Published: December 6, 2011
Michelle Conner wrote me from California seeking ways to connect with military members with whom she and her husband could share their holiday celebration.
“We want to share bountiful holiday meals … wall to wall, floor to ceiling decorations, the Christmas tree, the cookies, the music and our love and appreciation,” she wrote. She said they would also like to play Santa for a military family in need.
I wrote back with suggestions for connecting with family centers, the USO and other military support organizations near her home.
Here, I admit, Scrooge reared his ugly head, grumbling that civilians seem to remember the military at Christmas and forget about us the rest of the year. I silenced that inner humbug and was soon very glad I did. Michelle’s next message put her desire to connect with the military in a clearer and brighter light.
“I hope you don’t mind my taking a little more of your time to tell you the story of our son, Darrell,” she said.
Darrell Conner Jr. had always wanted to join the Army and have a career as an infantryman. He scored well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, but before he could enlist, he was diagnosed with cancer. He was 20 years old.
He was also determined. The recruiters told him he could still join when he was cancer-free and was given a clean bill of health, so he set his eyes on that goal.
As he was being treated for cancer, Darrell continued to participate in training days at his local recruiting office. His mom said the recruiters didn’t know that he sometimes came to train shortly after strength-sapping inpatient chemotherapy. After PT sessions with other potential recruits, he could hide his exhaustion and pain from everyone but his mother.
When his doctors told him there was nothing more they could do, Darrell determined to take part in a clinical trial on the other side of the country.
“For five and a half years, he bravely battled the cancer, never giving up on his dream of serving his country,” Michelle said. “On August 27, Darrell lost his war against cancer after three months of suffering in the hospital. The Army will never know how passionately patriotic and courageous our young man was.”
At the memorial service, Darrell’s close friend Ryan, a national guardsman, took his marksmanship medal from his uniform and gave it to Michelle.
“This unselfish act epitomizes the close bond, dedication and love of country, family and friends felt by members of our armed forces,” Michelle said. “This medal will be with Darrell for all eternity.”
Ryan and Darrell were also fellow car and racing enthusiasts. In October, Ryan participated in a drag race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., dedicated to Darrell’s memory.
“Ryan seat-belted the urn containing Darrell’s ashes into the passenger seat, and together they raced all night,” Michelle said. Ryan defeated 46 cars to win first place for his friend.
Ryan also plans to carry some of Darrell’s ashes overseas with him when he deploys next year to fulfill Darrell's desire to serve with the Army.
“It’s bittersweet that many of Darrell’s dreams are being realized now,” Michelle said.
She and her son had discussed ways to show appreciation to servicemen and women.
A simple “thank you” to those in uniform was not enough, Michelle said. So three months after losing her son, she wrote me to ask how her family could share Christmas with a military family.
When I asked if I could tell Darrell’s story, Michelle responded:
“Darrell had written a bucket list that we found while we were gathering items for his memorial. Number four on his list … was to tell his story on national television. I can assure you that it would mean so much more to him that his story is in Stars and Stripes.”
It’s a small gift, but here’s one drop in the bucket list for Darrell and his family.