This is one of the hardest pieces of journalism that I’ve written in a long time.
As it appears online, the family members of a friend of mine — Sgt. Ian McConnell, 24 — are traveling today from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to his hometown in Woodbury, Minn. They’re preparing for his funeral at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, a U.S. cemetery in nearby Minneapolis.
It’s common that when a person dies with most of his or her life seemingly ahead of them, friends and family create online memorials. Ian is no different. His sister, Meg, posted one on Facebook over the weekend, and it has overflowed with stories of his compassion, selflessness and sense of humor as a human being and his honor, courage and commitment as a Marine.
A key detail hasn’t been shared publicly, though.
Ian killed himself.
With a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he ended his life on the 4th of July, shocking those who know him as an upbeat, kind young man who went out of his way to regularly pick up the spirits of those around him. He left no note explaining why, his family said.
Count me among the shocked. I’ve known Ian for more than a year, and he’d demonstrated all those positive characteristics while staying in touch regularly after we met last year at the Yellow Schoolhouse, a small patrol base in Marjah, Afghanistan. We attempted to meet over beer in Virginia just a few weeks ago while he was nearby for training. Our schedules didn’t match, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Some readers of this blog undoubtedly remember the schoolhouse. We arrived there at the start of Afghanistan’s fighting season last year, and quickly found ourselves in a situation with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, where chaos reigned supreme outside the wire.
I captured much of that in this feature story published last May. Ian spent much of his seven-month deployment last year based there as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, disarming improvised explosive devices and pitching in on patrols.
When I arrived at the schoolhouse as a scared, but determined first-time combat correspondent, Ian was one of the first Marines to make photographer Tom Brown and I feel at home. He was curious about Marine Corps Times and journalism in general, and asked lots of cheerful questions.
With a knowing smile, he also approached me after my first firefight, asking how I felt and what I thought. I had handled the routine ambush pretty well, but it was nice to hear. He wasn’t the only one to check on me, either, and that speaks volumes for those Marines.
Ian had his demons, though. As a member of Pendleton-based 1st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, he was assigned along with Gunnery Sgt. Benjamin Lepping (of Sarah Palin tattoo fame) to handle the improvised explosive devices the platoon there encountered regularly.
It was exhausting, dangerous work, and for all his courage, it weighed on Ian, Meg said. His deployment ran from April to November, first with 3/6, and later with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, which replaced them in theater in August 2010. Nearly a year later, he still struggled at times with things he saw in Marjah, although he rarely talked about it.
Add in the usual ups and downs in life that we all struggle with, and the results were tragic — and in no way reflective of the courage and optimism with which Ian typically carried himself.
I struggled with whether to write about Ian once I learned what happened. Like many others, I consider suicide a painful and private matter for a family to handle as they see best. They’re the ones who must pick up the pieces.
Meg and I discussed it Friday, and again Saturday after she huddled with her family and pastor. They decided that if sharing it could help someone else, it was worth it. They asked me to post this blog entry as they brought his body back to Minnesota today.
“We want to make a difference,” Meg said. “We know this happens, but if we can help make this happen to less people, it’s worth it.”
Maybe it’s because another combat veteran considers opening up about his or her problems. Maybe it’s because the family of someone else struggling with demons listens a little more closely. With any luck, as long as people are talking, these kinds of tragedies decrease.
For the record, there were 52 suicide in the Marine Corps in 2009 and 37 in 2010, according to this briefing. There were 17 more through the end of June this year. It’s a problem for everyone, too — for every 100,000 people, about 20 kill themselves.
A few months ago, Ian dropped me a line after learning that I had received the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2011 Major Megan McClung Award for dispatch reporting done while embedded with his unit. As usual, he was upbeat and optimistic.
“Take lots of pictures at the banquet for us,” he said in a Facebook message. “You deserve it. And thanks for telling the stories you did. With the truthful pen and gritty wit that really captured how life was for us. Hope to work with you again someday.”
In some ways, Ian, I hope you think we are now. Rest in peace, brother.
I was a marine at the yellow school house last year and was granted the honor of serving with Ian. He was one of my heroes and it hurt to hear this news. he will never be forgotten and he will continue to be one of my heroes. rip brother you earned it.
Oh, my. I hate to hear of this type of tragedy. It breaks my heart to know that one of our finest could not find healing for his pain and felt the only solution was to end his life. War takes a dreadful toll and even after it has ended, our sons, husbands, relations, and friends will have things that haunt them.
I offer my deepest and sincerest condolences to Sgt. McConnell’s family and friends. Rest in peace, Marine.
From the mother of a fellow Marjah Marine.
Dan, thanks for writing about this. And to the McConnell family, thank you, thank you, for being strong enough to share your story. We can’t combat the tragedy of suicide without stories like yours, and memories like yours, to keep the flame going. God bless you in this terrible time.
Ian was an amazing person and friend, I’m a better person for having the opportunity to know him and have him in my life! It hurts my heart to know that he was in so much pain inside, enough to take his own life! He will be missed so much, my thoughts and prayers go out to his family!
This is so sad to hear!! RIP Sgt. McConnell, and thank you!!!!!
Ian was one hell of a marine and even a greater man. I had the honor and pleasure of serving with him at the yellow school. He saved me and my squads assess on more than one ocassion. Im glad this blog was published and I really hope it will help someone. Im sure it will make at least some difference in someone’s life. I’ll see you at the gates one day Ian. Until then, rest easy! Semper Fi
Wow, Dan what courage it also took to write about this…
The 4th of July is tough on some vets.
Readers, vets: If you are at a Fireworks display next year, this may help you
There is a good reason you sometimes do not see some men in the 60s and older at Fourth of July fireworks displays. It sounds like gunshots. Say what?
I always thoroughly enjoyed fireworks and remember displays during grade school and high school, and on family trips.
Back in the sixties some of us were told (drafted) by our government to serve in the military, during a very unpopular war. I proudly served and made it home.
That experience changed it all. In Nam the unseen enemy wanted to kill us 24×7 every day for the year I was there. They often attacked only at night, after coming out of their tunnels.
Our base camp between Saigon and the Cambodian border would get rocket attacks. These were real loud and had all kinds of sparks and bright flashes. A common reaction was to hit the ground, as shrapnel from rockets, mortar rounds or RPGs often flew upwards at an angle.
To help find the enemy, Americans would launch bright parachute flares that would light up the night time sky to help locate the enemy. When you saw the flash, heard the pop, then the bright light appear you started looking all around you.
In the present we have neighborhood fireworks being set off, too. The ones that go up in the air and boom real loud are the worst for some of us, even on a cul-de-sac. Yes, it can affect those with anxiety disorders or any past history of PTSD.
I’m sure there are Veterans organizations all across our country sponsoring fireworks display, so it does not affect every vet for sure!
So, again for this July 4 evening my understanding bride and I sought out a movie theatre that is really soundproof, and hopefully far away from any community & neighborhood celebrations.
I don’t need any drugs to fix this seasonal thing!
Now, maybe this will help some of you before you ask a vet to go to the fireworks with you…
25th Inf. Div. (Army) ’68-’69
Thank you all for your lovely comments and thank you, Dan, for this amazingly written piece. You are a blessing to our lives!!
I really hope this article touches peoples’ lives!!
Thank you for writing this story. Suicide is still taboo to so many, and yet it touches so many lives.
Thank you to the family for allowing you to discuss this very personal issue.
I too lost someone to suicide. I share his story with whomever will listen in the hope that it will save at least one other life. I am involved with AFSP, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It truly has helped me and so many other survivors of suicide loss.
May his family and friends find comfort and peace in their memories.
God bless Sgt. McConnell and family. I’ve never served in the armed forces but am thankful to those who do. What I can’t understand is why we take such good care of our politicians – even after they retire – but don’t have proper resources to care for those who are willing to sacrifice all.
I hate to hear this. I am not a Marine, but an infantryman in the Unites States Army and I hate to hear about fellow warriors losing thier lives. God speed my fellow warrior. My prayers go out to you and your family.
I knew Ian in his younger days at Gethsemane Lutheran. I remember that he was an incredibly kind and compassionate young man. He lived is life according to his values and was proud to serve his contry.
Ian lived his life as he shall be remembered – as a legend.
Peace to you.
Ian went to EOD school with my husband, and was our roommate during a portion of that time. Those two guys were joined at the hip, and for the past 3 years we were honored that Ian considered us his best friends. He visited us here at Camp Lejeune a month ago and spoke highly of you, Dan. Even though Ian knew he had friends and family who would always lend a shoulder if he needed it, I’m sure he viewed it an unkindness to “burden us” with his troubles. Always thinking of others, his final act may be the only thing in his life he ever did for himself.
Ian was, without a doubt, the most generous human being I have ever met in my life. My husband and I (and even our 6 year old daughter) lost our dearest friend on the 4th of July. Not only that, but EOD lost an outstanding tech, and Marines everywhere lost the opportunity to meet a man who truly embodied what it meant to be “Always Faithful”.
Semper Fi, Ian. We will carry on.
Thanks so much for sharing that. It’s uplifting to hear that Ian brought my name up when he was down there with you and your husband at Camp Lejeune. I was looking forward to getting that beer with him. I’m sure we still will… eventually.
Ian, lived for that part of life we all live for, FREEDOM, and just as I and many other’s feel so deeply and intense for/that it FREEDOM, will always be and happen FOR YOU and ME and EVERYONE. He stands for all of us, and like MOST of us really do understand, Ian knew more, saw more lived more and because we all have no where else to turn or make things right, he made his decision. God Bless You Ian. I love you without even meeting you in person or knowing you. Your life was given/and taken for ‘us’ the people of the United States, the country we all say is Ours, Mine, those privileged to not have to deal with all you dealt with. For ,that I can NOT express how sorry I am.
You will be always be of the honored that served our country and I’ll not forget you and your life’s sacrifice!!!
I’ve known the McConnell family for almost 14 years. I always knew Ian to be a kind, compassionate, caring, loving person. I’ve never seen a brother be more watchful and loving than Ian was. There are not enough good things that could possibly be said about him. He was truly one of the kindest, most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. I feel honored and blessed to have been given the opportunity to know him. Ian, you touched so many people’s lives; you will be greatly missed by so many. Thank you for your service to this country. God bless you and the entire McConnell family.
Thank you for sharing this moving story about Sgt. McConnell’s life and service. Love and light to his family and friends.
Thank you for sharing, as hard as it was for you. I feel for you and the people in Ian’s life. Your blog will certainly save lives, in my opinion. If it prevents one bad decision in just one person’s moment of hardship, it’s worth it.
I was deployed as a grunt in 2005. It was tough. It sucked. Everyone has their ups and downs, and certainly nobody is immune to having thoughts of suicide. My family, friends, and Marines got me through the deployment in one piece. There were times that I had my “downs.”
I went on to graduate college and become a Special Agent in a small federal agency. Believe it or not, the thing that helped me adjust to college and civilian life was adopting a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy. She and I do everything together – run, visit friends, hike, camp, and road trip.
I know that your words will reach out to those in need. I know that anyone who reads this will realize what they mean to those in their life.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me via email if I can do anything for you and Ian’s family.
Thank you so much for sharing your story! We are thinking about starting a foundation in Ian’s honor that gives money towards getting therapy dogs or just regular dogs to vets. It does not show your email in public on this site but anyone who wants to help can search my name on facebook and send me a message.
God Bless to your family. And may you rest in peace brother.
Sgt. USMC veteran
Rest in peace brother, your battles are over now. Prayers to your family through this tough time.
I served with Ian at yellow school house last year, it is very sad that such a good guy like Ian is gone. I tryed to keep in touch through facebook and email, and still have have alot of pics of Ian doing work. I want to send my condolences to Meg, and the rest of Ian’s family. I know personally that he will be missed by me and any other person who ever knew him.
It was my pleasure and honor to care for many USMC personnel during and after the VN War.
So many brave and wonderful men and women.
I am keeping all of them and you in my prayers.
Two of my buddies killed themselves in March both within three days. They both served with me in Afghanistan right near Marjah we were part of 1st Battalion 5th Marines. I feel for this type of stuff both were my best friends. My condolences to Ian’s family and friends.
My heartfelt sympathies to the entire McConnell family. I can’t begin to describe my feelings as I prepared for the excitement of my daughter and son-in-law coming to Michigan for the first time since their wedding almost a couple years ago, and Breanne informing me of Ian’s death. With both of them in the military and serving overseas themselves over the past couple years, it felt bittersweet, and somehow not fair that the tragedy of a friend should make one feel even more thankful for a happy time. So while I was rejoicing in the reunion, my thoughts very often reflected back to you, Ian, and the sweet, happy, little boy I remember waking up in the morning at “Birch Shores”. May God continue to keep you and your entire family in his care. Love you all.
I sometimes feel like killing myself as well. When I get those moments, I grab my daughter and cry. I’m not afraid to admit that. I’ve sought counseling and it does help. Todays egos mixed with the male machoism prevents our brothers from seeking the help they need. I feel for you, I lost 2 of my friends to suicide and it sucks. I’m sure we’ll see this Marine again on higher ground.
Hey Erin… if you ever need to talk feel free to contact me, okay? 🙂 I mean that… and I hear there are dogs trained to deal with PTSD as well… and they are excellent therapy dogs. You should look into getting one of these specially trained dogs!!!
To start your foundation, go to TechSoup.org
After your 501c3, you can get free or deeply discounted software and services there, including GiftWorks Fundraising Software and GrantStation memberships. Peace to you and yours.
I hate to hear about anyone who couldn’t deal anymore and took this way out, let alone a Marine. I feel for the family especially being someone who lost loved ones to this and previous wars. I just seem to still believe that suicide is not the answer and is still a shame some don’t reach out an push through the pain. Semper Fi.
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May God hold you all and keep you. Many thanks to Sgt. McConnell, his friends and family for their sacrifice to this nation. We love you and are here for you any time in Louisiana.
From a fellow blue star mom
Spc. Freddy Hook 1990-2010
I met Ian and Meg many years ago in church. Every sunday i looked forward to seeing Ian and Meg because they always made the day better with their smiles and how kind they were and are. Ian was one of the nicest, sweetest guys i have ever met. I was shocked when i heard the new and the funeral was very hard as well. R.I.P. Ian. I love and miss you!
Hi, Andy – We’ve known your family since the first time you came to Wayzata Community Church. You & Greg became good friends and still are. That’s a good thing! We became good friends with your mom & dad and have many great memories of our times together. Your dad remains a very good friend! Even though we never knew Ian, we knew about him through Greg. We feel your loss deeply. We’re proud that Ian is a Marine. Marty served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War (that certainly dates him), but Marines are the BEST! We know he’s in a better place!
Dear McConnell Familiy, It has been many years since I have had an opportunity to connect with any of you. However, during that time I have inquired as to Ian’s welfare and military status. I didn’t know him well but even as a young man he had always impressed me with his kind and outgoing personality.
I am so saddened by the news and the loss of his extraordinary life. I was unable to attend the service which by all reports was a beautiful tribute to his exceptional life and career. I am certain that he will be missed by so many friends, family and others that were touched by and loved him. I am proud to have known him. I pray that all of these left behind will take comfort
Dear McConnell Family,
Your sweet loving brave Marine is in the arms of Jesus now where he will no longer feel pain, sadness or despair…He will always be young, happy and free. He is in good company alongside my brother and so many other fallen HEROS. When you miss him the most, please just look up to the sky at night and you will see Ian, he will be the brightest shining star in the sky shining down his love on you.
My favorite quote that has helped me is
Time heals nothing, it’s what you do with the time that matters.
Jesus be with you all
Nurse for the Wounded
Sister of a Fallen Marine
Cambodia is just super! One of the most peaceful countries I have ever visited.
I knew Ian in high school when we ran cross country and track together. Ian was intelligent and talented, with a unique sense of humor. He was always able to make me smile after a bad race, and I have nothing but fond memories of him. We’d talked sporadically via Facebook after I graduated, but hadn’t met face-to-face since then. I was shocked and saddened to hear of his death, and I regret that I never got to meet the man he became. McConnell family, you have my deepest condolences. I’m glad to have known him for even a short time. May God be with you.
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Dear McConnell Family,
Please except my Deepest Symapthay in the lost of Ian. He will never be forgot. He has so many family members and friends that will always have a warm and loving smile when his name cross there lips. There will be times when you feel someone with you and it will be Ian. God Bless you all. Mom of Children Deployed.
i just want to say that maybe our military needs to take a look at what they are putting our children through while they are away. seriously, would any of these high ranking officers that order these rediculious missions, do what they are ordering? i have also lost my son last year & the more i learn, the angrier i get inside. i know war is ugly, but isnt there something we can do so they dont have 7 months or more to get these feelings of not wanting to be here because what they’ve done or seen? maybe we should take a look at all the prisoners that like to shoot other people like its cool. maybe they should be trained to fight, really if they want to come home or dont care if they die. i really dont think alot of these kids goin in the marines know what they really are getting into, im afraid its nothing like anyone thought. it breaks my heart to think of how many have to suffer like they are. god bless ian, he is a true hero thru & thru! my prayers are with your family, i know its not easy. god bless
Semper Fi Gus. Blast from 3/3 past….the early days.
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I knew Ian during our first pump to Iraq back in 2006. I was his corpsmen and he was one of my marines. I didn’t hear about this until very recently since I’ve somewhat been out of touch with alot of old buddies since I got orders out of Pendelton a few years ago. I’m truly crushed today to hear this news. He was an outstanding marine and an even better friend. We formed a friendship overseas that carried on after we came back. I’ve always respected and admired Ian and will continue to do so until the end of my days. He represented everything I loved about the marines: camaraderie, dedication, and integrity. Once again, I’m very sorry I didn’t get this news sooner, but I would like to offer my heartfelt condolences to his family. If you ever need anything please feel free to contact me. Ian was a great man and I’m deeply saddened by this loss.
Ian you are sorely missed, and I will never forget what you did for us at the Yellow School House. You were a friend I could go to when times were rough and you always had the guys laughing, and I will cherish our conversations about life over the gourmet dinners doc would cook every night. RIP brother and I will never forget all that you did for us in 3/6 I. CO. 3rd PLT.