Pastor celebrates life of four-star general at Arlington National Cemetery
There was a rumor that an Army general was attending pastor John Anderson’s church in Shawano, Wisconsin. John wasn’t familiar with the military, so he thought it was cool but didn’t think much of it. The buzz increased and now people were saying the man was a four-star general. Still, John didn’t think much about it. It sounded important, but what did it mean?
John had an appointment on his calendar with a man named Robert Cone. He checked the church database and read that Cone had a military background. He thought this must be the four-star general. John quickly prepared himself to speak respectfully. He was a general, after all, even if John didn’t understand what that meant.
“I went into my office, and Robert Cone was already there,” John recalls. “So I came in and said, ‘Hello sir, Mr. Cone, sir.’ I really didn’t know what to say. But he looked at me and said, ‘Pastor John, my name is Bob. Just call me Bob.’”
Bob was wearing jeans and a sweater, no hint at his extensive and prestigious military background. John decided he would talk to Bob as he would with anyone else. Bob told John he had prostate cancer that had metastasized into his bones. He knew he wasn’t going to live forever and wanted to learn more about God.
“Bob said he was fighting for his life and doing his best to win, but one day he knew he would die because we all die,” John recalls. “He said he had spent his entire life knowing how to prepare himself and others to protect our country, and he wanted to be prepared for what was next.”
John said what he would’ve said to anyone who wanted to learn more. He asked Bob if he liked to read, and provided a few book suggestions. John laughs at the irony of the conversation. Of course Bob read. He graduated from West Point and later earned a master’s degree in sociology. Bob oversaw Fort Hood at the time of the 2009 shooting. In 2011 he was the Deputy Commanding Lieutenant General for the Operation of the American Forces in Iraq. Bob ran an $8-billion budget – he handled nearly every training capacity of the U.S. Army, called TRADOC (United States Army Training and Doctrine Command). Bob led the Army’s exit strategy from Iraq. He debriefed the Bushes and Obamas. Bob was always reading. John says he didn’t know who he was talking to.
Four stars is the highest rank one can earn in the Army. The last five-star Army General was Dwight Eisenhower, and after his death the five stars were retired. There can only be nine four-star Army generals at a time. General Robert “Bob” Cone was the 201st four-star Army general; President George Washington was the first. Cone earned his stars in 2011, and soon learned of his cancer diagnosis. It was stage four, but he was determined to beat the disease.
How did a four-star general find a small-town church in Wisconsin? Bob’s widow, Jill Cone, tells that part of the story. Her mother grew up in Shawano, and after Jill’s grandfather became ill, her mother moved back to take care of him. When Bob deployed in 2008, Jill decided to leave Fort Irwin, California, and buy a home near her mother in Shawano. Life in the military is stressful, so she purchased a lakeside home they could use for weekend getaways once Bob returned from deployment. When Bob retired in 2014, they began to split their time between two homes – one in Shawano and the other in Maine. Jill says they went “church shopping” (even though she doesn’t like the term) in Shawano and eventually landed at Hope Community Church.
“Jared, the worship pastor, was so talented. Bob and I looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow! This guy is in Shawano?’” she said. “Then pastor John got up and gave his sermon. He was so amazing, we couldn’t believe it. We went back again, and that’s when Bob said, ‘I want to make an appointment to speak to pastor John.’”
At this point, Bob had been living with cancer for three years. Jill says all Army commanders have their own personal chaplain. Decisions in the military are life or death, and require a listening ear, an assuring message and confident counsel.
“There aren’t many people you can share things with,” Jill explained. “Bob was retired, so he didn’t have a chaplain anymore, and that’s why he made the appointment with pastor John. That was the huge turning point in getting really involved with the church.”
Bob and John grew close. Jill says she would give Bob a hard time about bothering John, but she soon realized they were fond of one another. The Cones invited John’s family to spend time at their lake home and spoke regularly. Bob was dying. But they didn’t tell anyone. He was receiving treatment through clinical trials at the National Cancer Institute. Bob set records for taking the most treatments – 58. And it’s where he developed his mantra: faith, fitness and attitude. Jill says being physically fit helped his health.
“I started to keep track of the miles Bob traveled every week. We had our own jet to fly to meetings all over,” Jill said. “I think he had 20 installations underneath him, and he’d give speeches, awards and counsel. When I logged it, he had flown 110,000 miles in a year, with stage four cancer. And no one knew he was dying. He was beloved.”
Bob lived five years with cancer. Toward the last year of his Bob’s life (2016), John would drive 45 miles to Green Bay just to sit and talk with him. Bob was now in a hospital. On September 19, 2016, at 4 a.m., Jill got the call that Bob didn’t have much time left. After she called her sister, her next call was to John. He left his home immediately to get to Bob’s bedside and be there for Jill.
“I had a conversation with him the Friday before he died,” John said. “We were talking about different things from the election to how he needed to eat more. Then out of the blue he said, ‘John, I wish I had known Jesus sooner. I wish I had known him sooner for his care and comfort in my life.’ I will never forget that, an accomplished four-star general of the United States Army wished he could’ve experienced Jesus’ personal care sooner.”
When Jill arrived at the hospital, Bob was already gone. John arrived later, and they sat together, telling stories about Bob and what he meant to them and the nation he served. Jill already knew her wishes: she didn’t want flowers, she wanted donations to the church. John told Jill she was jumping the gun, but she was insistent on the request. Jill also had another idea: John would officiate Bob’s funeral in Arlington National Cemetery.
“It’s one of those things where you realize God moves in our lives,” Jill said. “God brought John into our lives. We’ve had chaplain friends, and they were close, but it just wasn’t the same as John and Bob. John brought Bob so much further in his faith.”
It was an easy decision, and God provided by way of two of Bob’s classmates. One told Jill she wanted to pay to fly out John and his family. Another classmate emailed Jill and with the same idea. Jill knew she also wanted Jared, Hope Community Church’s worship pastor, and this was the perfect way to get him to D.C. as well. The funeral took place in December. The Army is extremely regimented, and you can watch how they put on a funeral service and all that goes into the planning behind the scenes by watching this video from Bob’s funeral.
John says “nervous” was an understatement of how he felt upon arrival in D.C. Jill introduced John and Jared to the people Bob served with.
“When the Army gets together, they are a family,” John said. “High-capacity people, but you couldn’t believe how friendly and grateful they were. I was with their general right before he died. I’m in awe of how many sincere thank yous we received.”
At the service, John walked in behind the casket. He says his knees were knocking, but when he saw Jill enter the chapel, he remembered why he was there. Great Lakes executive minister Ken Nabi also sent John a text for encouragement, reminding him that he served the King of the Universe. As John put it, all the people there represented the President of the United States, but God had him there for a reason.
“It was such a humbling thing because you can’t orchestrate this stuff,” John says. “You can’t pick a four-star general to come to your church–and to know I was going to be talking to some of the highest-ranking officials in the country. God had our church there, not just me, to represent the gospel.”
For his seven-minute message, John talked about the three words Bob lived by: faith, fitness and attitude. John knew the men and women of the military might not find his own faith as important as they found their commanding officer’s faith, whom they loved and cherished. So he talked about Bob’s faith, a strong leader and a mentor to thousands of soldiers.
“I shared the faith of not only a great leader, but a man who truly loved Jesus,” John said.
Jill believes God put John and Jared in place to reach people.
“I wanted John and Jared to touch the crowd the way they touched Bob and me,” Jill said. “I wanted Jared’s music to convert people, and John’s message to make people think. They were both incredible.”
John had rehearsed his message with Jill before the service so that she wouldn’t be surprised by anything.
“I appreciated it. When he finished, I started to cry. I told him it was beautiful and that I thought it was perfect and didn’t want him to change a thing,” Jill said. “The first time I heard it, I could process it. Then when I heard it again at the funeral it wasn’t such a sad moment. I was so proud of John. People were listening on the edge of their seats. Everyone thought he was incredible. John brought it to a close with Bob telling him, ‘I wish I would’ve found Jesus sooner.’ It brought everyone to tears.”
After the service, people told Jared he should audition for The Voice, and John that they wanted to visit his church in Shawano. Many were blown away that John and Jared were from a small town in Wisconsin. Jill was worried someone would offer John a job and take him away from the church. So far, that hasn’t happened.
“The Christians in the audience came up to me and said they were so relieved to hear Bob had known Jesus. They had all been praying for him,” John said. “So many people thanked us and told us they were grateful we came."
General Robert Cone left his mark on the country and thousands of leaders. Jill has a bag of over 500 letters people have written to her since his passing. She says Bob never dreamed of being a four-star general – that’s just not something you think about. She inscribed on his tombstone his original philosophy, “Leadership is a privilege.”
“He treasured the soldiers who worked for him. You have the lives of America’s sons and daughters in your hands, and it’s not just in a combat zone. In an installation you have tough decisions to make. Leadership is a burden and a blessing,” Jill said. “He loved what he did. He loved making a difference in people’s lives.”
Jill is back in Shawano with family, and John is back at Hope Community Church with a big story to tell. What started as just another appointment on pastor’s calendar has shown what God can do with a small-town pastor with an incredible impact. Jill says it’s exactly what Bob would have wanted.