Honoring son’s huge sacrifice: enjoy freedom

Farragut mom of fallen veteran relies on God, Gold Star Mothers, son’s advice to handle grief

  • The late U.S. Army Ranger Cpl. Ryan C. McGhee. - Photo courtesy Sherrie McGhee

  • Sherrie McGhee with her sons: U.S. Army Ranger Cpl. Ryan C. McGhee, right, and Virginia National Guard Staff Sgt. Zachary McGhee. - Photo courtesy Sherrie McGhee

A lot of memorable days came together for Sherrie McGhee of Farragut in the span of one week. It was early May 2009.

That final day, May 13, is remembered for the unspeakable grief that resulted.

“He had deployed that past Thursday, (May) 7,” McGhee said about her son, U.S. Army Ranger Cpl. Ryan C. McGhee, 21, an automatic rifleman assigned to 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia. His multi-task unit was conducting operations to rid Iraq of a weapons facilitator and suicide vest cell known to be operating in the area.

Serving in his fourth deployment in support of the War on Terrorism as a Ranger with Special Forces — his first three deployments being in Afghanistan — Ryan was killed on May 13, 2009, by small arms fire while conducting combat operations in Central Iraq when his unit came in contact with enemy forces.

Cpl. McGhee was buried at Arlington National Cemetery June 2, 2009, in Section 60.

“He called me on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 10), and he said, ‘Mom, I want to wish you a happy Mother’s Day, and I know you turn 50 tomorrow,’” McGhee recalled. “‘I will try to call you, but I don’t know if I can.’

“And I didn’t hear from him.

“Two days later, my oldest son, Zachary, called and said, ‘Mom, where are you at?’” she added about Virginia National Guard Staff Sgt. Zachary McGhee. “I was working late that day; I work at Knoxville Utilities Board. … He said, ‘Well, you need to go home.’ And that’s when the red flags started flying.

“I asked ‘why,’ and he said, ‘Mom, just go home.’

“I said, ‘No, I’m not doing nothing until you tell me why?’ And I knew.”

The grieving process

“It seems like I walked in a fog for a long time after that — I would say three or four years,” McGhee said. “… For three or four, or maybe five years, I would not celebrate my birthday.”

Taking a leave of absence from work “until the end of June” in 2009, McGhee recalled “having to ask people (to repeat questions and statements) two or three times,” and becoming forgetful.

Saying she “went through therapy,” her grief triggered “a form of” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“This was my child, and there’s nothing worse … for anybody, no matter how they lose them,” she added.

However, “The saving grace in all of this was being around people who had lost their child in the same manner I had,” McGhee said. “I joined the American Gold Star Mothers, and those are mothers who lost a child while in service, or as a result of that service.

“... It’s what’s pulled me out of this horrible grief,” she added. “… And so I didn’t feel all alone. … What I did, I threw myself into service. … Making sure my son wasn’t forgotten, or anybody else’s son.”

Her activities also served the purpose of “running ahead of the grief,” McGhee said.

“But over time, my mind became more clear,” she added. “... In his loss I’m determined to find the positive in it.”

McGhee said it took “between three and five years” before an important realization came to mind, which helped her move on — and even enjoy life.

“I don’t know what clicked with me, but I could just hear him saying, ‘Mother, I did not die for you to not to enjoy life,’” she said. “‘Get out there and live life and be happy.

“‘Because we died for your happiness; we died for you to be free. Don’t make my sacrifice worthless.’”

But above all other factors, “I have to give credit to God, first of all, more than anything,” McGhee said about her most important avenue of coping.

“If it wasn’t for God I would not be where I am at now,” she added. “I would say God put the Gold Star Mothers in my path.”

Multiple awards, honors

Cpl. McGhee’s list of awards and decorations are quite numerous: the Bronze Star with V-Device, Purple Heart, Meritorious Award Metal, Ranger Leadership Tab, Army Good Conduct Medal and National Defense Service Medal.

Others include Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Combat Star, Iraq Campaign Medal with Combat Star, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon, the Army Service Ribbon, Expert Infantryman’s Badge, Combat Infantryman Badge and Parachutist Badge.

“I have great pride,” McGhee said about her son’s legacy and achievements.

Led by his mother’s efforts, the late corporal was honored with the naming of Cpl. Ryan C. McGhee Memorial Bridge over Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in 2020.

Motivation to serve

“The events on Sept. 11, 2001 and his role model, (former NFL player) Pat Tillman (also killed action after joining the military), were the motivating factors to enlist in the military,” a biographical press release stated about Cpl. McGhee. “9/11 had a tremendous impact on his belief that he had to do something to protect our freedoms.”

“It was 9/11 that kind of drove both of them,” McGhee said about both Ryan and Zachary.

Pat Tillman’s example “just sat with” Ryan, the Gold Star Mother said, adding about her youngest son, “He never let anybody tell him he couldn’t do anything.”

Other family members

Ryan also is survived by maternal grandfather Dr. William C. Battle of Farragut.

The fallen hero’s memory lives on with the birth of Zachary’s first child, a son named in his honor — Ryan Christopher — March 6, 2013.

Spiritual reunion

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect for McGhee is spiritual.

“I will see him again,” she said.