistan and then transported to its recipient on the front lines — from my best friend, Brian. He wrote that he and my eventual wife, Kristen, had done something for me.
“I can’t tell you what it is, but rest assured when this is all over, being in Marjah won’t be the only thing you remember about this Mardi Gras,” Brian’s note said.
Several days later, I received a photo album containing about 50 pictures. As I flipped through them I realized what Brian had done. He had made a photo of me in my dress blue uniform into a life-sized cardboard cut-out. He brought that cut-out everywhere he went for the entirety of Mardi Gras. I was there for every parade, every party, every bar, with all my friends. Accompanying the album, he had attached a note: “Didn’t want you to miss all this. Now you know, you didn’t.”
I couldn’t believe it. This was the best thing anyone had ever done for me.
Then I got to the last picture.
I had to stare at it for a few seconds to even begin to process what I was seeing. It was taken at the Bacchus Ball, held at the end of one of the largest Mardi Gras parades. Drew Brees, the Super Bowl MVP and arguably the most-beloved hero in the city’s history, was the King of Bacchus that year. And there he was, with his wife Brittany and my cut-out.
I later found out that it took Brian McKenna over four hours to talk his way through the maze of security that surrounds the King of Bacchus, augmented that year by a phalanx of NFL personnel, none of whom was willing to entertain the possibility of their Super Bowl MVP posing for single picture. Through sheer perseverance and charisma, Brian was able to get close enough to tell his story and make his plea to Brittany Brees. When she told Drew, it was a done deal. Disregarding the NFL representatives and Bacchus security, he gladly posed for the picture.
I can say without an ounce of shame: When I saw that picture, I cried my eyes out. I felt that Brian had pulled off the greatest act of friendship in the history of Mardi Gras. At a time in my life when I knew little beyond doubt and exhaustion, his gesture brought me through. I believed that I could never repay him or Drew Brees for what they had done for me.
Flash forward five years. Brian moved to Salt Lake City for work and to pursue his passion for the mountains. Just before the Fourth of July he was riding his mountain bike near his home when he snagged a branch and was thrown from the bike. The impact broke his neck. He has been paralyzed from the neck down since.
Having witnessed Brian’s journey to rehabilitation, with all its ups and downs, I was desperate to find a way to provide him with some measure of hope. That is what he had done for me, and I knew I had to try to do the same for him. Opportunity came in the form of the Saints’ last open practice, held at Tulane’s Yulman Stadium in New Orleans. I found a picture of Brian at his happiest, standing at the top of a gorgeous mountain peak, and had his cut-out made just as he had done for me.
Standing at the edge of the bleachers that night among a crowd of autograph seekers all screaming for Drew’s attention, I knew my chances were not good. He made his way down the stands, trying to give fair attention to every fan. As he reached me and made eye contact, I did my best to compress the story into a three second CliffsNotes version, yelled over the din. With a smile, he reached for the cut-out and said, “Get the camera ready.”
And so he had done it again. For the second time Drew Brees had shown up to bring some measure of hope and good will to a person at their lowest point. I don’t think he knows the magnitude of what he has done for me or for my best friend. I wouldn’t expect him to, as he has affected so many thousands of people in the same way. His impact on the city of New Orleans has been discussed in many forums, but it cannot be exaggerated. He has embraced his role as a symbol of hope, and he carries that burden every day with the grace and selflessness that have made him my city’s favorite son.
In a way, this isn’t intended to be a story, but a letter to two good men. Brian and Drew, thank you for the impact you have had on me. Drew, thank you for the impact you have had on so many.
Most of all, thank you both for being the good men you are.
The writer is an Afghanistan War veteran living in New Orleans.