No, this is not a story about a comedy by Monty Python, and it is not the story of Ryan Connolly’s life. This is the story about how each and every one of us is a casualty of war.
As I sat at the end of the pew on July 7 and the flag-draped coffin of Sgt. Ryan James Connolly brushed past me, I wondered how it was I came to be there. I didn’t even know Ryan, the son of a colleague who was killed in Afghanistan on June 24. He was just 24. The St. Rose church was overflowing with people who had come to pay their last respects to this fallen soldier. Amid the wails of a distraught sister, I looked around and saw faces bearing both grief and bewilderment. There were people there like myself who did not know Ryan and probably knew no one fighting in this war on terror.
We are not allowed to see flag-draped coffins while eating our dinner and watching the 6 o’clock news, as it was when I was a child. We are not allowed to express our discontent with this war, unless we want to be labeled anti-American or unpatriotic. Yet here we all were, gathered together under the same roof, all of us with different faiths, political beliefs and reasons, to attend this funeral. And all of us were beholden to the one who gave his life.
As the service continued, we learned how Ryan had found himself in Afghanistan. He had visited the site of the World Trade Center after 9-11. He was apparently so moved that he immediately signed up to defend all those who did not stand a chance on that day. In doing so, he signed his own fate. Throughout the service, the phrase “the life of Ryan” was repeated as people told stories of him as a child, of his heroics as a soldier, his hobbies and interests and his love for his beautiful wife and infant daughter. By the time the service had concluded, we all had a personal interest vested in a man many of us never knew prior to June 24.
Under the sweltering sky again, we all gathered for the interment. I couldn’t help but notice a young girl, maybe age one, who was squirming and half-whining, half-laughing. She looked as though she was enjoying herself, as if we were all there for her amusement. I realized that this was Ryan’s daughter, naturally unaware that she was in the midst of one of the biggest losses of her life, surrounded by those who loved her most, themselves swallowed up by grief. Could it be, in fact, that she unknowingly represented all of us who don’t realize what this war is really costing us?
This is the first time I have been affected by the loss of someone from this war, even though it was only by an arm’s length. I left the cemetery serenaded by the sounds of mournful, heartbroken cries, sniffles and the shuffling of feet on the hot pavement.
During the years since the war on terrorism began, there have been over 4,000 of our young men and woman who have come home but not come back. While most of us don’t know these soldiers, the truth is that with each loss, we lose a piece of ourselves. Perhaps we don’t even realize it yet, but one day, if you too find yourself at the funeral of a friend or co-worker’s child, grandchild or nephew, you may walk away realizing that a small part of you has died with that person. We are all truly connected—our pain, our love, our hopes and our joys.
Before driving off from the cemetery, I wondered if somewhere in Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the many other war-torn corners of the world, someone like me was paying respect to those laying a loved one to rest, wondering how it was they came to be there. By the end of the day, they too might understand the connection.
You are so loved and never will be forgotten, Ryan.—Beth