I blog because of Chris Battle. He made me do it. That might sound like a lame reason to begin blogging, but the honest to God’s truth is my blogging career is because of one person and that is Chris Battle.
I got to know Chris shortly after I left the Department of Homeland Security in the fall of 2006 when I joined David Olive to create the firm know today as Catalyst Partners. I certainly knew about Chris, given his work with Asa Hutchinson in the early days of DHS. His world at ICE and mine in the Private Sector Office would pass occasionally, but our orbiting sandboxes were truly separate entities at that time. Fortunately, the gravitational pull that happens in life found me in his orbit, and I can say with no hesitation that my life is all the better for it.
Another truth is I’ve always harbored a desire to have my own editorial column in the Wall Street Journal – which is to me the Hall of Fame/Cooperstown for editorial writers. Somehow Chris had that figured out. I don’t know how or why – he just did. It may be the reason he insisted on getting together for coffee and a talk. When we sat down at Caribou Coffee on 17th Street in downtown Washington, he quickly discovered I didn’t drink coffee but that didn’t stop the talking. It just added one more dimension to a friendship I was honored to have every year since that sit down.
Chris had this idea for a dedicated site of experienced homeland security professionals to “tell it like it is” and from time to time “to take it to the man!” He never really defined who “the man” was, but we were pretty sure it was whoever was in charge at any given moment and it didn’t have to just be a “man.” It could be a woman too. Chris didn’t want to discriminate. If we saw something stupid, “let’s call it out,” and if the call-out could be done with some humor, so much the better.
He wanted an array of different writers to respond to different issues and events and help the public, as well as help reporters better understand what was happening from people who had “been there and done that” and occasionally “got a t-shirt to go with whatever they had done.”
The vision would become what people today know as Security Debrief. Sponsored and hosted by Chris’ firm, Adfero Group, the site became home to an array of voices from DHS, the Hill, front line positions in defense, homeland security and intelligence professions, and so forth. For as diverse as Security Debrief may be in its voices and coverage, it was unified by singular vision of a guy who brought wit and humor to some of toughest issues of the day.
You never really knew how Chris might take on an issue, but you knew you were going to learn something while probably laughing at the same time. I guess that’s partly the reason the annual April Fool’s edition ends up being one of Security Debrief’s most popular submissions each year. For as unusual and hysterical as the selected stories might be, there are some real points being offered as takeaways – a fact not lost on reporters and readers who are often smart enough to get the real message being delivered.
After Chris learned he was sick with kidney cancer nearly five years ago, he put his energies where they needed to be in tackling the disease head on and sharing everything he learned along the way with humility and hilarity. His essays on his fight are like nothing I’ve ever read before. While his writing was always known for its eloquence and human touch, this was different. This stuff was truly personal, and he shared it without reservation.
Having had family and friends who have faced life-threatening and life-altering health issues, I’m fairly used to people having some reservations about what they tell people about the particular situation. Not Chris. He put it out there. Dealing with needles and PICC lines; encounters with clowns and traffic issues around Duke University and Johns Hopkins; hysterical observations about the doctors and nurses who administered his care – with each update, he offered hope and inspiration, even when the news he shared was not always what we wanted to hear.
Every step of the way was his partner in life, his beloved Dena. Whether she was the foil for his humorous observations or the voice of reason when he was too doped up to know what was going on, she was there. In a world where relationships are all-too-often fleeting and disposable, their relationship was the platinum standard example of the wedding vow words, “for better or worse.”
You couldn’t help but be in awe of the two of them. Chris’ fight was her fight, and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen two people fight longer or harder against any enemy, anywhere. With every swing, countermeasure and body blow they delivered against the cancer, humor, as much as humility, was at the center of their response to all of us who were honored to call them friends and follow their journey together.
It’s one of the things I discovered in Chris’ writing over the last year and a half. While he would always answer you about how he was doing, it was his written words that probably most conveyed what he was going through. He knew the odds were not in his favor, and both he and Dena went to great lengths to investigate treatments and challenge the odds stacked against them to get more time and fully embrace this precious thing we call life.
In having lunch with Chris this past February, not too long after he started the new drug “Cabo,” he shared that each morning was a new gift that revealed itself. In Chris words, you didn’t quite know what the full package of that day might be, but it was a blessing to be embraced and even enjoyed.
Even as you read his breathtaking essay, “The Garden Cemetery,” about selecting where he wanted to be buried, every letter and word emanated life and energy. It’s a complete oxymoron to describe the process of selecting your own final resting place as full of life, but Chris’ words did that in ways I am still grappling with today. To this day, I’ve never read anything like that piece and somehow I doubt I ever will.
For all of the things a friend can say about another, especially after one of those friends has passed away, you can easily recall the shared adventures and laughter you had together while wishing you still had decades more of those things to come. Like many others today, I have all of those personal treasures of memories and selfish desires for decades more of that laughter and adventure that will go sadly unfulfilled.
More than anything though, I feel blessed by the gift of Chris’ humanity that he decided to share with me and everyone else who knew him these past years. His gift for the written word told you everything you needed to know about the frustrations, fears, anxieties, as well as hopes, dreams, and aspirations he had for himself, Dena, and his beloved girls.
As we all know, sometimes gifts come in small packages and can only be shared by a single individual. Fortunately for me and many others, Chris’ gifts were bigger and bolder than any box could ever contain. He put them all front and center during his adventures on the Hill, in politics, as well as daily life, but probably most poignantly during some of the most trying and challenging circumstance of anyone’s life and said very simply, “Here I am…”
The “Here I am” that is Chris Battle has a spirit that is truly unto its own. It lives through Dena and his girls, his friends and colleagues from all the facets of his life but most certainly through the rich archive of words he left behind for us to share.
There are many metrics by which to measure a person’s legacy and if one of those is “sharing,” then they have truly blessed us by their examples. Such is the life of Chris Battle, and I’m here today because of him.