A Marine Dad's Most Important Duty

I was a Marine, an officer, a lifer...or so I thought. Then came Patrick, and my faith was tested.

By Ray Kimbrell, Lewisville, Texas

As appeared in

I’d been on plenty of marches in my time as a Marine, but never anything like this. My platoon today was undisciplined, stopping to kick at twigs, talking and laughing as we hiked through the woods, no one paying attention to the sound of rushing water ahead.

Then again, I expected that from a bunch of 10-year-olds.

I was about as far from the battlefield as I could get, accompanying my son, Patrick, and his fifth-grade class on a three-day field trip at Camp Classen in the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma.

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I looked down at Patrick, sitting in the three-wheel jogger I pushed in front of me. My son has cerebral palsy and 10 years ago doctors didn’t think someone with his brain damage would live, much less be hitting the trail with his classmates.

Before Patrick, the biggest challenge I had was achieving my dream: becoming a Marine officer. My dad was a Navy man, and I knew I wanted to serve in the military. In college at The Citadel, I chose the Marines. To me there was no greater honor than leading the most elite fighting force on earth. 

First, I had to go through officer candidate school—two six-week courses of the most grueling physical and mental tests I’d ever faced, including the Confidence Course, a race through 11 obstacles with names like “Slide for Life” and “Jacob’s Ladder.”

I scaled tall barriers and swung from monkey bars high above the ground. Our commanders urged us on. Nothing was beyond our capabilities, they said.

In 10 years I rose through the ranks, becoming company commander. I served in Operation Desert Storm, then led my men in Somalia. Our mission was humanitarian: get food to starving people, rebuild roads and disarm the warring local factions.

But we came under fire. When times got tough, I prayed. God always saw me through. At the end of my six-month deployment cycle, I returned home to Camp Pendleton in California. I’d have six months to spend with my wife, Nancy, just in time for the birth of our first child.

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Nancy was a Marine too. We planned to alternate deployments so we could raise our child and maintain our military commitments. I was convinced that being a career Marine—a lifer—wasn’t just my plan but God’s plan too.

My knees buckled when I saw our son, Patrick, for the first time. I was love-struck. I tore myself away from the hospital around midnight two days after his birth to get some rest.

The ringing phone jarred me awake at 4:00 a.m. Patrick was sick. Meningitis. I rushed to the hospital. He’d gone into septic shock.

“We’re taking him to the NICU in San Diego,” the doctor said. “He may not have long.”

The Camp Pendleton community rallied around us. The base chaplain baptized Patrick. I prayed, harder than I had even under fire in Somalia. Patrick clung to life like a little warrior and after a month in the hospital, he was discharged.

The doctors couldn’t give us a solid prognosis, but a sonogram showed anomalies. His motor skills and learning ability could be impaired, perhaps severely. We’d have to closely observe his behavior.

At the base daycare center, we noticed differences. Other babies moved more, rolling over and lifting their heads. Patrick was often still, and couldn’t keep his head up. Nancy set him in an Exersaucer and needed to put a pillow in to keep him upright.

After five months, it was clear Patrick lagged behind his peers. I put my finger in his right hand and he gripped it tight, but when I tried his left, Patrick’s hand and arm hung limp. Nancy read up on the symptoms. Everything pointed to cerebral palsy.

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Your Comments (2)

Semper Fi! Loved your story. Brought tears to this old Marine eyes. Bought official facsimile dogs tags for my boys when about your son's age at a Militaria exhibition. Lost the older one in a car accident. He had all the makings of a Marine--courage, commitment, tenacity, bearing, responsibility, honor, respect. He was sixteen and one-half. At fifteen he became Chief of one of the Boy Scout Police Posts of the Dallas Police Department. I remember clearly one meeting day he was sicker than a dead marine and I advised that he could skip the meeting due to his condition. (I had mentioned to my boys several times the Marine's..."the only time you stay down is when you die.") He responded, "But Dad, I am the Chief!" I took him to the meeting. At sixteen he wanted me to sign for him my approval to join the Marine Reserves. I told him not to rush it, finish school, and had my blessing to join the Marines when he graduated. He did not get a Marine Corp honor guard at his funeral. He did get a Dallas Police Department procession of squad cars and officers. I keep his USMC dog tags next to his picture.

Rolando R. Gutierrez, Cpl. USMC (Former)

Wow, You are blessed and your son is twice Blessed. Thank you for sharing your story and your Joys. I have seen to many parents focus on the negative in life and you have focused on the Positive and found the greatest Joys in your son. I too have a special needs child and like you said "treat them like any other child" and I have found the many Joys that my 8 year old finds every day.

God Bless you for sharing
Pam