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Family, pastors remember fallen Marine

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of the McGlothlin family

Marine Lt. Ryan McGlothlin stands at ease during his deployment to Iraq last year. McGlothlin, 26, was killed Nov. 16 while fighting in Iraq.
Jan. 31, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Annette Bender*

Before Lt. Ryan McGlothlin became a war hero — before President Bush lifted him up in a recent speech — he was an Eagle Scout who installed the attic floor at Lebanon (Va.) Memorial United Methodist Church.

McGlothlin, 26, died Nov.16 during intense fighting near Iraq’s border with Syria. Since then, the story of the Marine from Lebanon, Va., has appeared in newspapers and TV news programs all over the country. McGlothlin’s parents have not only conversed with the president’s speechwriting team, they’ve been interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and quoted in the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

Ruth McGlothlin and Don McGlothlin are proud that their youngest son has received so much worthy attention. But as any parent would understand, the limelight pales when compared to the sacrifice that was made.

“He was such an exemplary young man,” says Ruth McGlothlin, a guidance counselor at Lebanon High School and member of Lebanon Memorial United Methodist Church since 1990. “I wanted him safe, but he wanted to be a Marine.”

“Everyone sees Ryan as a fallen war hero, a super achiever,” says Don McGlothlin, a former circuit court judge who practices law in Lebanon. “But he was also a son, a wonderful friend to many. He was a very spiritually mature person — much more so than I am. His faith in God was paramount.”

McGlothlin’s story shows on a personal level the impact of the war — and a soldier’s sacrifice — on one family and community.

All-American family

The newspapers and former pastors tell the story of a star student and athlete who was influenced to join the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. McGlothlin was valedictorian of his high school class, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the College of William & Mary. He played football, wrestled and ran track. His two older brothers, Sean and Nathan, also excelled academically and athletically.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of the McGlothlin family

Ryan McGlothlin (right) is pictured with his older brothers, Nathan (center) and Sean.
“They were the dream of an all-American family,” says the Rev. Tony Collins, who served Lebanon Memorial from 1996 to 2000. “Three handsome young men. A father who was successful. A well-respected mother. They were always at the church, very faithful in their attendance. I remember Ryan as being very serious about what he was going to do in life.”

When the Rev. Don Nation served Grundy United Methodist Church in the Tazewell District, Ryan attended the church’s new preschool. Later, after the McGlothlin family had moved to Lebanon in the Abingdon District, Nation served as their pastor from 1990 to 1996.
Nation’s son, Will, was in Ryan McGlothlin’s Boy Scout troop. For his Eagle Scout project, Ryan raised money and organized workers to install flooring in his church’s attic space, his father remembers.

“All the family members are fine folks,” says Nation, now serving as Tazewell District superintendent. The Virginia district is part of the United Methodist Church’s Holston Annual (regional) Conference, which includes East Tennessee and parts of Virginia and North Georgia.

‘The right reasons’

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 influenced McGlothlin’s decision to join the military, according to the Rev. Mike Carter, the current Lebanon Memorial pastor who spent an hour and 40 minutes talking with the Marine before he departed for Iraq. Carter would later officiate at the young soldier’s funeral.

“He wanted to talk to me about keeping an eye on his mother and praying for him — and making sure he was making the right decision,” says Carter. “He talked about the possibility of his death. He had everything in place. He went for the right reasons. He went for liberty … But I’m not sure he would have ever gone into the military if Sept. 11 hadn’t happened.”

McGlothlin’s father told the Los Angeles Times that his son was livid about the Sept. 11 attacks, “just furious that someone had attacked American citizens on our soil.”

In an interview with The Call, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Holston Annual Conference, Don McGlothlin says that when his son made the decision to join the Marines, he asked him, “Ryan, is there no other way to protect your country, without being shot at?”

Ryan said, “Dad, I’ve been born into privilege,” his father recalls. “Why should I ride on the backs of others?”

McGlothlin made similar remarks to his pastor. “He couldn’t understand why the poor were always sent overseas to fight,” Carter says. “He said it’s not their obligation to fight our wars for us.”

Upon graduation from William & Mary, McGlothlin won a doctoral research fellowship in chemistry at Stanford University. His mother hoped he would love what he was doing, “but I knew ever since he was a little boy that he was drawn to the military,” she says, remembering how he liked to play soldier. “He had a sense of duty.”

He had won an Army ROTC scholarship for the last three years of college, but it was withdrawn after recruiters learned he had had a respiratory illness as a child. His mother says McGlothlin had then worked even harder to build his muscles and mind to convince the military he was healthy.

Two years into his doctoral program, after winning a medical waiver for his childhood illness, he left Stanford for Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, followed by six months of advance officer training. He was the honor graduate in his class of 220 second lieutenants, his parents say.

Outpouring of support

It is painful for the parents as well as the pastor to recall the day the Marines came to Lebanon High School to inform Ruth McGlothlin of her son’s death.

Divorced several years earlier, Don McGlothlin, who had been notified first, came to the school to be with Ruth, as did Pastor Mike Carter.

“It was a terrible day for all of us,” says Carter.

McGlothlin’s funeral was held at Lebanon Memorial. The crowd was so large — locals as well as the media and Ryan’s friends from all over — a satellite feed had to be arranged at the nearby funeral home. When the funeral home was full, people stood outside on the sidewalk.

Ruth McGlothlin’s voice breaks as she speaks of the kindness of Lebanon Memorial members in the weeks following Ryan’s death.

“People brought food and flowers,” she says. “They’ve given us phone calls and prayers. They housed the Marines and relatives who came in for the funeral. They provided the technology for the service and the meal after the funeral.

“They took over and they took care of us. They gave us everything – except the one thing I wanted.”

‘Don’t quit’

After the funeral, the family received a letter from Ryan, written five days before his death.
Ryan’s father draws on the letter to explain why he is willing to “share the agony” with the media – an agony that was heightened when the family learned Ryan gave his life while trying to shield his Marines from gunfire and grenades.

“He chose the infantry because he wanted to fight evil,” says Don McGlothlin. He explains that after arriving in Iraq, Ryan McGlothlin became convinced that the war had to be won in order to help the Iraqi people.

“I know this war is not the most popular one back home,” Ryan wrote, “but people must understand that to pull out before the Iraqi army is fully ready to assume responsibility for the security of their own country is not only irresponsible of us but would ensure the persistence of terrorism. If you walk through these cities and see how terrified Iraqi citizens are of the terrorists and how thankful they are that we finally came to their cities, you could not possibly consider doing this job incompletely.”

When the president’s speechwriters contacted the McGlothlins, they were told that Ryan had not supported Bush in the elections. But the speechwriters were faithful to the parents’ requests to report Ryan’s story and perspective in context, Don McGlothlin says.

Bush even pointed out in his Dec. 13 speech that Ryan hadn’t supported him, “... but he supported our mission in Iraq. And he supported his fellow Marines,” the president said.

Bush also mentioned the poem carried in the former valedictorian’s pocket at the time of his death –the same poem McGlothlin read at his high school graduation. “It represented the spirit of this fine Marine,” the president said. “The poem was called, ‘Don’t Quit.’”

The morning after the speech, the headlines said Bush had admitted mistakes but defended his decision to wage war in Iraq. And other stories told of the stellar young Marine from southwest Virginia, resting in Ketron Memorial Cemetery.

*Bender is editor of The Call, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Holston Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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