As a straight-A, top-of-his-class student, Ian Zook could follow any dream, but sought instead to serve. His interest in missions stoked by trips he traveled on in high school, he struggled to discern where the Lord wanted him. After deliberating between missions and ministry and spending a year at Bible school, he shocked his parents when he enlisted in the United States Marines. Settling on that path toward a career in law enforcement, Ian followed his father, a Florida state trooper.
Mark and Karen, Ian’s parents, were supportive of the decision. Because of his college background, he enlisted as a Private First Class, his clean-cut appearance earning assignment in the Security Forces. After boot camp, he guarded a nuclear submarine base in Georgia, allowing him many weekends home in Florida. As infantrymen, Marines are obligated to fight in the event of war. With a conflict raging in Iraq, Ian planned to spend the last seven months of his enlistment there. When Karen confided misgivings over Ian’s impending deployment, he reassured her, “Mom, I know where I’m going!”
Ian arrived in Iraq in September 2004. Assigned to a safe zone, he volunteered for a more dangerous area where action abounded. One time, Ian, now Corporal Zook, was part of a Humvee convoy. He followed a driver who came under fire and fell from his vehicle. Ian leaped from his own Humvee, scooped up his fallen comrade, and raced through a hostile area in pursuit of treatment. The young man died while being evacuated, a moment of tragic epiphany for Ian.
Another day, Ian was a Humvee passenger. When the driver was reluctant to drive, Ian volunteered. Their vehicle hit a buried anti-tank bomb, whereby Ian’s passenger and erstwhile driver lost both legs. During the rescue, Ian was shrapnel wounded. For extraordinary bravery and resultant wounds, Corporal Zook was awarded a Purple Heart.
Ian wrote home, telling his parents in a twelve-page letter about his experience on the battlefield. While distraught over the carnage surrounding him, he’d seen God’s hand of protection repeatedly, and found sustenance in His protection. His parents had never read such a difficult letter; Corporal Ian Zook, 24, had died for his country three weeks before its arrival.
October 12, 2004, Ian’s Humvee hit three bombs buried together in Iraq; when they detonated, he sustained injuries leading to his death, for which he was awarded a second Purple Heart. When his platoon returned from Iraq in 2005, the Zooks were invited to Twentynine Palms, California, where the men were stationed. Ian’s sergeant, the man who gave them the details of his last moments, met them there. In a meeting both excruciating and cathartic, Mark and Karen learned this sergeant was a committed Christian. Desperate to know if anyone had held Ian’s hand as the Lord called him, they marveled at God’s provision of a believer to comfort their son in his final moments when the sergeant answered, “I did.” About 40 other platoon members shared memories and anecdotes; the resounding refrain was Ian was a Marine and friend of unusual valor. In his too-short life, Ian touched others around the world.
In death, he was about to touch more in a country he’d never even visited.
Mark and Karen had been foster parents shortly after their marriage, and had flirted with the idea of adopting since. They revisited the idea after their Twentynine Palms trip, unable to shake the sense that a child somewhere awaited them. With their perspective on pain and loss, they felt specially equipped to parent a suffering child. After considering manifold options, Mark and Karen settled on an eleven-year-old Russian girl named Anya. Paperwork complete, they met her in Russia, expecting to consider a second child there if feasible. Information on a potential son was presented to them, and they wrestled in prayer that night over their decision. In the morning, they met the boy, eleven-year-old Alex. Encouraged by their meeting, they signed papers agreeing to adopt both children. At the park that afternoon with Anya and Alex, Alex asked about the memorial bracelets both Mark and Karen wore. Zooks thoughtfully told him they were a remembrance of their son, with his name and birth date. Karen added, “Ian’s birthday was the day after yours.” Alex corrected, “No, that’s my birthday, too!” Buoyed in their belief that Alex was meant to be theirs, in September 2006 Zooks returned to Russia to bring home Anya and Alex. Anya soon expressed preference for her new middle name, Faith.
In their time home, both children have immensely blessed their family. Faith and Alex know the tragedy that encouraged their adoption and express love for Ian as if they’d known him. Both keep photos of him in their rooms, because they want them. Ian is buried close to home, and his grave never lacks fresh flowers, lovingly tended by Alex. On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, a committal service for another serviceman was underway, and Alex instinctively removed his hat, covering his heart. Mark and Karen find inspiring the appreciation both kids have for their new homeland, the country their Ian loved enough to die for.
Someday, on golden streets, the Zook family will be united for the first time as Faith and Alex embrace the brother whose sacrifice in Iraq shared with them his family in America, the brother they know only from their parents’ cherished recollections. Mark and Karen now better grasp the Bible verse Ian claimed for himself early in high school, Philippians 1:21: “But for me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In giving up his life, Ian saved Faith and Alex’s lives.
The cost of their adoption was high, but Ian Zook could afford it. He knew where he was going.
See CBS' January 5, 2007 The Early Show feature on the Zook family
"The Ultimate Sacrifice" here