The swift cannot flee, nor the warrior escape: There up north, on the banks of the Euphrates they stumble and fall. – Jer 46:6

Stephen Previtera, The Catholic Virginian

On Nov. 7, 2004, along a bank of the Euphrates River on the northern outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, a thousand yards from a dramatic bend in the river, and closer still to its history of strife, platoon commander Jesse Grapes prepared “his” Marines for battle.

The Second Battle of Fallujah, Operation Phantom Fury, followed an American withdrawal from the city six months earlier.

“We were there to clear the city of al-Qaeda and other insurgent elements,” said Grapes, headmaster of Benedictine College Preparatory for the past nine years. “The night before, I watched as artillery and rockets lit up the city and I thought, ‘We are driving right into that.’”

Knowing an urban assault was the most difficult type of infantry combat, the first lieutenant relied upon two things: his military training and his faith. 

“People have since asked me if I was scared, and this is not bravado, but the answer is no,” Grapes said. “There was the quality of the training and cohesiveness, but too, my faith, and if something bad happens I believed that God would see me doing my best, trying to look out for the lives and freedoms of other people, and hopefully that would be enough to atone for everything bad that I had done, and I’d end up in heaven with him. I remember having those thoughts, particularly the night before we went into the city.”

Semper fidelis (“always faithful”) is the motto of the United States Marine Corps. It is often used in exchanges between Marines to represent their core values, and as a sign of respect for one another. It was not until after Grapes, and those with whom he served, returned from Iraq that he came to realize fully the interplay between Semper fi and his spiritual faith.

“Almost to a man, those who reported PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) were men who did not have faith to fall back on,” said Grapes, who served nine years with the Marines.  

Grapes noted that the men typically had other issues in life that compounded their challenges and he does not question that some were traumatized by their service.

“They missed the Corps, the brotherhood, something you can’t find in a job in civilian life,”  he said.

Rooted in faith

Grapes’ spiritual formation — and his first few scuffles — began well before he signed up for the Marines. The oldest of seven children, he grew up in Pittsburgh, and attended St. Philip Catholic School, run by the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

The blue-collar neighborhood and the sisters could be tough. There were more than a few fights in the cemetery behind the school after the day’s final bell. 

“Looking back,” Grapes said, “I think the nuns let us take care of ourselves, as long as nothing got out of hand.”

Bishop Canevin High School, a Jesuit-run school, was part of the future Marine’s faith journey. There was also a lifetime of Sunday Mass with the family, his dad singing in the choir, and both parents teaching pre-Cana classes. 

Then, as now, Grapes believed sitting idly by was not an option. He took an active role in his own formation by participating in Mass and absorbing the faith-filled examples of those surrounding him.  

“I was an altar server from second grade until I graduated from high school,” he said. “And two great priests, very solid guys, were the most powerful Catholic formational influences upon my life.” 

Mentored by clergy, Grapes holds in high regard the instructional connection between education and faith.

“He is committed to Catholic education for its mission first and foremost of passing on the faith,” said Benedictine Abbot Placid Solari, a 1973 graduate of Benedictine and now chief administrator of the abbey and chairman of the school’s board. “And he models that in his life.”

Abbot Solari pointed to a specific day, a turning point, he said, that deepened Grapes’ faith and  fortified the foundation for his life of service. 

‘God flicked me on the shoulder’

After earning a degree from Carnegie Mellon University in computer science, Grapes worked at what was then Arthur Anderson (later Accenture) as a business consultant. One assignment brought him to London.

Twenty-three years old and single, that city offered him an exciting social scene. Soon, he found himself neglecting his faith, skipping Mass, and devolving into a profligate world of work and parties. The Spirit-filled life that had guided him was sidelined. His job offered him more than enough discretionary funds to splurge, and human nature took over. 

“After a few months I started feeling spiritually not well,” Grapes said of that time in 2001. “I had stopped nurturing my soul and my mind, and I asked myself  ‘What’s going on here?’” 

Attendance at Sunday Mass jump-started his rekindling of the Spirit, and he made a conscious decision to pull himself out of his moral slump, refocusing on his spiritual and professional development.

  “Shortly thereafter, I flew back to the U.S. on September 10 on a business trip, and since I had gotten sick on the plane I was told to go home to my parents’ house for some rest,” Grapes recalled. “Mom made me chicken soup and she and I sat on the sofa and watched September 11 unfold.” 

That day, the corporate consultant decided his faith no longer belonged on the sidelines. His higher purpose had come. Grapes resigned his position at Arthur Anderson — over the advice of his superiors who wondered about the wisdom of that decision — and headed to the Marine Corps recruiting office. 

“When they saw my suit, tie and degree, the recruiter asked me what I did for a living. Then he sent me downtown to the officer recruiting station,” Grapes said.

By January 2002, Grapes was at Officer Candidate School in Quantico. 

“God had flicked me on the shoulder, moved my heart, and got me back on my path of faith,” he said.

Grapes would serve three tours of duty, his second bringing him to Al Anbar Province in central Iraq. In November 2004, while conducting Tactical Control Point operations (roadblocks), all combat units around Fallujah were ordered to return to base.

“As soon as we got that call, we knew exactly what it meant,” Grapes said. “We were going to Fallujah.” 

Surviving ‘bad things’

“Fallujah was the epicenter of all bad things in Iraq,” he recalled. “As an enemy stronghold it has been compared by many reporters to Huế city in Vietnam.”

The 1968 American siege of Huế was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.

  In the second week of Phantom Fury, the Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, kicked in hundreds of doors. Rooting out enemy fighters, their search and destroy mission worked its way through the southwest quadrant of the city. 

Two members of Kilo Company entered a particular house and came under fire from several insurgents. A hand grenade tossed from an upper story exploded nearby, wounding one Marine. 

Reinforcements scrambled into the house, killing an insurgent but wounding and trapping the would-be rescuers. More grenades rained while still more Marines poured in – Grapes among them – to provide cover fire as their wounded comrades were pulled out of the house.   

One Marine was killed, and 10 wounded. Two hours into the assault, after all the Americans were evacuated, an explosive charge was tossed, leveling the house. 

For this action Grapes received the Purple Heart and, for his service, the Bronze Star for Valor. By November 19, Kilo Company had clawed its way to the southern edge of Fallujah. The initial assault on the city was complete, but additional combat operations would last until Christmas Day.

Leader, mentor, evangelist

Currently in his ninth year leading the school, Benedictine Headmaster Jesse Grapes congratulates Max Currens at Benedictine’s 2018 graduation ceremony. (Photo/Mike Forster)

Today, at 40, Grapes leads Benedictine, working to keep Catholic education relevant in the lives of young men. 

“He understands the risks facing Catholic secondary education and is creative in coming up with solutions,” Abbot Solari shared. 

Under Grapes, minority students now compose over 30 percent of the student body. Understanding the financial strains put upon families who choose to send their children to secondary Catholic schools, he has implemented several initiatives. 

“He has a strategic approach to raising scholarship aid, which has had an impact on enrollment,” Solari said, “He is committed to the mission and people trust that he will do what he says he will.” 

The father of five, Grapes is a devout Catholic. He, his wife Elizabeth, and their family are members of St. Joseph Parish, Richmond. In a sense, however, his family is much larger — the nearly 250 cadets at Benedictine, including his eldest son, Aaron, who is a freshman.  

“Today I’m actually hiking Old Rag with 40 Cadets and Father Miguel Melendez (parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament Parish, Richmond),” Grapes told the Catholic Virginian on one of the days he was interviewed. “We will have Mass at the summit of the mountain and conversation along the trail, providing a great opportunity for accompaniment, listening and mentoring.”

Many students appear to have a bond with their headmaster.

  “When I was a sophomore, Mr. Grapes was my mentor,” said Cadet Austin Tootle, a senior at Benedictine. “We’d meet in the weight room at 7 a.m. once a week and while doing conditioning he’d guide me in my faith, academics, and in how to deal with others.”

The mentor program was initiated by Grapes with the hope that cadets would garner the same faith-filled examples he did as a youth. 

“It’s all about passing on the faith,” Abbot Solari said. “There is a moral life to be known, and a truth to be known.”

It’s a long way from Fallujah to the peaceful countryside surrounding Benedictine. Staying on the sidelines in either place was — and remains — not an option for the school’s headmaster.

“You can’t just set the example,” Grapes said, reflecting upon what he believes is his most important role. “You’ve got to be a spiritual leader, and a bit of an evangelist as well.”