J.B. Stewart's saga of Rick Rescorla

September 08, 2002|By Jim Haner | By Jim Haner,Sun Staff

Heart of a Soldier: A Story of Love, Heroism and September 11th, by James B. Stewart. Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $24.

Toward the end of his remarkable life, shortly before the towers fell, Rick Rescorla was reminiscing with his oldest and dearest friend over a bottle of bourbon about the distance they had come together since their glory days in Vietnam.

There were wives and kids along the way, and the rise and fall of their personal fortunes, and dreams dashed and realized. Now, the two old lions were in the winter of their lives. "Could we have been more than we became?" Rescorla asked Dan Hill.

After reading this stunning account of Rescorla's life and times, it is hard to imagine what more he could have wanted. Soldier of fortune, rugby star, big game hunter, decorated U.S. Army officer, vice president in a major financial firm, patriot, writer, singer, poet and friend to all who ever knew him, Rescorla was a character out of Hemingway or Kipling.

Author James B. Stewart, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for reporting on the stock market, brings this bona fide hero to life in ways small and large -- but mainly through Rescorla's friendship with Hill, a bond forged in war that transcended every other relationship in their lives from thence forward.

The recent subject of an article by Stewart in The New Yorker magazine, Rescorla's deeds on Sept. 11 as the chief of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Inc. were in keeping with his character and personal history. As was his wish, he died like a soldier.

Humming with tension, foreign adventure and the clash of arms, Heart of a Soldier has all the ingredients of an Indiana Jones movie. But at its core, it is an examination of the unfathomable mysteries of male relationships.

It is about the unspoken yearning for connection that makes men seek a single, blessed "other" through whom they may come to recognize themselves -- and the lengths to which they will go in the service of that singular friendship.

So it was for Rescorla and Hill, right up to Sept. 11, when the one happened to be inside the World Trade Center and the other was too far away to help him.

Casting aside concerns for his own safety, the gray-haired and portly Rescorla ushered hundreds of people from Tower Two -- most of whom had no idea that their savior was a legend in the U.S. Army Special Forces for his exploits half a lifetime before.

As a young lieutenant in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam in 1965, in one of the most storied chapters of that war, he had led his battle-weary platoon in a gallant charge to save the remnants of a shattered calvary battalion pinned down in the jungle.

In his 1993 book about that battle, We Were Soldiers Once And Young, Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore described Rescorla's night-stalking forays over enemy-infested terrain, his rescue of wounded American soldiers who had been presumed dead and his fearlessness under fire.

Nor did the tower evacuees know that the events of Sept. 11 had been foreseen years earlier by Rescorla's friend in a confidential security study that predicted Muslim extremists would one day torpedo the building with an airplane.

How could Hill have predicted that day with such uncanny accuracy?

The answer is one of the many surprising turns in Rescorla and Hill's lives together that give Heart of a Soldier its velocity as the reader's night turns to early morning. Students and historians of the Vietnam War will have an advantage because they already know well the saga of Rescorla and Hill's tightrope adventures in the Central Highlands -- and before that, in the former Belgian Congo and British Rhodesia.

But it is Rescorla's improbable life that drives this epic tale: the story of a poor boy, born of common stock in the Cornish seaport town of Hayle in southwest England, who turns U.S. Army Ranger and leads so many to safety in the course of his time on earth.

That such a man could be killed by an act of terrorism on his adopted home soil speaks volumes about all that was lost on that day. Thankfully, in Stewart, we have a biographer and storyteller worthy of Rescorla's memory.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 1978 before going to work for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He also has written for The Miami Herald and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. He covered the wreckage of both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

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