Medal: Silver Star
Earned: Nov. 16, 2005, Iraq
1st Lt. Ryan McGlothlin kept a notebook of favorite quotations, with this poem on page 1.
Don, Ruth and Sean McGlothlin
RELATED STORY: 'What would Ryan want for you right now?'
Don McGlothlin has spent a lot of time talking about his son Ryan since he was killed in Iraq in 2005.
Not every parent is asked by the White House if the president can tell their son’s story.
But not every son was like 1st Lt. Donald R. "Ryan" McGlothlin: valedictorian, top 10 college student, Stanford University doctoral candidate, and U.S. Marine Corps officer.
"My son, I mean, he was born a warrior," said McGlothlin, a soft-spoken lawyer and Army veteran of Vietnam who now chuckles and sighs at the memories of Ryan’s life.
"He was extremely intelligent, graduated first in just about everything that he did," Don said proudly. And he always wanted to be a Marine.
On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, Ryan was on his way to California to begin a Ph.D. in chemistry. When he heard about the attacks, furious, he called his dad.
"He was so angry, he had it in his mind that he was going to drive to the nearest Marine Corps recruiting station and sign up," McGlothlin said.
His father tried to talk him out of it, to look for other ways to serve the country. Ryan continued west, but left school for the Marines as soon as he could.
Again, he graduated at the top; this time from The Basic School with his choice of billets: flight school or infantry. Again, his dad tried to steer him out of harm’s way.
"From a father’s perspective, I thought that it would be less likely that he would be hurt," if Ryan chose flight school, McGlothlin said.
"But it didn’t matter to Ryan, he wanted to be an infantry officer and he told me that. I asked him why. I said, ‘Can’t you serve some other way?’ And he said, ‘No sir.’ He told me that he’d always wanted to lead Marines."
"And then with a twinkle in his eye," his father said, chuckling, Ryan told him, "Besides, Dad, nobody’s ever been commandant of the Marine Corps who hasn’t been an infantry officer."
In January, the battalion commander said that Ryan’s were the best trained Marines of the battalion, perhaps the entire regiment. But it didn’t matter on Nov. 16, 2005. The ambush came too quickly. Eleven wounded, five killed.
The Silver Star citation says that Ryan’s "valiant and selfless actions saved the lives of two Marines." But the guys who were there say there’s more to the story.
"You know, they have a different idea about what happened in that room. The people that he commanded, they have a different idea. They think that Ryan was Superman, before and after," McGlothlin said.
Lance Cpl. Joshua Mooi, 22, remembers: "Lt. McGlothlin, we pass him on the way. He’s asking us what’s going on, and he’s shooting back down the hallway and covering us while we’re making our way out of the building."
"We turn around, pass him up, and the last I hear is a couple of gunshots and loud muffled explosion," Mooi said. "I owe him a lot."
But because his back was to Ryan, who was then a second lieutenant, Mooi could not file an eyewitness after-action account.
"I know. I know in my heart and in my head that he did save us from that grenade," he said.
Mooi feels guilty Ryan, who was posthumously promoted to first lieutenant, didn’t also receive a Navy Cross, or even a Medal of Honor.
"Something that he deserved more than me, you know?" Mooi said.
Ryan McGlothlin was 26.
In more than three years of funerals, memorials, and awards ceremonies, Ryan’s father has discovered a side of his son he never knew. Ryan was everyone’s best friend. He counseled older students. He protected his Marines.
McGlothlin also learned that all’s fair in love and war, even a hero son’s name.
Less than a month after Ryan was killed in action, President George W. Bush invoked Ryan’s story amid a series of political speeches designed to soften growing public opposition to the war.
Ryan twice had voted for Bush’s opponent. He hated that Afghanistan was ignored for Iraq. But he loved being a Marine, and believed America had to finish what it started. So his parents agreed.
"Ryan didn’t support me in the last election. But he supported our mission in Iraq," Bush said. The president noted that Ryan carried a poem called "Don’t Quit." But then Bush made a tenuous connection, adding: "In our fight to keep America free, we’ll never quit."
The comment drew national attention: CNN, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post. Quickly, bloggers from Arianna Huffington to conservative Michelle Malkin used Ryan’s name to support their positions.
Later, McGlothlin told Rolling Stone that he felt Bush used Ryan’s story "to scotch up support for the war."
He searched online for Ryan’s name, but it made him feel like they just did not understand.
"A lot of people who get on the blogs are sincere and they talk a lot, but they don’t live it, you know? These youngsters who are in our military, they live it. Day in and day out."
"It’s kind of funny," he added, "the people who were extolling the virtues of going over to Iraq and fighting and dying were probably the least politically attuned to Ryan’s way of thinking. At one point he told me, he said, ‘Dad, I think I may be one of two or three Democrats in the Marine Corps,’ " McGlothlin said laughing.
"But you don’t have to be a Republican; you don’t have to be a Democrat, or a Whig, or a Tory to be a patriot. That’s what Ryan and his men were. That’s what every person that volunteered to go over there — every one of them were patriots and heroes in my book."
Reunions are like family, where McGlothlin finds common ground. He doesn’t want to leave them. One platoon mate decided to name his expected son Ryan. Foundations were started in his name.
"That makes a mother or father feel like their son’s sacrifice has had some meaning, you know? That it hasn’t been just a —" he paused. "It feels hollow, you know? You’re looking for your son, you want to talk, but he’s not there and you want something to hold onto.
"And you see good people like this who are doing good things for our servicemembers and you say, ‘Well, it’s been worth it. We’re doing something for somebody else.’ "
According to McGlothlin, that’s what Ryan was all about.