C. J. Stewart's approach to challenges always belied his age.
Even in the first months of life, he endured three surgeries to overcome a congenital stomach disorder that threatened to starve him of nutrition he needed to grow.
During his first year at college, when freshman peers indulged new freedoms, Stewart started feeling a call to serve. Following what he now understands as God’s plan, he joined the Army, even while his country fought two wars.
And after an injury nearly severed his right arm, he faced 40 surgeries on three continents, then a grinding, year-and-a-half rehabilitation that included learning to write with his non-dominant hand.
But through it, the young man always remained ready to give back to those who surrounded him and grateful for the chance to learn.
The 23-year-old Stewart returned home to Madison last fall to finish his bachelor’s degree and to ready himself for application to seminary. Even with an already brimming schedule, he’s now on to new challenges.
First he shares his inspirational story through a public-outreach and speaking venture called Battle Tested Ministries. Second, he plans an outdoor, military-style course called Camp Chosen to inspire in Mississippi teens some of the same attributes that have served him well.
Stewart, his family and supporters, wove the two ventures together under his recently formed non-profit, the CJ Stewart Foundation.
Though fulfilling the foundation’s missions could last a lifetime, or longer, he chose the challenge on his own accord.
Originally from a small town outside Ruston, La., Stewart moved to Mississippi in 2001. He graduated from Madison-Ridgeland Academy, enrolled at Mississippi College in criminal justice and planned on seeking a law degree.
But Stewart paused his schooling following his freshman year at Mississippi College. Responding to an urge to change his trajectory, he joined the Army. In June 2009, he began training as a combat medic at Fort Sill, Okla.
The Army then assigned him to the Bravo Company 1-502nd Infantry Regiment at Ft. Campbell, Ky. with the 101st Airborne Division.
He left for Afghanistan at the beginning of May 2010. At 40 days into deployment, fighters attacked his outpost near Pashmul during the middle of the day.
A rocket-propelled grenade winged into the wall of a building and exploded above Stewart. Debris crushed his right forearm. It severed tendons and crushed his bones. Blood poured from his wounds.
He credits a quick response in transporting him to Kandahar Airfield and a blood transfusion doctors gave him there with saving his life. Then came the first of 40 surgeries.
Early on he twitched a finger and caught an attendant’s eye. It indicated at least one major nerve—the ulnar—remained connected. But for that, surgeons would have amputated his arm at the elbow.
The string of surgeries began in Kandahar, continued in Germany, then at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, not only saved his right arm but preserved significant function in his right hand.
Humor helped the injured soldiers get through their difficult times, Stewart said, and certainly it played a role through his 18 months of surgeries and rehabilitation at Walter Reed. Nothing, though, proved more critical than his faith and his family’s support.
His mother, Robin, took leave from her teaching job at Madison Middle School and practically moved to Washington. Stewart’s father, Chuck, relieved Robin when he could.
Stewart says he always maintained a special relationship with his parents. That foundation in love, respect and faith in God, helped bring him through his trauma.
The pyloric stenosis he suffered as an infant still bothers his belly at mealtime. The condition required three surgeries and stays in intensive-care units during his first three months of life, but Stewart knows it had a purpose.
“If anything, I think that helped prepare my folks for the injuries in Afghanistan. They knew I could make it through,” he said.
He calls his dad his best friend.
“He taught me early on how to be a man,” Stewart said. “My relationship with him made the whole injury and recovery experience much better. And I saw faith in action through my dad.”
While in recovery, he watched other soldiers and their families stress, tear and break apart. For many, hardship brought trouble—money problems and unresolved relationship issues—which bubbled to the surface.
He started seeing his whole experience as a platform to influence society. Through Stewart’s journey, God surrounded him with support and revealed a new path, a ministry.
Themes of family, faith and shouldering the responsibilities of manhood could resonate with male youth, he figured, whether with young soldiers recovering from injury or teenagers back home.
Given Mississippi’s epidemic of high school dropouts, teen pregnancies, fatherless families, poverty, abuse, neglect and other issues, Stewart already knew where to found his ministry.
“The problems and the needs stand for themselves,” he said. “People are aware of these issues, but the way I look at it is, I ask myself, ‘What can I do to help?’ I want to break the cycle of what’s going on.”
As Stewart’s body mended, he says God worked to open his heart. Ideas came into focus in his mind, and plans for the CJ Stewart Foundation, with its two branches, came together.
“Our goal is to improve character and give young people life skills. I want to help them realize that we’re all imperfect, that there are circumstances each of us can’t control, but that we have to adapt and overcome. Everyone messes up, but love overcomes,” he said.
Another key part of Stewart’s life came into focus when he met Danielle Beddia, a 26-year-old occupational therapist at Walter Reed.
He claims his Southern manners, and a “yes ma’am” here and there, impressed Beddia. She says Stewart’s sunny attitude in adversity, his not-a-worry-in-the-world personality and his humility made him stand apart.
Whatever the magnetism, it convinced a Massachusetts-turned-D.C. girl to accompany a Mississippi boy back home. Beddia now works at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. The two speak openly of engagement.
Five months into the foundation’s life, Stewart stays constantly busy, building it into a reality.
Battle Tested Ministries, the public-speaking portion of the foundation, keeps him booked a week ahead at any given point. On weekends and after classes, he travels Mississippi to speak to community groups and churches.
“He keeps his whole schedule in his head. Never writes it down. I don’t know how he does that,” Beddia said. “He has engagements all over the state.”
So far, it’s all from word-of-mouth publicity. Beddia said Stewart sparks enthusiasm in others.
“I think the most amazing thing for me is to see people so willing to help,” she said. “They’re so happy to help that they’d become involved in an organization, even when it is just starting up.”
Stewart wants to connect with schools, where he can speak to students about responsibility and the importance of helping others.
“I want to speak to upper high-school guys, the ones who are soon to graduate, be out on their own and begin a new stage of life, one without the rules structure they’ve lived under for 18 years,” he said.
He wants to ignite an understanding that accountability, perseverance and faith can guide a person through the unknowable hurdles and challenges that life inevitably holds for all of us. For Stewart, the lessons are hard-won, but few people gain that kind of big-picture insight in their early 20s.
Stewart, his family and the foundation board members are also working to raise money for Camp Chosen. He wants the camp to be in close proximity to the Jackson-metro area, so that young people will not need to travel far.
First priority, raise funds and purchase the land. Then build rope courses, climbing walls, repelling towers, over-under-log courses to use in team-building exercises. With those, Stewart believes he could at least bring in a few groups to get the camp physically running.
Then, in time, would come buildings and more permanent fixtures.
In the future, he wants to partner with Jackson churches to bring youth groups to the camp. He also plans to involve wounded soldiers from Walter Reed.
As those plans materialize, Stewart continues to spread his ministry with knowledge beyond his years, gratitude for his life lessons, and readiness to give back to people surrounding him.
“I’m getting a degree in perseverance,” he said.
To contact CJ Stewart, book a speaking engagement or to donate, visit www.cjstewart.org