ELYRIA, Ohio — Goose was on his last foot patrol.
He was 24 and had been in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan — “the worst of the hellhole” — for maybe five months, his dad said. The proud Marine had a new wife back in Georgia, and he was going to be shipping home to her soon.
But an improvised explosive device changed the ending to the story. One step and Lance Cpl. Joseph Ryan “Goose” Giese was gone.
A world away in Las Vegas, his dad Larry Giese was on the computer at exactly 9:03 a.m. Jan. 7, 2011, booking flights to go see his son’s battalion return to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
At 9:04 a.m., his world split apart forever.
It started with a knock. The retired Lorain, Ohio, police officer saw a Marine captain and a gunnery sergeant at his door. Giese, a former Marine himself, automatically saluted the captain.
“We got to the door and he didn’t really realize what was going on. He was more or less happy, like ‘Hi guys, I was a Marine, too’ — and then it sunk in, all of a sudden,” recalls now-Maj. Bob Stevenson, who was the captain at Giese’s door that morning.
Giese, who had served a tour in Southeast Asia, remembers thinking “that was how they delivered the message when I was in Vietnam.”
“And I said, ‘Just tell me he’s wounded,’” Giese said. “And they said, ‘No. He’s been killed.’”
That wound — of losing his only son, of having to tell his daughter that her little brother was not coming back — went to the bone. But in the nearly seven years since his son died, Giese has found a salve of sorts in the signs he believes his son is sending him.
There’s a reason Marines say “once a Marine, always a Marine.” The camaraderie doesn’t end on the battlefield; it doesn’t end at deployment or retirement. Semper fi — from the Latin “semper fidelis,” always faithful — extends over lifetimes, even over generations, any Marine will tell you.
And it certainly doesn’t end at death.
A package from a stranger
“Six and a half years. Can you imagine finding a dog tag in the middle of the desert and it’s my son’s?”
Larry Giese can’t quite get over the package he received in the mail June 14, sent by a stranger.
Inside was a single dog tag, dented, dulled and hard to read. Somewhere in Afghanistan — he still doesn’t know much of the details — an Army grunt found the tag, read the name, and sent it to his father, Pete Metzger, asking him to find the man’s family. Metzger tracked down Ryan’s widow in Atlanta, where Ryan had lived since his parents divorced when Ryan was 10.
She sent Giese a Facebook message: Call this man. If this is actually what I think it is, I want you to handle it.
All Giese knows is that the tag was found nowhere near where his son was killed in the Sangin River Valley. Ryan was part of the notorious “Green Hats,” Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Marines (the “2/9”). The 2/9 was deployed to Marjah, Afghanistan, in July 2010. By that December, Echo Company was sent to join the 3/5 Marines — which was taking higher casualties than any other Marine unit in Afghanistan — in Sangin.
Echo Company came to be known as the “Green Hats” after they chose to turn their hats inside out, with the green liners showing rather than the desert camouflage, while patrolling the heavy vegetation of the Helmand Province. They continued wearing their green hats once they met up with the 3/5, which didn’t go unnoticed by the enemy. According to company lore, a letter between two Taliban leaders was discovered in the area, discussing the reputation of the deadly green hats.
The attachment was to be short-lived, arriving in December and returning to North Carolina by Feb. 8. But within days, Echo Company lost three men.
Ryan was the last.
Much of this history is written in stone — literally inscribed in granite slabs at the Pioneer Saloon in Nevada — and written on the body: tattoos Giese now wears. Ryan, who was sleeved in tattoos, used to rag on his dad to get inked, too, and they had plans to go together for tattoos when Ryan returned. The first anniversary of his death, Giese got his first tattoo — Ryan’s face. On Ryan’s birthday, he added another — an exhausted Marine kneeling, with Jesus over his head. The only thing green is the helmet.
A Marine buddy of Ryan’s told Giese the single tag would have been his “boot tag,” the one worn in a soldier’s boot instead of around the neck.
It makes sense to Giese.
“We couldn’t find his left leg and his right arm,” Giese said. “Who knows, after all these years and the desert storms and winds, what took place.”
The tag arrived just in time for Father’s Day.
“I sat down at the kitchen table and opened it up. I didn’t know what it would look like. He had it presented nice in a little box but I had to get it out of there. I had to hold it,” Giese said.
It has been sitting on his desk for a week now. Such a tiny thing, it is able to fit easily into the palm of his hand but big enough to hold so many memories. Giese has an entire room in his house full of signs of Ryan — photographs, his basic uniform shirt, his dress blue hat.
“I never got to see him in his dress blues. Always wanted to, I just never got the chance,” he said. “Well, except in his coffin.”
Giese first started noticing what he considers signs from Ryan almost as soon as he knew of his death.
He was on an airplane to Atlanta for his son’s funeral, listening to one of his favorite songs, an instrumental called “Europa.” As they prepared to land, the flight attendant called for all devices to be turned off. When Giese glanced at his iPod, the screen listed the definition of the song’s title.
“It means ‘earth cries; heaven smiles.’ I never knew that. So they got him, you know,” he said.
He got into Atlanta late and was checking into his hotel when he noticed the clerk’s nametag said “Ryan.” Then his girlfriend called him over to see something that caught her eye. In the middle of a couch in the otherwise deserted lobby was an empty box of Reese’s Pieces.
A few weeks before, Giese had sent a care package full of Ryan’s favorite candy, Reese’s Pieces. One package — just one — wouldn’t fit into the box, no matter how much he tried, so he set it aside for a future package. Weeks after Ryan died, Giese received a notice that a package was waiting at the post office for him. It was the package Giese had sent, now marked “KIA” — killed in action.
In life, both men carried similarities far beyond genes. Both men were Marines. Both picked up the nickname “Goose,” a play on their last name. Giese’s softball jersey number was 3 — and his son became No. 33.
When Ryan’s unit returned home in early February, Giese was in California.
He was outside eating breakfast at a hotel when a flock of geese flew overhead. The gardener was nearby and told Giese he had never seen geese fly overhead in all the years he had worked there. The next morning it happened again. Giese snapped a quick shot of the geese, a group of at least 15 or so.
He intended to set it as the screensaver on his phone — but when he opened it, only three geese appeared in the picture.
The morning his son would have returned — Feb. 8 — Giese took an early morning walk alone on the beach.
“I said ‘Ryan, Dad’s hurting. Can you give me a sign you’re OK?’ And then I said ‘And if you can’t, God can you give me a sign he’s OK?’ ” he said. “I took two steps and I stepped over something green and it was like a voice said, ‘Pick it up.’ I turned around and picked it up and it was a little toy soldier. I picked it up and I was crying like a baby.”
It was a tiny infantryman, leaning over his rifle. Ryan was in the infantry, volunteering to be a grunt “because somebody’s got to do it, Dad.”
Last year, another package arrived in the mail.
It was a pocket-sized Bible Ryan carried with him into war. A Marine he had served with ended up back in Afghanistan again, and spotted the Bible. It was being carried by another soldier, who didn’t recall how it had come into his possession and didn’t know the soldier whose name was inside. The Marine told him about Ryan and took the Bible with him, forgetting it at the bottom of his gear for a while.
When it resurfaced, he mailed it to Giese. The corners of a few pages were creased, marking spots Ryan would often turn to.
Giese stays in touch with Ryan’s Marine buddies and became good friends with Stevenson since they met at Giese’s front door that awful morning.
Stevenson, who just took over command of the Marine recruiting station in Chicago this month, forged an unusually close relationship with Giese in the days following Ryan’s death. In his role as a casualty assistance calls officer — the Marine who goes to your door to personally tell you the worst news about your loved one — he has made too many of those visits. At that time, however, Ryan’s was only the fourth one he had done, and he personally attended Ryan’s funeral in Georgia as well as his arrival with full military honors in Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
He visits Giese in Las Vegas and continues to call every year on the anniversary of Ryan’s death. When asked if he thinks Giese’s experience is uncommon following the death of a loved one, he pauses.
“I wouldn’t say it’s unusual. My dad passed away a year ago and that changed my perspective in ways. You start to find glimmers of things,” Stevenson said. “When it happened, Larry started putting things together here and there. It was uncanny. It was significant to him and I thought that was helpful.”
Giese has heard there is some talk of eventually putting his son’s tag in a Marine museum, but he’s not going to part with it anytime soon.
Ryan already had survived a stint in Iraq, and was within weeks of coming home when he was killed. The Marines had been preparing to cross the Sangin River when their soldier senses were alerted — something didn’t feel right. Their leader chose to move further down the banks and cross at another point. That’s when Ryan stepped on the IED.
Ryan’s commander called Giese weeks after the explosion. The bomb that killed Ryan also wounded others on his team, including the commander. The man broke down, questioning his decision that day.
With that one step, all of their father-and-son plans were gone.
“It’s weird, you know? Here I am, I’m a big, bad Marine, I was a cop — but boy oh boy, that emotional part just kicks my butt. In boot camp he made copies of his dog tag to give me and his sister. But now I have an original,” Giese said. There is a long silence and a muffled “hang on a minute” before he continues. “I really thought he was going to make it back. I really did.”