On a charcoal-black April night, with his future weighing heavily on him, Rano Mariotti sought solitude at the historic battlefield of Gettysburg-the same place in Pennsylvania where thousands of brave soldiers gave their lives 144 years ago.
He could almost hear their voices and the thunder of cannons as he stood on the open field, not far from Little Round Top. Though the place was eerie at night, Rano hoped the hallowed spot would help him make a big decision.
A few years earlier, as a student at Illinois State University in 2001, Rano began seeking to uncover his future path. He considered pursuing a career in construction (like his father), joining the military or even becoming a firefighter. But he was uncertain about which career to pursue.
During that time, Rano became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, where the staff members emphasized serving God in whatever profession God places a person.
Later that year, a Campus Crusade leader asked Rano to attend a summer project-a mission trip for college students. He joined more than 100 other students for the project in San Diego, Calif.
Even though Rano had been a Christian since he was 6 years old, that summer was a time of intense spiritual growth. He began to learn to tell others about Christ.
Walking on the beach one evening with a few other students, Rano struck up a conversation with a Samoan security guard. The man was very willing to talk about spiritual things and soon committed his life to follow Christ. Rano was shocked to see how God had used him. "There is no more fulfilling feeling than sharing Christ with others," says Rano.
Later that summer, Rano became the co-leader of the evangelism team, helping the students to communicate their faith to more than 2,500 people-more than 100 of whom indicated decisions to follow Christ.
Also during that time, Rano had many conversations about his future. Earlier that year, on a whim, Rano visited the local Marine recruitment office. Though there is little history of military service in his family, Rano had long been intrigued with the idea of being a military man. Maybe it is time to get serious about this desire, he thought.
Later that fall, Rano spoke with a Campus Crusade staff member from the San Diego project who advised him to check into Campus Crusade's Military Ministry. Rano learned about an internship at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he would do ministry with the midshipmen. Rano accepted the position to work there for a year.
Throughout the year, Rano mentored several midshipmen in their faith and helped lead another to a relationship with Christ. The Marine Corps was still on his mind, though, since many Naval Academy graduates go on to become Marines. It was also a crash course in military subculture. Rano quickly learned intricacies and lingo from veterans like Bob Beaton, a retired Navy officer, who was his supervisor through Military Ministry.
About half way through the internship, Bob asked him to continue working with the ministry indefinitely.
Rano was flattered by the offer, but torn: He wanted to become a Marine.
And that's how he ended up at the Gettysburg battlefield. He was on a retreat with Military Ministry, and they had been studying the battle of Gettysburg. Rano admired the valor of the more than 7,000 soldiers who gave their lives over a three-day period. "All men want to be courageous," he says. "It's what every man hopes he would be."
While Rano sat at the memorial spot, the place spoke to his heart. His future started to become clear.
He decided to go for it -- to become a Marine. Believing it was God's plan for him but not knowing exactly how God would use him, he knew he could no longer fight this desire. And Rano wanted to join the Marines as an officer. He prayed that if this was not what God had for him, that he would not get accepted to Officer Candidate School.
Three months later, Rano heard back from the school: He was accepted.
In February, 2007, 1st Lt. Rano Mariotti deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, for a seven-month tour of duty, as a platoon commander of 40 Marines.
As combat engineers, Rano and his platoon members performed tasks crucial to the war effort, like helping fortify an Iraqi police station, and destroying roads and bridges to block the movement of insurgents. "[Rano] leads by example and does not ask [his Marines] to do anything he wouldn't do himself," says Bob.
On most missions, Rano and the other Marines worked under the cover of darkness. When Rano left the protection of his base in Fallujah, he grew acutely aware of danger. "Something I realized is that no one is going to take my life from me," says Rano. "It's only when the Lord calls me home."
There were close calls-sniper bullets whizzed overhead, and one night they drove over an improvised explosive device, often called an IED. Had the device not malfunctioned, it could have killed many of his men.
Besides praying for safety, Rano continued to pray that the Lord would use him in Iraq. Living out his faith was not easy, especially amid the daily stress as a platoon commander who needed to keep the respect of his men. There were times when he had to get in their faces to keep things in check.
But ministry opportunities did arise.
One night, while sitting in a Humvee in downtown Fallujah, Rano asked his platoon sergeant about his beliefs about eternity. The question sparked a good conversation, and Rano was able to explain the gospel. Another time, when one of Rano's men received some disturbing information from his wife, he came to Rano for advice. Rano listened and reminded him of Christ's love.
Through it all, Rano has found that serving as a Marine is a good fit, that amid the travails of service, his life can matter. "Wherever God leads us, that's our area of influence," says Rano. "For me, I really desired to be a Marine."
Rano, now 26, is back in the United States as of September. His next step is undetermined, though he is seriously considering the possibility of serving another tour in the Marines. Through it all, he has proved to be a man of courage -- as a servant of Christ and as a Marine. Rano found his destiny.