Acre, Iowa, a town of just 2,200 situated in the rusted and hollow American heart. The town had been decaying for decades. All that was left were a few clusters of dilapidated houses joined by broken roads to gutted brick buildings whose window fronts had been replaced by steel shutters and wood planks. At the edge of the town was a shuddered factory ringed by a razor-wire fence, with its massive twin smokestacks crumbling in the sky.
The people around when Acre was a thriving town riding the crest of industrialization had long died out. Acre and the people who still lived there were just like scores of roadkill that littered the side of the highway, carcasses left to rot.
Acre may have been abandoned before, but there was someone there, making it a destination for people who otherwise would never have known it existed. Marine corps first sergeant turned evangelical Pastor and Youtube star Daniel Ray Croce made it the home of his church. Known to its followers and detractors alike as "Christ's Bootcamp."
Croce began his ecclesiastical career as a video preacher. His first viral video was titled "A soldier in God's Army: No half measures." Croce's message was simple, "A soldier knows sacrifice is the only way to victory." Croce's wartime service, and even more the mechanical hand grafted to his body, with the words "property of USMC" etched into the metal, was the standing proof this Pastor practiced what he preached.
Croce's hold over his followers transformed moral support into financial support. Eventually, it was time for the Marine Pastor to found a proper pulpit from which to deliver his sermons. That was when he found Acre. A little town that just happened to be selling off anything it could to raise the money to fix a swerve line. Croce got quite a bargain for Acres shuddered community center, and Christ's Bootcamp was born.
One day in late August, events in a far-off corner of the country brought Pastor Croce and his flock to the attention of the entire country and transform a war-addled religious fanatic into a truly public figure.
It was a sweltering Sunday morning. The heavy humid air stuck to the skin, and a fierce yellow sun relentlessly beat down from a cloudless sky. A line of cars snaking through the town led to the tightly-packed church parking lot. The building filled, and the entrance was jammed with people leaving a growing crowd languishing in the tormenting heat. At the same time, they watched a volunteer lower the limply hanging American flag to half-mast.
The reception area and the mail halfway were covered with various coats of arms representing units from every military branch. Below the standards were framed portraits of deceased soldiers, each one hung by grieving friends and family. Some were KIAs, but the overwhelming majority were drugs overdoses and suicides.
Packed inside the event room were 200 folding chairs and nearly twice as many people. The ones who could get inside sat on the floor, stood against the wall, they squeezed in anywhere they could, no matter how uncomfortable. At the front of the room was a stage, and unfurled behind it was the blood-red cross of the crusaders' banner.
The crowd muttered amongst themselves, making small talk with another. Strangers would ask each other how many sermons they've attended and, more importantly, what led them to the Pastor. Inevitably though, the conversation turned to the massacre that had taken place barely two hours ago. The churchgoers could sense the explosions had changed their world, and they were eager for Pastor Croce to give his guidance.
The Pastor was tucked away in a private back office. Conferring with his lawyer while his closest confidant Corporal Adams kept people away from the door. Croce sat with his elbow on the desk, resting his chin in his flesh and blood left hand. A small tv standing on a filing cabinet behind him silently talking heads moved their lips alongside a montage of the morning's carnage. Looping images of smoldering ruins, burning wreckage, and charred faces crying over maimed bodies. The two aimless young men who had carried out the attack were dead and scared people were left with only wild knee-jerk conjecture about why they did what they did. Somehow it broke they were long-time supporters of a certain "extremist pastor." Croce had never had any contact with the two self-appointed martyrs, but it didn't seem like anyone was going to clear that up.
Croce's usually arranging attorney was shaken, and he left Croce with a warning. "It may not seem like they have anything concrete, but they might not need it."
Only after the call with his legal advisor ended did the church's public relations team in charge of streaming the services on all official social media channels come to inform Croce that all the accounts had been locked and banned. Before Croce could respond to that, the second blow hit. Federal agents were indeed on the way with a search warrant, and they were coming heavy.
Croce leaned back in his chair while his circle silently waited for him to issue his orders. Finally, Croce stood up.
"If this is to be my sermon on the mount, then so be it. They can kill me, but they can't silence me."
Croce clicked his heels to attention, and everyone followed suit. A single tear gleamed in his stone grey eye as he raised his hand to a salute, a chocked up Adams and the other disciples all returned the gesture.
When Croce entered the room, the crowd when silent. They quickly stood at attention. Croce saluted in return, and the crowd parted before the straight-backed marine Seargent as he marched through them.
The 6'3 Croce ascended the stage with his chest puffed up and his head held high. He high walked with long strides across the stage to take his place at the pulpit. The silence lingered on as he looked over the crowd. Croce took hold of the mic.
"At ease," he said, and everyone sat back in their seats.
"I want to begin today with a moment of silence."
While Croce was leading his moment-long vigil for the day's victims, agents in black Kevlar vests and combat boots were cramming into armored vehicles painted with the departmental crest of Homeland Security. They donned black helmets and covered their faces with black masks. Each one carried an array of weapons, including a long-barreled assault rifle. Once the led doors were slammed close, and the helicopters lifted up from their landing pads, the heavy vehicles roared to life and started lumbering towards Acre.
Besides, Croce and a small number of his inner circle had nobody had any idea the calvary was on its way. They sat in awed silence, eyes fixed on their great leader whose iron gaze seemed to meet that of each and every person in the room.
"In my years as a marine and as a pastor, I've had the privilege of meeting and even leading some remarkably tough individuals. I've talked to people who've endured unimaginable pain and loss," Croce switched the mic to his mechanical hand.
"I'll be honest, I've heard stories that made me wonder how they managed to keep going. Somehow these brave souls all could look at the tragedy and pain in their lives as a challenge. Instead of asking themselves why me, they asked how can this make me stronger? And sure, all their stories were different in their own ways, but there was a common thread. They were all able to sustain themselves on the support of their comrades, on their brothers and sisters in arms, in the embrace of a family that refused to let them die.
Croce let the silence linger for a moment as he swept the crowd with his unblinking gaze.
"By now, everyone must know there are people there are people in the government and in the media who want the blame for what happened to fall right here on our church!" As Croce's words echoed, the building trembled from the whirling blades of a helicopter passing overhead
"Our innocence doesn't matter to them. Your service to your country does not matter to them. They have decided to declare us an enemy, and you better believe they'll stop and nothing until they've destroyed us!"
The people crowded around the doors could see a swelling cloud of dust coming down the road and the gleaming ebony armor of SWAT vans and SUVs. Immediately they dispersed in all directions. No matter where they fled, though, they couldn't escape the sight of the helicopter circling above. Croce was unfazed by the frightened faces in his flock, though, and continued his sermon.
"There is no such thing as an army of one. None of us is strong enough to stand up against tyranny alone, but together we stand a chance!" Declared a defiant Croce.
"Look to your left, look to your right. These are your brothers and sisters in arms, and it is only through each other will you find salvation!"
Gunshots echoed in the hallway, and there was a collective scream as everyone jumped from their chairs and rushed towards the exits. Just as the agents were forcing their way in. They shoved mothers and fathers to the ground in front of their crying children. Croce could only watch from his stage as the agents turned the barrels of their weapons towards the families in his congregation.
Those who put their hands up weren't treated any better than those trying to escape. Their faces were smashed into the ground, and their hands tied behind their backs. Agents struck at people with their rifle butts, and a flashbang exploded among the mass of people exasperating the panic.
When it was all over, there were plenty of minor injuries. Broken noses dislocated shoulders, and cracked ribs. Unfortunately, though, there was also one death. A six-year-old boy named Marcus Turner was trampled to death in front of his screaming mother by the panicked mob.
Croce was arrested but eventually released. He added the boy's first-grade yearbook picture to the wall with the other fallen heroes when he returned. The portrait of the apple-cheeked blond hair boy with his gap-toothed smile became a new rallying banner for Croce's followers. As well as the legions of angry, disaffected people who continued to flock to him.
The child's smiling face was used to inspire grief and to channel that grief into hatred and hatred into violence. Hatred not just for the agents whose heavy-handed raid had killed the boy. Hatred for the army of enemies and scapegoats that Croce and his followers saw being arrayed against them. They would exact a death for a death. Every shot they fired, every bomb they exploded in ruthless vengeance was claimed to be in the service of justice for Marcus.