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Ryan.jpg (24242 bytes)(Reprint from JohnnyPNews, March 12, 2004)

Staff Sergeant Thomas Ryan is presented the Navy-Marine Corps medal in Devens, Mass.
Boston Herald/Kevin Wisniewski

Worthy of Recognition

by John S. Pappas - 03/12/04

Devens, Massachusetts - In 1991, Marine Staff Sergeant Thomas Ryan performed an act of bravery as a corporal in Saudi Arabia worthy of a medal. Thirteen years later, he got it. But it took a change in Corps regulation and the efforts of a reporter and commanding officer to make it happen.

Thursday, Lt. General Dennis M. McCarthy, Commander, Marine Forces Reserve, pinned the Navy-Marine Corps medal to the chest of Staff Sergeant Thomas Ryan in a ceremony in Devens, Massachusetts. “It took us 13 years to right a wrong,” the general said as he presented the medal.

In 1991, Corporal Ryan was deployed at a small airbase in Al Mishab, Saudi Arabia conducting battalion training with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division as part of Desert Storm. Late one night in March, a Saudi Arabian transport plane carrying Saudi and Senegalese military personnel crashed while attempting to land.

Ryan is credited with organizing a group of Marines, getting in a humvee, and going to the crash site. Ryan said his group was the first assistance to respond to the crash; “when we got there, the plane was off of the runway broken in two, and was burning,” he said. Ryan said the group stood watching the plane burn. “We were all standing there when we heard moaning from near the plane. We just reacted,” Ryan said. As they assisted the pilot, who had been thrown from the plane, they heard screams from inside the burning aircraft. The team followed Ryan into the burning plane.

Accounts state the sergeant entered the plane repeatedly through holes in the fuselage to extract survivors. He is also credited with using an eight foot long rail to enlarge a hole in the fuselage to affect a survivor extraction. Additionally, Ryan requisitioned a Navy medic unit in order to load survivors. In all, the sergeant is credited with pulling seven survivors from the plane.

After returning to the states from Desert Storm, Ryan was stationed at the Marine Corps base at Quantico Virginia assigned to drive then Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Walter E. Boomer. One day a mutual acquaintance of Ryan and the General stopped by. “Do you know who your driver is,” the acquaintance asked the General, “He was a hero over in Saudi.” The acquaintance then told the General the story of Ryan's bravery. The General was impressed and recommended Ryan for the Navy-Marine Corps Medal.

According to the Marine Corps, the Navy-Marine Corps Medal can be “Awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps, distinguishes himself by heroism not involving actual conflict with the enemy. For acts of life-saving, or attempted lifesaving, it is required that the action be performed at the risk of one's own life.” Perhaps the most famous recipient of the medal was Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy for his efforts in rescuing fellow crewmen after the sinking of his boat, the P.T .109.

Though General Boomer was pushing for the award for Ryan, it was in Japan that the “recommendation for award” was submitted. Ryan had been transferred to Okinawa, Japan. The recommendation was signed by Ryan's commanding Officer, a Lieutenant Colonel, in September of 1995. Included in the recommendation were endorsements from the Commanding General of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force as well as the Commander Marine Forces Pacific.

Sergeant Ryan met all the criteria for the medal, and, with the accompanying endorsements it was believed generally that he would receive the medal.

In January 1996 however, Ryan received a letter from the Commandant of the Marine Corps' office that stated, “The enclosure is returned. A personal Award Recommendation, OPNAV 1650/3 (Rev-1-94), must be submitted within three years of the date of action, or service, as set forth in the reference.” The recommendation had not been submitted in time.

Ryan's commanding officer in Okinawa expressed his disappointment to Ryan that the medal was denied and offered to try and pursue the matter with the Commandants office. Ryan thanked the Lt. Colonel but declined his offer, telling the commander that he did not wish to create problems or appear as if he was seeking the medal personally.

Ryan was later transferred to his home state of Massachusetts to serve as a weapons company Training Chief with the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division.

In 2002 Ryan met Meriwether Ball, a reporter who wrote a feature on Ryan for her web site - Meriwether wrote regularly about Marines for her site and local newspapers, and would discuss events regarding Marines and the military with Ryan, using him for background on stories.

In 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Meriwether had called Ryan to discuss the war. Their conversation turned to Jessica Lynch, who had received the Medal of Honor for incidents surrounding her capture. The two discussed how a lot of medals it seemed were being given out for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Ryan then intimated that he had been considered for a medal. “When he mentioned that something had happened in Saudi Arabia, I could tell it was significant,” she said, “It was the first time in any of our conversations that he spoke about his own, personal experience. So I said, what are you talking about here?”

Meriwether pressed Ryan for information regarding the events in Al Mishab and Ryan told her the story. “I was outraged,” she said, “here was a guy who had done this incredibly brave thing, pulling people out of a burning aircraft, but was passed over by a technicality, by a form letter.”

The next morning she gathered information regarding the event, and called Lt. Colonel John Monahan, Inspector Instructor, 25th Marine Regiment, Headquarters, Worcester, Mass. Monahan was above Ryan in chain of command.

“I called Lt. Colonel Monahan and I told him that there was a problem with SSgt Ryan that needed to be addressed,” Meriwether said. She sent a package containing a formal letter and all the information she had gathered, telling the Lt. Colonel that if he could not help, she would take the information to someone else.

“I would have called whoever I had to,” she said, “I would have called the Commandant (of the Marine Corps) if it came to it, because I believe that had the Commandant known what Ryan had done in Saudi, he would have cared.”

Meriwether didn't have to call anyone else. “When I saw the information, I immediately wanted to help,” Monahan said, “it was just the right thing to do.”

Monahan called his regimental Sergeant Major, who called Headquarters Marine Corps, where he learned that the regulation requiring recommendation awards to be submitted within three years of the event had been rescinded. The Lt. Colonel re-submitted the Recommendation for Award and on February 20 learned that it had been approved by the Office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

The presentation was originally going to be performed during a mandatory drill for Ryan's unit. Coincidentally, Lt. General Dennis M. McCarthy was slated to appear one week later in Massachusetts and agreed to present the medal.

Ryan's medal presentation coincided with his retirement from the Marine Corps. But Ryan remains committed to serve. He anticipates working in the government.

In addition to his service in the Corps, Ryan contributed greatly to the Toys-for-Tots campaign in Massachusetts, setting records for the amount of toys brought in during his tenure.