I admire sad and serious stories. That is not to say that I don't enjoy a humorous story or a good laugh, because I certainly do. It is that I find great meaning, message, and resolution through tears. The following reflection is as true as my memory can muster . . . it articulates my thoughts and my memories of sad days for our family and me. I wrote this not to entertain, but to challenge us from our place of comfort.
No 20-year old person is supposed to die! Dying is meant for those who have spent their youth; used well their middle age; and fulfilled their elder years. However, die he did. He left behind a mother, father, grandfather, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, as well as comrades in arms. I claim this to be his story, but likely it is mine. Perhaps it is at least my simplistic attempt to squeeze something of value from his untimely and unnecessary death.
My father, himself a United State Marine Corps veteran from World War II and the Korean Conflict, weak from prolonged illness, replete in his Veterans of Foreign Wars' hat stood as much to attention as he could as a man of 80+ years. I stood next to him, at least partially as a steadying presence, bare headed, sadness and loss clearly written across my face. We stood nearby the gravesite, in Woodside Cemetery in Westminster, Massachusetts - less than a mile from the house where my five siblings and I grew up. This is where my mother is buried alongside other family members including an uncle and one of my brothers-in-law. This is the place where my father is buried now and hopefully where I will be buried one day. This pre-revolutionary war graveyard has served its purpose well ever since Abner Moore became its first resident in 1742.
The three brothers, my nephews, two in and one out of uniform, Marine Corps uniforms to be specific, stood at uncomfortable attention. There were also several other Marine Corps uniformed men and women nearby who had actually escorted him home to final rest. They brought him home together with a folded flag; five sealed envelopes; a pre-recorded version of Taps, all together with words of appreciation from both a grateful nation and the Commander-In-Chief.
His mother and father, my sister Bette Jane and brother-in-law, Saul, of course were there. They were barely able to stand, their grief nearly overwhelming. My other sisters, brother, sister-in-law, and brothers-in-law, all of his aunts and uncles, his grandfather, along with cousins, nieces, nephews and family friends were there as well, all suffering near inconsolable sadness and loss -- our dear friends sharing in our family's grief.
I have always thought of my sister Bette Jane and her husband Saul as saints. This is not because they are necessarily without sin or act particularly holy, but because their hearts and outreached helping hands could extend and did extend way beyond their physical reach to comfort, care for, and ease the pain and sadness of many persons - particularly of many children. I know of no better examples of what my Lutheran friends so often say, "God's work, our hands."
Some years ago, Bette Jane and Saul adopted four boys . . . brothers who had been neglected by their alcohol addicted mother. Social services had removed them from their neglectful home and placed them in various families as foster children. They were later put up for adoption. Better Jane and Saul, foster parents to two and then four ended up adopting all four of these boys. This sudden family of six lived a happy life together, spending much of it in Southern New Hampshire, eventually seeing each of these four boys grow into fine human beings and good men. Three of these four boys, hardly boys, by then grown men, were serving or had served in the United States Marine Corps. I remember thinking how very handsome they all looked in their full dress blue uniforms with red and white accepts. Their grandfather, my father, being the Marine veteran that he was, exuded pride every time he talked or thought about these three grandsons who chose to serve their country by becoming Marines. Their father, himself a retired US Army veteran, shared in the pride that comes from watching your sons grow; become men; and serve their country as he himself had done throughout his entire adult life. To tell the truth, all of us, veterans and non-veterans alike were proud of these fine men.
The youngest of the three Marines, 20-year old Ryan, actually the youngest in this family of six, died while on active duty in Okinawa, Japan. He died not because of an act of war, not because of an accident, not because of friendly fire. He died because of hatred, shame, ignorance, fear, and possibly self-loathing. He died alone in an outbuilding at a remote section of the island-base after hanging himself.
Ryan chose to end his life rather than, in his mind, shame his family and the Marine Corp that he loved. Shame caused by compromising photographs that someone had then published to the Internet. Pictures that would likely broadcast him as a gay man.
I wonder if Ryan's death is the outcome some or perhaps even many people want for gay men and women. I have often wondered if there were people somewhere celebrating Ryan's death on this very day; celebrating on the day of our family's deep sadness: a day when we saw a life given up at such a young and promising age. I have ever dared wonder to myself, were some individuals actually rejoicing in the fact that there was one less of "them" around. To us who stood in Woodside Cemetery on that cool early spring day, at uncomfortable attention, he was not one of 'them'; he was our loving son, our brother, our nephew, our cousin, our grandson, our neighbor, our friend, and our comrade - truly loved by all. Ryan as a gay man, if that is what he was, deserved a chance as much as anyone else, to live a full and complete life of his choosing; his life to live in freedom and dignity.
As were stood there on that day at uncomfortable attention, we all thought about what we might have said to this dear young man to assuage his fear and eliminate the shame he felt. Would he have listened if we told him, once again, that we loved him 'no matter what', or as some would say 'warts and all'? Would he perhaps have taken a different path, had we been able to tell him that there is a fulfilling life available to all of us, yes, even to gay men and women? I wonder, though, if he would have even believed us, even if we had been given the chance to say something to him before? Truth is, as far as we know, he chose this path without conversation with anyone - after all, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".
As nearly as we can determine, he left behind only the five handwritten letters sealed in five envelopes . . . each addressed to a different person . . . I do not know much detail of what was in them, I only know that they contained his last words.
When all was said, and all was done on that cool spring day, we left that pre-revolutionary war graveyard with memories in our minds, loss in our hearts, tears in our eyes, and a folded flag in our hands.
So, what lessons should or could we draw from this? I would not be so presumptuous to suggest lessons for others. For me, however, my lessons are few and simple:
- to be outspoken in my support, respect, and love for all peoples;
- to respect and value the differences among us;
- to respect individuals for whom they are and for the decisions that they make to live fulfilling and meaningful lives in the ways that they choose;
- to respect individuals' choices regarding who they love
- to never remain silent or quiet when any human being is marginalized, or when any human being is denied rights that I take for granted
Sadly, there is nothing I can say nor anything that I can do to bring Ryan back to us. However, if these words resonate for only one person, whose heart, upon hearing this story, grows "three sizes that day" . . . perhaps they will have earned their right to paper.
As I said at the beginning, for me, resolution, message, and meaning come through tears. I hope you share my tears . . . that on that day, in that place, were shed for our dear Ryan, a 20-year old man; the third marine, the fourth brother.I hope and trust that you're resting in peace, Ryan Mire. Thank you for sharing his story with us, Bruce.