Chapter 6 – Shane O’Donnell

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

​                                                                                                                         – Mother Teresa

Smiling marine

Shane O’Donnell died on November 8, 2004, in Lutifiyah, Iraq.  He was 24 years old.  He made the ultimate sacrifice doing what he loved to do – being a Marine.  His life was too short, for sure, though his quarter century of time he had on this earth had great impact through positivity, family, faith, and sacrifice.

There are many ways to describe Shane, but his story starts and ends with his defining feature.

That smile. 

Gigantic.  Beaming.  Radiating.  His mother highlighted “that big-ass smile” as the earliest thing she remembered about him.  Inviting.  Stabilizing.  Comforting.  It began in his eyes, stretched through his mouth, and engaged every muscle from his shoulders to the top of his head.  The smile would literally make those around him feel better about themselves and their own circumstances.  Energizing.  Elemental.  Inspirational.  It served as a gentle encouragement to others.  That they could be what they wanted to be.   That they could do better.  That they could be better.  And the message that came through did not present itself as harsh judgment, but always in a positive, feel-good way that built confidence in others.  The smile was a light that shined brightly, and it served as an opening to infinite possibilities.

Shane’s smile was the thing of legends.  It was so large that at times it seemed like it possessed its own smile.  Lance Corporal JJ Braun, O’Donnell’s immediate superior when deployed to Iraq, described the smile as one that “lit up the room when he walked in.”  It was always out in front of him and it connected him to others long before he had the opportunity to speak with them.  Most impressively, the smile was always on his face, regardless of the circumstances.  Friend and fellow Marine Corporal Kent Breese remembered, “The first impression I had of Shane was that he was very enthusiastic about pretty much everything, very easy to talk with and always ready with a grin.”  Those who knew him most intimately confirmed how consistently positive he was with everyone around him.  “He had his down times like everybody,” remembered his mother Peg.  “But mostly he smiled his way through life from early on.”  O’Donnell’s smile represented the proverbial apple that did not fall far from the tree.  To this day, Peg’s smile and laugh can dominate interactions, making it easy to trace back the origins of Shane’s beaming.  “If you’re not smiling, then you’re doing something wrong,” declared Peg.  “Change your life.  That’s what Shane learned from me early on, I guess.”  When Shane died, various eulogies of him revolved around descriptions of his smile.  To numerous friends and family, it is what they recall about him most.  “I remember Shane the same way many others do – that bright smile,” offered up childhood friend Matt Olesen.  “He always had a positive outlook.  He was funny and loved to laugh.  I think we always got along so well because all we wanted to do was have fun.”  For the many who consider keeping his memory alive a sacred vow, his consistent smile represents an easy memory to retain as others naturally and tragically fade.

Shane and brother Eric

Shane’s smile was an outsized part of him, but it was just the start of what naturally attracted so many to him.  Jason Lang, a good friend of Shane’s growing up, described him from a foundational perspective.  “He loved Mountain Dew, Mama’s Pancake Breakfast from Cracker Barrel with pancakes drowning in syrup, the smell of gunpowder, his truck, and his family,” said Lang.  “Don’t mess with any of those things, and you’d be fine.”  He had a natural leadership style that brought people together through a spirit of understanding, positivity, and conviction.  Born in DeForest, Wisconsin, just outside Madison, the capital city, Shane took on many of the best values attributed to a small Midwestern town.  People just enjoyed being around him, and the way he treated people engendered comradery.  John Neppl thought of O’Donnell as “the big brother I wasn’t born with.  He was the undisputed leader of our neighborhood gang and the glue that kept us all together.”  Having been in the military himself, Neppl knew the daily sacrifices required to serve.  He marveled at the “fearlessness that seemed to be reserved for heroes in movies or TV” that he observed in his close friend.  Shane was reserved and slow to anger, but once he decided something was the right thing to do, there was nothing that could keep him from doing it.  Kent Breese offered up the iconic Bible verse as the most apt descriptor of his friend: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’  For Breese, it was not simply the ultimate sacrifice that O’Donnell made that reminded him of the inscription.  Those words certainly could be applied to so many others throughout time who gave their lives in service to their country.  In addition to that, Breese experienced an ever-present love in the day-to-day interactions he had with O’Donnell.  He derived meaning from every interaction the two of them had.  He noted that his fellow Marine “was always ready to help a friend, help a fellow Marine, and always did his part without complaining, with a contagious smile and wielding a can-do attitude.”  This combination had both an immediate and lasting impact on so many people around him.

Matt Olesen met Shane when both were very young.  Olesen’s neighbor ran an in-home daycare that Shane and his brother Eric attended.  Soon they were fast friends, doing almost everything together and hanging out with a tight band of friends.  Sports became the activity of choice, dominating their thoughts and time.  “Baseball was always our favorite,” remembered Olesen.  “The neighborhood kids would gather and we’d find someone’s backyard to play baseball all day long.  It didn’t matter how hot it was; we were still going to play baseball.”  The kids’ active imaginations soon led to much more complex endeavors, including an attempt to duplicate the contests of the popular television show American Gladiators in O’Donnell’s basement.  They spent countless hours coming up with more and more intricate obstacle courses and challenges to conquer.  The fruits of their imagination did find some practical limitations, however, as Olesen recalled, “Eventually, American Gladiators had to be retired when Shane’s younger brother Eric was knocked off his feet and broke his fall with his two front teeth on a table.”  As the American Gladiator set shut down, the experience served as a doorway to developing additional interests.  The group of friends remained close as they moved on to subsequent adventures.

The O’Donnell Family: Shane, Peg, and Eric

Shane’s sunny disposition was easy to see to those who encountered him.  However, sometimes lost in his happy go lucky nature was just how much will he possessed.  For those things important to him, O’Donnell demonstrated incredible focus and preparation.  Blessed with natural athleticism, he had developed an even more impressive work ethic under the watchful guidance of his mother.  Those who know Peg O’Donnell describe her in terms that best aggregate to ‘benevolent Drill Instructor.’1   Bluntly stated, she took no shit from anyone, and yet demonstrated incredible acts of compassion on an almost daily basis.  Under her tutelage, Shane learned many of the important things that would define him.  Responsibility was a lesson Peg was certain to teach.  She recalled the many get togethers of neighborhood kids that always seemed to occur at the O’Donnell home.  In the wintertime, when the Wisconsin weather limited outdoor sports, the band of friends transformed her basement rec room into an indoor sports arena.  Peg remembered that as part of finishing the space, the boys, “painted the room and decorated it with athletic posters.  Soon these posters were placed very erratically and they kept multiplying.”  Most days, she would hear the ruckus of play from the basement and would ignore it, knowing that the kids were experiencing good, clean fun in a safe environment.  One day Peg decided to inspect the basement a little closer.  She found that the boys had conveniently positioned many of the posters to cover depressions and large holes in the walls.  The never-ending games the high-spirited boys played were obviously taking a toll on the basement room.  Peg sprang into action.  “The next lesson was pooling your money, walking to the hardware store to buy supplies and then patching holes, mudding, sanding and repainting.”  She recounted what she told Shane and his friends.  “You created the problem and you will fix it.  Take responsibility for your actions.”  Going forward, the boys continued to use the rec room to play, and there was no more damage done to it.  They had learned their lesson well.  Peg’s reinforcement of personal responsibility allowed them to make mistakes, but she also made sure they learned from them and came out better people on the other side.

Midway through his high school years Shane came to a momentous decision – he would enlist in the Marine Corps after graduation.  Just a couple of years into his post-secondary education, he did not feel like college provided the route he desired for his future.  Peg had seen the decision coming for years.  “Shane wanted that sword,” she explained, referring to one of the most iconic parts of the Marine Corps uniform.  He had been obsessed with the idea of becoming a Marine since earlier in his childhood.  “Shane and his friends would play all the time with the little green army soldiers.  He would ask me for Marine figures, but I had to tell him they didn’t make Marine ones.”  Shane had zeroed in on the revered branch as the only service he was interested in for the future.  “If he wouldn’t have gotten into the Marine Corps I’m not sure that he would have joined the military at all,” surmised Peg.  “He wanted to be the best and be with the best.  He wanted nothing short of that.”  Like many before him, the nature of what the Marines represented called to him.  Having to earn something that relatively few others had appealed to the competitive and committed part of who O’Donnell was.  Despite his clear excitement and conviction, Peg was not on board with his decision.  This was due to her personal experiences of loss during the Vietnam War.  Her son’s desire to join resurfaced memories and fears that reached far beyond the typical reticence mothers feel when their children decide to join the military.  Peg balanced the dread she felt with the desire to support what she could tell her son adamantly wanted.  She told Shane if he wasn’t going to attend college, then she would bless his decision to enlist in the Marine Corps after he completed an apprenticeship program.  She knew that would delay his joining for a couple of years and would provide him a skill that could provide for him well into the future.  He pushed back against her directive at first, but ultimately acquiesced to her wishes.  Two years after graduating high school, he graduated from a plumber apprenticeship program.  On the same day, he signed up for the Marine Corps.  Peg was not at all surprised that he decided to skip his apprenticeship graduation to take the oath of office for the Marine Corps.  Months later, he shipped out to boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, and soon after checked into Golf Company in Madison.

Marines come in all shapes, sizes, and forms.  Like the millions who came before him, and the many who will come after, Shane did not match the exact stereotypical image of what a Marine was at the time he enlisted.  Yes, he was incredibly accomplished, athletic, and determined.  But he was also demonstrably positive and deeply religious, two traits that weren’t always immediately visible in the typical Marine.  “Shane was the most positive, happy-go-lucky person I have ever known,” said Gerald Olsen, a Brigadier General (retired) in the Wisconsin Air National Guard and father to Shane’s friend Matt.  “He could turn everything into a positive.”  Warren Harms, who served in the same platoon with O’Donnell in Golf Company, recounted his initial memory of O’Donnell, “I remember thinking he was a really good dude from the start,” Harms said.  “Just a solid person and Marine.  Someone you could easily talk to and get to know.  Sometimes Marines can be intimidating even to other Marines, but Shane was an all-around great guy.”  That sentiment was shared by everyone in Golf Company.  And while there were many special relationships that existed in the brotherhood that was Golf Company, it nevertheless remained rare for someone to be liked and respected by EVERYONE.  That was exactly the position that Shane held.  His genuine positivity and love for others made him someone that everyone got along with and worked well together.  JJ Braun appreciated O’Donnell’s approach and recognized how much it helped drive the incredible comradery that existed across the unit.  “Most of the time when you think of Marines you think of stone faced, over-disciplined guys that show very little emotion,” said Braun.  “Shane did not fit that mold.  He was always smiling, always willing to help, and volunteered whenever help was needed.”

Shortly after graduating high school, Shane developed a deep religious commitment that came to define him.  None of his family members or friends could point to what brought him this newly found devotion, but O’Donnell threw himself into it fully, keeping with the 100% he gave everything in which he believed.  Jason Lang said, “Once God got a hold of him, there was no turning back, even as a new Christian.  I aspired to that kind of faith.”  He never hid his faith from others, and provided a proud voice to his belief.  However, unlike many who are zealous about their beliefs, his approach and the impact he had on others was not off-putting.  “Shane was a born again Christian,” shared Warren Harms.  “He had values because of this that sometimes don’t match up with most Marines.  He was someone who did not fall to peer pressure and kept true to his views and morals.  His mind and will were extremely strong.”  Being a young, single Marine, preparing to go to combat and located in easy reach to both San Diego and Los Angeles, O’Donnell had plenty of natural temptations.  In addition to that, being in the Marine Corps infantry generated a certain set of stereotypical expectations that many naturally go with the flow on.  That he routinely resisted all of that was a great tribute to who he was.  More amazing than that was it didn’t at all get in the way of the relationships he had with his Marine brothers.  O’Donnell was an incredible evangel for his faith, not through pontificating on beliefs that often could offend and exclude, but rather by role modeling the behaviors that amplified the best his beliefs represented.  Harms remembered, “Shane could still hang with the guys, go out on liberty and have a great time but not give in to any of the bullshit.”  Rory McGarry, who also served in the same platoon as O’Donnell, saw the same characteristics in Shane.  “As a devout individual, he was not as boisterous or frankly stupid as many of us were at that age in our life,” remarked McGarry.  “While not the life of the party, he was someone who always had a big smile on his face and would always listen to you when you needed someone to talk to.”

Kent Breese appreciated the commitment Shane demonstrated to his faith.  “We would get a chance to talk from time to time and spent some of our liberty times together,” remembered Breese.  “It was during these times that we would talk about our faith, how it had affected our lives and the changes that it had brought about in us.  His love for God extended itself in his acts of service and love to his fellow Marines, the Iraqis and all who came within his circle of influence.”  The discussions between the two of them went deep, and provided an important foundation for the experience they would soon have together.  “We also talked about how our faith helped us face the possibility of death on the battlefield and that because of that faith we were at peace with whatever may happen.”

For someone who had joined a band of ‘steely-eyed killers’ who could transform bitching about everyday life into an art form, Shane’s attitude could be assumed as one that would not have fit in the Marine Corps.  But those who knew him best had no doubt about his decision.  “He never did anything part way,” said John Neppl.  “When he saw the country needed patriots after the attacks on 9/11, he was all in.  When we were sitting in my living room and he told me he decided to join the Marines, it made me pause for a moment, but I knew he would be successful at what he chose to do.”  The events of 9/11 had a huge impact on Shane’s decision to join the military.  He was not alone and the commitment he and others made to our country during that difficult time helped to preserve the security needed to maintain our free society.  I remember in the weeks and months after that horrific attack on our country, there were many questions about whether the generation at that time would answer the calling to protect its country.  I remember continuously hearing the laments of older generations who openly prognosticated that the younger generation would not step forward and do their duty.  I remember thinking that line of thinking was ridiculous.  My time on active duty in the mid to late 90s exposed me to many young people who oozed patriotism, a sense of duty, and a desire to serve.  I do think it is easy to assume that past generations are more active than future ones when it comes to love of country, when that may not be true in fact.  For sure, I would never purposely diminish the courage, sacrifice and impact that former generations have had on our country.  Those who stepped forward during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are worthy of being spoken of in hushed, reverential tones.  They represent the very best of our country, and the sacrifice they made will never be able to be fully repaid.  But the generation that was coming of age post-9/11 did the same, and their commitment is every bit as admirable.  So many people pivoted the trajectory of their lives and decided to join the military, fully aware of the potential sacrifices they might be called on to make.  These decisions, by a young generation, laid the foundation for the continued security of our country.

Given the geopolitical climate at the time in our country, simple events took on greater meaning.  Jason Lang looks back at that time and is grateful for the special memories that he and Shane created together.  “Shane and I would go camping and shooting in Stevens Point a couple times a year,” Lang said.  “Before he deployed, we went camping out in the middle of nowhere like we usually did.”  The two of them spent a few day camping, eating good food and shooting target-practice on 2-liter empty bottles.  “We dressed up in camouflage, hand-made ghillie2 suits, and of course face paint, and shot the bottles and soda cans, both fancying ourselves to be a mini Carlos Hathcock.3  We drove Shane’s truck all over the bluffs and got all four tires airborne more than once.  We then packed everything up drove home in camo and face paint. The looks on the faces of those we passed on the road were priceless.”  For Lang, the weekend went far beyond the fun they had shooting and off-roading.  “What solidified it all was our faith,” he explained.  “As Christians, Shane and I shared a friendship that extended beyond this mortal life and into the eternal.  It was during that camp out that ‘Guns Blazing for Jesus’ began, and we were the only two members of the group.  I can’t think of any better story that makes up the fun-spirited, powder burning, Jesus loving person that was and is Shane O’Donnell.”

As the prospect of Shane’s unit being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan became more real, his commitment to preparation increased proportionally.  John Neppl witnessed his friend’s positive attitude firsthand as O’Donnell digested the news of the upcoming deployment.  “When he found out Golf Company was getting deployed to Iraq, I didn’t hear anything other than eagerness to use the training he received and do the job he enlisted to do.”

Gerald and Matt Olesen, with Shane on the day his unit left for pre-deployment training

After three months of intense preparation for the mission and conditions they would experience in Iraq, the unit made the final preparations to depart.  Prior to leaving, the Battalion Commander granted each member of the battalion 96 hours of liberty.  Several family members from Golf Company flew out to San Diego, Los Angles, or Las Vegas in order to meet their loved one.  The weekend proved an emotionally charged one for everyone, as souls were laid bare.  The most important words were spoken among loved ones.  These words hedged against the possibility of things being left unsaid in the unspeakable possibility of their loved one not coming home.  Originally, Peg was not going to come out to see Shane in Southern California, as he planned to stay on base for the final weekend.  At the last minute, he changed his mind.  “A day and a half before that weekend he called me at work and told me I could come if I wanted to,” said Peg.  She hastily made travel arrangements, and 36 hours later, was sitting in a hotel with Shane in Oceanside, California.  Peg remembered she quickly realized how serious of a discussion it was going to be.  “He had actually bought a carton of cigarettes and put them on the table in front of me on the patio of our room.”  Shane hated the fact that Peg smoked, so his gesture told her something was different.  “He said that I should make myself comfortable.  I knew then this was not an optional discussion.  He was going to say what he was going to say, and thank God that he did.”  Shane set the early tone for the discussion that would unfold over the subsequent days, saying, “If I don’t come back, there are things you need to know.”  He went on to explain that if the worst were to happen, and he didn’t come home, he knew that his mother would wonder about many things, and he didn’t want her to wonder at all.  Peg was not thrilled with how the discussion began.  “That didn’t start our weekend off on a high point.”  However, the next couple of days transformed the way in which Peg remembers her son to this day.  The two of them opened up completely to each other, ensuring that not one thing of importance was left unsaid.  Shane did most of the talking.  Peg quietly listened, naturally understanding and acquiescing to her son’s need to saying everything on his mind.  “We went through everything,” Peg whispered.  “The little things and the big things.  When we would go camping as a family or when Shane had gone out in the middle of the night to pick up somebody from Eau Claire.”  Peg learned that Shane had left their home one night during his high school years and drove 160 miles to help a friend.  His friend was so drunk he had crashed his truck.  No questions asked, Shane drove the lengthy distance to pick him up and brought him home.  “Apparently Shane came home, went to bed and woke up half hour later to go to school.”  Not everything that Shane told Peg was unknown to her.  “He was surprised at how many things I knew about and I was surprised at how many things I didn’t know about in terms of what he did, especially during his high school years.”

The discussion twisted and turned naturally for hours.  Peg and Shane had enjoyed a fairly open relationship in the past, but this discussion took it to a different level.  “At the end of that talk, I felt absolutely exhausted, and Shane was too,” remembered Shane.  “And then we went to pick rocks.  Our family has this thing that when we go on vacation we would get rocks from the different places we went to.  So I have a variety of rocks in my front yard that are from all over the United States.  After our discussion, we went on a walk and picked rocks.”  The family tradition, carried out in this very different environment, provided the perfect way to end the discussion.  When Shane boarded the plane to head to the Middle East a few days later, both he and Peg were at peace.

With Peg in California before leaving for deployment

Shane naturally combined an easygoing style with a steely conviction.  While good natured and able to take anything dished out to him, he also learned how to give it as well.  One time while in Iraq, his platoon loaded up on seven-ton trucks for a night-time mission.  As the truck lumbered towards its objective for the operation, the First Platoon Marines balanced focus on their surrounding with one of their favorite continuous past times – giving each other a hard time.  Corporal Clint Ripp, one of the more bombastic personalities in the platoon, began in on O’Donnell.  Knowing that Shane didn’t smoke, Ripp had been asking him nonstop if he wanted a cigarette for months.  Looking for a breaking point, he started in on the mild-mannered Marine.  “Hey O’Donnell.  Want a smoke?”  Shane shook his head.  “No, thanks,” he answered.  A few minutes later:  “Hey O’Donnell, how about a cigarette?”  Another patient reply: “No thanks, I’m good.”  Now, impatience crept into Ripp’s voice.  “C’mon man! Just one! It won’t hurt you!”  Shane replied back, “You know I don’t smoke.”  This cycle of exchanges repeated itself several times in the weeks before this operation.  So when Ripp asked the same question this night, while waiting on the trucks to get underway, he was shocked to hear O’Donnell reply, “Sure, I’ll take one.”  Ripp scrambled to get his cigarettes out and passed one over to Shane, still in disbelief by what was unfolding.  O’Donnell took the cigarette, crumpled it into pieces, and threw it over the side of the truck.  “What’d you do that for?” screamed Ripp.  Shane just shrugged, smiled, and retorted, “I don’t smoke, but you wanted to give me a cigarette so bad, so I took it.”  The truck erupted in laughter, and even Ripp cracked a smile at the ingenious response.

Shane in Kuwait, prior to getting to moving to Iraqi area of operations

On the morning of November 8, 2004, Major Terry Race, the Peacetime, Wartime Support (PSWT) Officer for Golf Company, walked towards an office building located in the heart of Madison.   First Sergeant Ron Christensen, Inspector Instructor Senior Staff Non-commissioned Officer (SNCO) for the company, matched Race’s determined stride.   Walking briskly up the sidewalk, the two Marines responsible for all duties tied to the unit stateside provided an imposing sight in their Dress Blue uniforms.  Their gazes were locked straight forward, and their jaws were set in looks of solemn determination.  They entered the building, prepared to carry out one of the hardest actions a service member can do.  They were there to notify Peg that her son had been killed in action.   Though trained for this task, there were no simulations that prepared the Marines who carried out this duty to camouflage their own compassion and humanity when it came to carrying out the solemn duty.  This was the first notification that Race would carry out; unfortunately, Christensen had been on several in the past.  For both of them, the fact that they knew the Marine who they would be notifying about made the act exponentially harder to carry out.

Inside the building that served as her office location, Peg chatted with her co-workers, surrounded by the balloons they had hung in her cubicle for her birthday that day.  Later that day, the plan was to convene in the team’s main conference room to celebrate with a cake.  Peg was a beloved member of the office, and there was a great sense of comradery encapsulated in these types of celebrations.  Unsuspecting to Peg, Race and Christensen had entered the lobby of the building.  1st Sergeant Christensen remembers people staring at them as Major Race talked to a supervisor and asked to see Peg.  Some of the looks registered stunned recognition of what was occurring.  “People were looking at us and wondering why we were there,” said Christensen.  “Some people probably knew and others had no idea.”

Back in the office space, the front receptionist approached Peg and her co-worker Tom, saying, “There are two Marines here.  I think it must be a singing telegram for your birthday.”  Peg knew immediately something was very wrong.  “I looked at Tom and I told her that it wasn’t a singing telegram.”  As a Marine Corps mother who was familiar with many of the customs and procedures of the service, Peg knew what it meant to have the two Marines in uniform showing up at her office unannounced.  “Tom held me up and carried me over to the conference room where they were.  They told me that Shane was gone and I collapsed on the floor.”  Instantly going into shock, there are very few details that Peg can recall from the next several minutes.  “Tom picked me up and led to a private office and we sat in there.  I don’t remember much of what about what they may or may not have said, but I could tell by the look on their faces.  I knew anyway.  Marines don’t come to notify you unless the worst had happened.”

Looking back at that day, Peg does remember being surprised that the notification took place at her work.  “Somebody told me there was a rule that they couldn’t do notifications at work.”  However, Peg learned afterwards that Shane specified the location very clearly in the will he filled out prior to deploying.  “Race told me that Shane was very specific that if something happened to him, he wanted the notification to happen at the office,” said Peg.  “He knew if they came to the house I would be by myself, and I don’t think he wanted me to be alone in that situation.”  Even after his death, his love and thoughtfulness for his mother came through immensely.

Memories of the days after Shane’s death remain a blur for Peg.  Major Race and 1st Sergeant Christensen were accessible to her at any time, for anything she needed.  Peg leaned on both of them, Race especially, to help her with the myriad details that she needed to decide.  Peg assigned him a nickname during this time:  Major Menu.  “I got so mad at Race at one point that I just was screaming at him,” Peg recounted.  “And he asked me what can I do to make this better and I yelled at him offer me choices.”  Race did that going forward, always bringing her two options in every situation and letting her react, as opposed to leaving everything wide open.  This system worked very well.  “When he said something I knew in my gut knew it was going to happen.”  Race stayed attached to Peg, taking care of anything she needed.  Christensen was behind the scenes, taking care of all of the extra details that would help make the next few weeks the level of honoring to Shane that his actions warranted.  This included coordinating a continuous escort and first responder team lining the way all the way from the airport in Milwaukee where his body was flow into, all the way on the approximately 70 miles to the funeral home in DeForest.  Christensen had coordinated with the Wisconsin State Patrol and many of the police and firefighter forces in the local municipalities that the procession passed through.  Peg remembered what she saw that day.  “Every overpass was lined with flags on the way down and on the way back. And we had a continuous rotating police escort the whole way.  Every fire department was out there with their trucks and their boom hanging a flag over the bridge.  It was just amazing, just absolutely amazing.  I had never experienced anything so moving before; it made me feel not so alone.  Somebody else realized what had happened.  Eric and I both looked at each another and said that we’re not the only ones who will miss him.”  The detail behind making something like that happen often goes completely overlooked as those going through it appropriately focus on the grief they feel.  But Peg did not overlook it, and is eternally grateful for the actions that were coordinated for that day.

Shane O'Donnell Funeral

O’Donnell’s death, as well as that of each of the other four who made the ultimate sacrifice, shook the Marines in Golf Company to their core.  Yes, they had seen violence and had witnessed Iraqis’ death in the months leading up to this.  The number of IED and mortar attacks they had endured kept the danger they faced front and center every day.  Two months into their deployment, they had navigated every mission and task with honor, courage, and success, and done so without experiencing any serious injuries.   Kent Breese remembers the painful memory of the day his friend died.  “I wasn’t there when the IED went off.  It didn’t seem real and we were separated at that time due to our different missions.  It was hard to register he was gone.”  Many compartmentalized and deferred the enormous pain they felt, knowing that they had to stay focused on the mission every day, lest the same tragedy occur again.  It was a hard and cold reality, but one the guys in the company worked through with grace and pure commitment.  However, though dealing with feelings can be deferred, eventually reconciliation occurs.  “You don’t let the reality of it sink in till you get home,” explained Breese.  “When you see the loved ones, who will never get to see their sons, dads or brothers, walk off the plane and come home, it starts to hit you.  It took me a while to fully work through the grief and loss.  I don’t think you ever really get over it. I carry the memories of O’Donnell with me every day.”  Breese articulates the feelings that many in the company experienced.  Each member of the company has worked through the pain and grief they felt in different ways, and even 15 years later, we are each on a different part of our personal journey of grief and healing.  We have each other, and have been very lucky to be able to lean on each other, bound by our shared commitment to honor our brothers and keep the memories of their lives alive.

When someone dies, near total darkness can envelope those surrounding that person.  Regardless of who the person was and how they lived their life, the heartbreak of their death brings negative feelings that seem irreconcilable with a positive future.  The darkness is thick, and it is real.  And even the memories of your loved one become confusing, as the grief felt becomes all consuming.  Eric O’Donnell has dealt with his grief for almost a decade and a half, and still grinds away at recalling his older brother.  It hasn’t been easy to do.  “I have these memories that are often scraps and pieces of a larger picture that I can’t quite recollect,” explains Eric.  “It’s like setting fire to film negatives and trying to make sense of them when the fire dies out and you’re left with a pile of ash and debris.  “The incompleteness of a life cut short robs others of the ‘normal’ remembrance we all strive to have.  Pain pulsating in his words, Eric continues, “You may get fractured glimpses of something you knew but it’s been melted, warped, and combined with other things you don’t recognize.  I’ve been going over these questions trying to come up with answers and stories to fill in the blanks and check the boxes but I keep coming back to the poignant reminder that I won’t ever get those pieces back, nor will I see the picture in its entirety again.”

Death is not a one-time event to look back upon with casual diffidence.  It is personal, invasive, and it lives in others.  Most strive to remember that which gives us positive, hope, and push us ever forward.  The stories that make us laugh.  That help us to find meaning in the meaningless.  But it doesn’t always work.  “I could tell the same stories over and over again as I’ve done through the years to friends and strangers alike, but that’s really all they are – stories,” said Eric.  “Fact and fiction amalgamated into something uniquely its own and sometimes wholly different from the reality.  If the years since my brother’s joining the military and his passing have shown me anything, it’s that your perspective of things can shift dramatically, sometimes without warning.”  The triggers that derail people as they grieve are many, varied, and they can present themselves in almost any situations, often without warning.  “The things you believed in become irrelevant or obsolete and you take up new causes and different things that drive and propel you forward,” continues Eric.  Many going through traumatic loss will describe feeling a vast loss that consumes their every day.  “It’s in realizing that spending so much of your time living and analyzing the past that it can cause you to lose sight of the future and your grip on the present.  Often this comes at the personal cost of those around you without noticing it.  Before you know it you’re surrounded by strangers you used to call your family and friends.  You wake up facing a complete stranger in the mirror as well.”  The toll that the passing of a loved one can take cannot be over-estimated; nor can it be described well enough to be digested fully by those who have not experienced it.  There is no reasonableness to it, because the very nature of death exceeds the boundaries of rationale thought.

‘Time heals all’ is an oft-used saying in the middle of grief situations.  Everyone undergoing sorrow operates with his or her own timetable for recovery, but most all would begin to move forward eventually.  Eric found himself looking to move beyond the thoughts that wouldn’t leave his head.  “You do everything you can to maintain and try to make the pieces fit again but in the end you realize it’s a futile endeavor and it’s time to move on and face the facts,” said Eric.  “There are too many questions that will never be answered, and the answers we do find might not be enough to satiate our need for closure or fit the narrative we’ve created in our heads throughout the years.  With respect to that I stopped asking ‘why’ and started asking ‘What comes next?’  I can’t live forever in the past.”  This is an extremely painful realization for those who spin on even the painful memories of their loved ones, hoping to keep them as present as possible.  “The past will always be there, as will my brother.  I carry him with me every day, even if only in the back of my mind.  His hopes, dreams, ambitions, and all the things he never got to do with his life weighing on me.  It’s not a burden though.  It serves as a reminder that we are here, now, and have to be present for those who no longer walk among us.   It is the reminder to keep going and to carry on.”  It is these reminders that bind us all and keep us committed to living up the incredible examples our fallen brothers provided.

For Gold Star families, one of the most cherished actions after losing their loved ones is to see the memories of their life live on.  While the way in which their lives ended often provide memories too painful to process, the amazing memories and pride they have for them surpass that pain.  That feeling is shared by others, and provides a powerful impetus for many to do everything they can to honor the memories of the fallen, thereby keeping their memories very much alive.  In Golf Company, this is done in many different ways, at various times throughout the year.  There is a special focus during the month of November, given the attacks that claimed the lives of five warriors in the company occurred during that month.  Memorial Day, as well, is an important time that the families and Marines of Golf take time to remember the lives of their incredible brothers.  Beyond that, there are many different ways that their memories are honored, in ways small and large.  Peg has gone to extraordinary lengths over the years to ensure that not only Shane’s memory stays alive, but also the memories of his brothers and many others who made the ultimate sacrifice defending their country.   She was instrumental in helping raise the funds necessary to erect a statue honoring all those who lost their life in service to their country at the DeForest Veterans Memorial Park.  Beyond that, her passion helped to cement an idea that Linda Kelly developed.  Linda, from the Madison area, was the mother of a Marine who deployed to Iraq in 2005.  When her son and his unit came home minus 13 of their fellow Marines, Linda wanted to help.  Attending a fundraiser for injured service members shortly thereafter, she met Peg and was moved to action when she heard Peg state, “We want recognition and remembrance.”4  These words provided the impetus for an incredible effort to honor those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.  She started Operation Never Forgotten in 2005, which began by providing remembrance of fallen heroes on massive digital billboards throughout the country.  One of the first was placed on the beltway going around the city of Madison, honoring Shane.

The digital billboard displayed in the Madison, WI area

Shane O’Donnell’s memory will live as long as those who knew him or have learned about him are alive.    And while the memories of November 8th are very raw and painful for many, those memories are overpowered by the many that make up the ‘photo album’ of his life.   Those memories are carried on in myriad ways.  Matt Olesen will always remember Shane’s unselfishness. “That was probably what made him such a great friend and Marine,” said Olesen.  “He never had to be first, the best or the most.  He just wanted to be.  Yes, he worked hard, he set goals and he was hard on himself, but only because he wanted to see others around him succeed.  Shane always gave everything that he had, whether it was as a friend, a wide receiver on the football team or a Marine.”  John Neppl also was amazed by the unselfishness that O’Donnell displayed.  “If Shane could do it, I wanted to do it,” Neppl remembers.  Unfortunately, I was never as good as he was at anything I tried.  But to me, the amazing thing was that he always looked out for me, never said a disparaging word, and encouraged me through all of it.  Shane was always my best friend and someone I could rely on, no matter what.”

Kent Breese is another who will never forget.  “I am proud to have served with Shane,” says Breese.  During the years I knew him, I was greatly impressed by his faith, his confidence in his God and his positive outlook on life.”  Breese and his wife felt compelled to do something that would keep his memory even closer to them each day.  “Our second son was born after our first deployment.  We named him Keegan Shane in Shane’s memory.”   For Breese, his son carrying on Shane’s name has been a great opportunity to share who his friend was.  “As Keegan has grown older, I have told him about Shane.  About the man of faith, the man of joy, and the warrior and Marine who gave himself serving others.  It makes me proud to see Keegan understand that and know whom he was named for and why.”

Shane O’Donnell walked this earth for 24 years.  In that time, he lived a lifetime.  The impact that he has had on countless individuals is enormous.  His actions spoke loudly and he always provided the right example.  He was proud to be a Marine.  He was proud to serve his country.  He was proud of his faith.  Moreover, he was proud of the person he was to others.  His smile defined him, but it was a mere manifestation of everything that was good about him.

And it is with a smile on his face that we choose to remember him.

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

1Drill Instructors are Marine Corps non-commissioned officers who train new recruits in boot camp.  They are known for discipline, dedication, and otherworldly willpower.

2A ghillie suit is a camouflage clothing items intended to blend into the natural terrain, foliage, and season of the year.  Made famous by military snipers, hunters use them as well.

3Carlos Hathcock was a revered Marine Corps sniper who served during the Vietnam War.

4More of what Linda Kelly has done with Operation Never Forgotten can be found at https://operationneverforgotten.org/about-onf/history/.

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