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How a Service Member's Sacrifice Can Inspire the Next Generation

The other day I was at the local Naval Exchange waiting to get a haircut flipping through my phone and stopped the scroll on a LinkedIn Post from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation which congratulated a young man starting his freshmen year at the US Naval Academy. The young man was the son of a Navy SEAL who had died in Afghanistan in the line of duty on June 25, 2003...

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The other day I was at the local Naval Exchange waiting to get a haircut flipping through my phone and stopped the scroll on this Linked In Post from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation: USNA Military Family Service

The picture caught my eye because the certificate folder that Owen was holding reminded me so much of almost the exact same folder I held so long ago now it seems back in 2003 when I found out myself that I was accepted to attend the US Naval Academy (USNA) as part of the Class of 2007. I remember being supremely proud after a long hard road in high school looking to get the right grades, extracurricular activities, SAT scores, physical fitness, etc. to go through the difficult nomination and acceptance process to attend this the USNA. More importantly, I was proud to be starting off on my dream of joining the US Navy/Marine Corps team in service to my country in a cause greater than myself especially in light of the Global War on Terrorism and Operation Iraqi Freedom. What really struck me though was the fact that Owen’s dad had died on June 25, 2003, just slightly less than a week before I would start my own Plebe Summer on July 1, 2003. Just a few years prior to my time going to Plebe Summer, I remember being in a high school math class watching with shock the World Trade Center towers be attacked. I knew that things would change for me with my own desires to join the military along with my friends. I remember 2003 vividly as Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off which would cause some of my friends from high school Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (MCJROTC) to get injured in combat after they enlisted in the Marine Corps. One of my friends, Darrel Riley, a star football player at Wilby High School in Waterbury, CT which I attended where I grew up, would ultimately lose his life from wounds from post 9/11 operations with the US Marine Corps. During my time at the academy, I can recall the various memorial services or stories told of graduates and other Navy/Marine Corps Officer who died in the line of duty during that time.

As I read this post from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, I couldn't help but do the mental math regarding the timeline between the tragic death of Owen’s dad, Navy Petty Officer First Class (SEAL) Thomas E. Retzer and when Owen started his freshmen year. Thomas, a San Diego native like my wife, lost his life in Afghanistan in 2003 while assigned to Naval Special Warfare Command. Owen most likely is somewhere about 17 or 18 years old but certainly not older than 23 due to the age requirements of admission into Plebe Summer at the US Naval Academy. Thus he was anywhere from a newborn infant to 6 years old when his dad succumbed to his wounds from the battlefield. This thought made me really stop and consider how much of an impact Owen’s dad had on him to inspire him to join the Naval Service even with the short time they certainly had together. That made me think about my own son, David, who is about 2.5 years old now. During the majority of my Marine Corps career which included three deployments overseas to include Operation Iraqi Freedom, I had been single until 2017 when I got married. Shortly afterwards I found out that I would be having a son which was amazing because early on in my military career I had wondered if I would live to actually have children. In fact I remember some time before I signed my "2 for 7" papers which would commit me to at least a short career in the Navy or Marine Corps during a time of war thinking of the real possibility of being a 23 year old Second Lieutenant downrange who would die in the heat of battle without ever getting married or having kids. People say that getting married is a big change in your life, but definitely when you have kids things change for sure. I have to agree. I would like to say that I'm somebody who likes to serve others, but definitely having a kid really can show me areas of selfishness and I'm grateful that I've grown to become a more selfless man because of my son David. During the first few years of my son’s life I was fortunate to spend much time with him from the time he was born whether it be evening walks around the block on Federal City of New Orleans, runs on the Mississippi River Levee with him in his baby jogger, pushing him in a swing at the park, bathing him in the bathtub, going to the emergency room with him and his mom when he had stridor breathing, or just playing with blocks on the floor. While he certainly knew who I was physically, I would of course wonder what type of impact I was having on him at a little age. I received that answer though later this year after separating from him and my wife for a time for military duties overseas. My wife Kristine told me how David was trying to sing the song, “The Blessing” by Kari Jobe, a song by Elevation Worship that inspired many in the wake of COVID-19 as it was recorded just before the virus struck the US and globe and caused businesses and churches to shut down everywhere not to mention taking many lives along the way. It was an inspiring song for me at that time because during the months preceding my trip overseas I was under a lot of stress and it brought comfort to me personally. I used to play it for David and myself from my phone on YouTube while he played in the bathtub. It made me realize how much of an impact my actions and activities had on him even when I didn’t think it. Reading this post about Owens though made me wonder what was it about Owen’s dad, Tom, that could have made such an impact on him to cause him to follow in his father’s footsteps despite the pain of knowing that military overseas duty took his dad away.

A light bulb went off in my head though as I recognized that as Owen grew up, he likely heard stories of his dad from his mother, his grandparents, other family members, maybe even fellow SEAL brothers who trained and might have even fought in combat alongside his dad Tom. I did some research on Tom and found this from the Fallen Heroes Project site:

“Thomas Retzer was part of a dedicated Naval Special Warfare team fighting the Taliban. Retzer worked to help ensure al Qaeda terrorists could not train in, nor launch strikes from Afghanistan since their lethal attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Thomas Retzer was a native of California who was an avid athlete and outdoorsman. He enlisted in the Navy in 1988 directly after graduating from high school and became an Interior Communications Electrician. Retzer was working on a mathematics major at San Diego State University when he left to do for what his father said was really “the only thing he wanted to do:” become a Navy SEAL. Retzer graduated from Seal training in 1994. He distinguished himself as a SEAL operator during combat operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2003, earning two Bronze Stars with combat “V” for valor. On June 25, 2003, Retzer was killed while engaged in a fierce firefight after his convoy was attacked outside of Gardez, Afghanistan. He received gunshot wounds to the head and chest, but lived 24 hours before succumbing to his injuries. Thomas Retzer is remembered with the greatest respect and gratitude by his fellow SEALs, the Navy, and the nation…A fellow shipmate said Thomas Retzer was “a brave, proud, selfless man, a good husband and loving father,” and that “the sacrifice that he made for our country will not ever be forgotten." Retzer’s wife praised both her spouse and his fellow SEALs going on record to state, “I am so proud of my husband and thankful to his very brave and steadfast teammates who continue the mission unseen. Tom was in good company.”

Reading this post helped me to piece the puzzle together that Tom’s dedication to service and courage under fire, while not being something his son likely understood at the time of his untimely death, was memorialized and remembered in a manner by Tom's family and friends that no doubt told a story that made a difference in the life of his son Owen.

Fathers in particular, but mothers and other mentors of youth to include grandparents, teachers, etc. can have a profound impact on a young person for good or for bad. I can look back and think of the impact that family members of mine had one me to include many mentors of mine that inspired character in me and also inspired in me the tradition of service to my country. As a kid, I participated in Boy Scouts and got arguably some of my first real exposure to understanding the value of military service besides hearing stories about family members who served in the military during World War II or Vietnam. My troop chaplain, Hugo DeFederico, would tell stories of being inches away from death aboard a ship in the Pacific during WWII or tell stories of how everybody was thanking God for being alive after a shelling that should have destroyed their ship. He returned home from WWII never to get married or have kids of his own but he ended up serving his country as a Boy Scout leader who molded the lives of many young men like myself who would grow up to become leaders themselves. I learned stories of how my grandfather, John Lavado, started off his time in the United States as an illegal immigrant, but went on to fight German U boats protecting vital merchant convoys in the Atlantic during WWII as a Merchant Mariner. He eventually would earn his citizenship and was proud to be an American. My troop leader Joe Gannon, a former Navy enlisted submariner turned mustang Army Reserve Officer (CPT, USA (Ret) as well as one of the other dads in the scout troop, Art Stauff (CAPT, USN (Ret) would talk about stories of their times in the service. My two instructors in MCJROTC, 1stSgts Henry Weber and Wayne Violette, both Vietnam veterans, held me in awe of these stories and I would try to envision the lives they lived from movies like “Band of Brothers”, “We Were Soldiers”, “Saving Private Ryan”, and “U-571” where sacrifice for others was memorialized. When I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy, my grandmother gave me a journal of my great uncle, her brother, who was a 19 year old sailor who served during the Battle of Iwo Jima in WWII. I never met my great uncle who died before I was born an untimely death sometime after WWII, but reading his journal entry around 19 years old myself transported me back in time to recognize the importance of bravery and sacrifice as I read about the dead Marines on shore or bodies floating in the water around the ship. His story along with others I would hear during the time I grew up impacted me deeply to this day as I prepared for my own service in the 21st century to carry on the tradition of my fathers in a sense.

As I reflect on all this, it makes me realize the importance of living a life that impacts others in your family, friends, and community where you live for a greater cause than yourself. This is truly the way that you can live forever vs. trying so hard to play it safe. A few years back when I was first dating my wife, we were driving down on Vandegrift Road in Camp Pendleton, CA and she mentioned a story she read about a military pilot who chose to fly his plane into the ground to avoid hitting civilian areas which would almost have certainly happened had he ejected. She mentioned that she felt that I was likely the same type of person to do something similar. In my head and heart I knew she was correct, but didn’t know how to respond at the moment because it’s a touchy subject. I believe this is the tension that many service members and their spouses face as well. A few years later my wife and I were at a Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the Superdome in New Orleans where General Joseph Dunford, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking. He spoke about GySgt Stockham, a USMC WWI veteran who saw another wounded Marine with a cracked gas mask during a mustard gas attack. Without hesitation Gunny Stockham, 37 years old, ripped that mask off and put his own on carrying his wounded comrade to safety. His actions cost him his life as he died a slow painful death over 4 days from the mustard gas. The story of this Medal of Honor Recipient certainly touched me, but I wasn’t ready for my wife’s conversation about it in the car ride home afterwards. She asked me something to the effect of would I do something similar. I could tell she struggled with this and it was a difficult conversation that I struggled to find an adequate response. I was torn between the long standing values of risking my life for others as part of my service while also balancing a real felt need of living a long fulfilling life with my family.

As I have pondered this topic more recently and facing the tension of balancing my duties to God, Country and Corps with those of my family, I was recently watching a YouTube Podcast from Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL and veteran thought leader. He was answering a police officer’s question about how to balance having a dangerous job with being a family man. Jocko pointed out that first off, there’s no way to ensure that you stay around and in fact one day, you will not be around…one day all of us won’t be around…that is the fact and it doesn’t matter what your job is. That statement was not something I was expecting but Jocko was right on the money. Jocko then went on to provide an option to this police officer the importance of explaining to his children discipline, duty, courage, and honor which could include their father’s death in the line of duty. If something did happen, the model that the dad set for them would have massive impact on them and how they would live their lives. Jocko went on to discuss how the kids would almost certainly want their dad back, but they would recognize that their dad made a sacrifice and they would live to honor that sacrifice.

Reflecting on Jocko's words and thinking about the bigger picture of my calling that I believe is from God to my Country along with the importance of stepping up to be counted on by others, I realized that the tension is eased if I recognize that what I do in this life is seen by my son and others which is crucial to their own future of living lives of honor and sacrifice themselves. It has been said that freedom or values are only one generation away from being lost. The truth is that this is not something that can just be discussed, but to truly have steadfast power it must be lived out to the death if necessary. Think about Martin Luther King Jr’s granddaughter who walks in the footsteps of her grandfather or Billy Graham’s grandson William, etc. Millennial grandchildren were certainly influenced by the courageous lives of conviction and sacrifice for a righteous cause that their grandparents lived out in the 20th century. In my own life I have seen this played out with my mentors Kurt and Sandy Parsons. Kurt, a now retired US Navy Officer who lives out a life of selfless sacrifice to others along with his dear wife Sandy modeled for their children what it means to serve those around them and be a light in the darkness by stewarding one's resources and talents to that end especially when it hurts. Since I first met Kurt and Sandy in 2005, I have now seen what amazing daughters they have raised who are just starting off on forging their own legacy of making a difference in the world around them. What parents do as adults in the world to include sacrifices that first responders, military personnel, or even the selfless healthcare workers who have been on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic make certainly makes a deep positive impact in their children and those that follow them for generations to come. While I certainly hope to live a long life to raise my son and other potential future children that come along and grow old with my wife, I recognize my time here on earth is not fully under my control. What is fully under my control is how I choose to live my life. Like Owen’s dad, I am called to model for my son and others who are watching me now or yet to come what it means to live a life that makes the world a better place. I can’t fall into the trap of thinking that I won’t have to take the same risks or make the same sacrifices that those in previous generations did before me. Indeed risks must be taken and sacrifices will be made. I must live my life in a manner that models conviction and courage in the face of danger whether it be physical or more intangible like a risk to what others think about me to do what is right regardless of the personal cost. I personally try to model my life consistently although not perfectly after Jesus of Nazareth who states "truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12: 24-25) So in other words the way I see this, if I try hard to play it safe, in the end, I will miss out on the richness of the life I was meant to live whereas if I live life to the fullest even on the edge of death, I will find true riches of purpose, relationships, and influence. This is the type of life I want to model for my son as well as others and thus I need to count the cost.

To Owen, welcome to the brother and sisterhood of arms; particularly that of the US Naval Service. You have joined a proud legacy of those who have gone before you to include your father. There will be times that you want to quit along the way, but remember others felt the same way and they pressed on. I am grateful for your dad’s service to our country not only for what he did in the immediate battles in Afghanistan following 9/11, but also because he presented such a strong model of of sacrifice and service to you that I no doubt you will follow that will help keep my family safe at night. Your dad ran his race…now its time to run yours. I look forward to seeing you in the Fleet.

We Ride at Dawn,

Chris Reardon

Major, USMC

Founder/Director Freedom Fitness America