'Mission Accomplished': Father fulfills dying wish to see son graduate boot camp

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comJune 30, 2012 

The cheers started at the far end of the parade deck and swelled as families and friends crowded the edge of this storied expanse of asphalt at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

Beyond the thick white rope that held the visitors back, more than 210 newly minted Marines marched past in tight, olive-drab blocks.

As the color guard and the new Devil Dogs approached the reviewing stand, Charles Burns rose from his wheelchair, gingerly lifting legs weakened by a battle doctors say he should have lost months ago. Nothing, not diabetes, heart failure and multiple strokes, could have stopped him.

As he rose, he was steadied, as was the entire Burns family, by his wife, Lisa, who gripped his arm and joined her mother and brother in carefully scanning the rows of neatly uniformed, stone-faced Marines. Somewhere among them was her son and only child, Pfc. Ryan Burns of Platoon 2053.

The platoon was the last to march past.

Lisa's mother was the first to spot the 20-year-old and pointed him out to the family.

Once Charles found him, his eyes never left Ryan; a wide grin brightened his face.

Lisa, never loosening her grip on her husband's arm, did her best to fight back sobs.

The scene is not an unfamiliar one. Every year, more than 45 graduation ceremonies are held at Parris Island.

But this day was special for the Burns family because it's a day no one -- not Lisa, not Ryan, not Charles' doctors in Boston, maybe not even Charles himself -- thought the 65-year-old Navy veteran would live to see.

"I don't even know how he is still alive," Ryan said. "I don't know what keeps him going."

Charles does.

For the past three months, Charles Burns has stayed alive to keep a promise he made to his son in April.

"You graduate boot camp, and I'll be there to see you graduate."

'Mom, it's not for me'

A lifelong teacher, Lisa hoped her son would stay in college but was hardly surprised when, after a year at a community college near the family's home in Rockland, Mass., he chose the military instead.

"He's been talking about joining the service since he was in elementary school," Lisa said. "Being his mother, I tried to steer him toward college. He gave it a year and said, 'Mom, it's not for me.' "

The military was something of a family business for Ryan.

Both of his grandfathers served, one in the Army during World War II and the other as a Marine in Korea. Charles enlisted in the Navy when he graduated from high school in 1965.

By mid-1966, he was patrolling the Mekong River Delta in South Vietnam aboard a gunboat that provided support for Marines and soldiers battling the Vietcong ashore. He left Vietnam and the Navy in 1968.

Ryan, too, wanted to serve his country but by the time he enlisted in the fall of 2011, his father's health, which had been in slow decline for most of Ryan's life, was rapidly deteriorating.

Charles had just spent six months in the hospital, where he was treated for heart failure, when doctors decided he was not a candidate for a heart replacement or even a heart pump. Diabetes and multiple strokes prevented either.

In September, doctors did the only thing they could -- they sent him home to live out his final months.

"I don't want to say the doctors gave up on him, but there really wasn't much more they could do," Ryan said. "His heart wasn't strong enough. Even if he did go in for surgery, the odds of him surviving on the table were slim to none."

The bargain

Ryan received orders to report in early April to Parris Island.

While his father's illness was constantly on his mind, his commitment to the Corps and his country never wavered.

The three-month stretch of basic training would be the longest he had ever been away from his parents.

Leaving home was made all the more difficult by the possibility -- what Ryan and Lisa both saw as the certainty -- that he would never again see his father.

As he said goodbye to his son, Charles promised Ryan that if he graduated, he would make the 1,000-mile drive to see it.

He also offered the then-19-year-old a bit of advice.

"This is your life now," Charles told him. "Find something that you like to do and give it your all. Don't be half-assed about it. This is your chance to be remembered as an honest, honorable person."

Those words -- and his father's promise -- stayed with Ryan as he endured the Corps' notoriously rigorous 12-week regimen and The Crucible, the grueling 54-hour field exercise that serves as the recruit's final test.

"The whole time I was thinking, 'He's still fighting. Why can't I just keep going a little more?' " Ryan said. "My chest hurts? Well, he's dying of congestive heart failure."

When things were at their toughest, he had one thought.

"Do it for Dad."

'We did it'

As the senior drill instructors yelled "dismissed" Friday, families flooded the parade deck to find their new Marines.

Amid the chaos and joy, Lisa pushed Charles in his wheelchair down the concrete ramp that led from the reviewing stand to the asphalt below. They scanned the crowd of thousands for any glimpse of their son.

Within moments, the crowd seemed to part and Ryan emerged. As he strode toward his mother, her body shook and she released the tears she had kept at bay all morning.

"I can't believe it," she said as she hugged her son. "I just can't believe it."

Once free of his mother's embrace, Ryan bent over and hugged his father. Neither released his grip for a long time.

They whispered something to one another, something that passes only between fathers and sons.

Ryan stood up, still a son but now every inch a Marine.

"Congratulations, Dad. We did it. Together."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/OnBaseBeaufort.

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