FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (BVM) — The date of Sept. 11, 2001 will be etched into the minds of Americans for generations. Those terrorist attacks were the reason that many young American men and women took to arms and decided to protect their country overseas in the war on terror. Fathers and mothers watched as their children went off to war to protect the freedoms they felt they were in need of protecting, willing to sacrifice all they could to keep their country safe. Sherrie Battle McGhee was one of those mothers.
“9/11 was a huge factor,” McGhee said. “The common theme was: not on my watch. They wanted to make sure that this could not happen if they could help it.”
McGhee watched as not only one, but two of her children enlisted in the military. Her son Zachery enlisted first into the National Guard followed by her younger son Ryan. Sherrie watched as her two young boys, inspired in part by the attack on American soil, became two young military men. This was why Sherrie decided that Sept. 11 was the perfect day to pay tribute to Ryan, whom she lost in the global war on terror 11 years ago.
Corporal Ryan McGhee was serving his fourth deployment when he was killed by small arms fire after his unit came under enemy attack while conducting combat operations in central Iraq on May 13, 2009. Ryan was just 21-years-old.
“God needed him in heaven to be a warrior,” Sherrie said.
On Sept. 11, Sherrie, who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., returned to Fredericksburg, Va. to attend a ceremony naming the nearby Interstate 95 overpass on Guinea Station Road in honor of her son. The official unveiling of the sign was an emotional moment, but a critical one for Sherrie.
“I wanted to have that bridge there because every time they go over that bridge they will see ‘Corporal Ryan Casey McGhee Memorial Bridge,’” Sherrie said. “They will say his name and he will not be forgotten. That’s what’s so important. A soldier only dies twice. When they breathe their last breath is the first time and the second time is when their name is spoken no more. I wanted to make sure before I leave this earth that his name will continue to be spoken.”
Sherrie described her son as having integrity, love and always standing up for the little guy, but with a little cockiness which was needed for him to prove doubters wrong. When a shoulder injury threatened his ability to be an Army Ranger, Ryan simply wouldn’t let it stop him from achieving his dreams and earned his Ranger contract. That was just the type of person he was.
“He never let anybody tell him that he can’t do this,” Sherrie said. “Don’t tell him he can’t do nothing. … He got the Ranger contract after a whole lot of intensive scrutiny and tests and everything else he got it.”
A contingent of family members, friends, mentors and government officials gathered at the 33-yard line of the Massaponax High School football field for the day’s event. On the yardline, emblazoned in the field’s new artificial turf, sat an American flag in honor of Ryan.
“That was awesome,” Sherrie said. “Patriotism at its best.”
The decision to use the 33-yard line was no coincidence. Ryan, during his time with the Massaponax Panthers football team, wore the No. 33 on his way to second team all-state honors as a senior in 2005. The number shined brightly from the team’s scoreboard as well as the time read 33:33 and the score read Panthers 33, Guests 33. A framed No. 33 jersey with a picture of Ryan in full military attire underneath sat in front of the ceremony’s wooden podium. Sherrie knows that Ryan would be proud of the moment.
“I can almost hear him up in heaven being like ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about Mom,’” Sherrie said. “I can just hear him saying that and that’s exactly how I felt. … The whole experience was to talk about his life, not his death.”
Outside of his passion towards his service to the country, football was Ryan’s other love and he looked up to fellow football player turned serviceman Pat Tillman who served as inspiration.
“He loved football, oh my goodness did he love football,” Sherrie said. “Pat Tillman was his hero which was one of several factors which led him to what he became. … What happened with Pat Tillman sank with him.”
It was fitting that his number would touch every moment during the ceremony the way Ryan had touched every single life of those in attendance. The event was of major significance to Sherrie, a Gold Star mother, to help remember her son and the thousands of others who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom.
“He died for me to live, he died for you to live, he died for freedom and freedom is not free,” Sherrie said. “So many people have died for that. I have traveled all over the place making sure he is not forgotten but also so many others who have done the same thing. ”
Sherrie would receive not only the framed jersey, but also a replica of the memorial sign to be placed on the bridge.
Ryan was an excellent athlete and student during his time at Massaponax. Many of his coaches and teammates remember Ryan for his determination and dedication to the Panthers, as he had worked hard to become a run-stuffing defensive lineman after first transferring to the area from Vermont weighing in at roughly 140 pounds.
“He said, ‘I’m going to play football for you’ and the coach just smiled at him,” Sherrie said. “He ended up being one of his leading defensive lineman so he definitely accomplished what caused some eyebrow raising with his declaration.”
Ryan was such a good football player that he had actually earned an offer for a partial football scholarship at Bridgewater College, but his mind had already been made up. He was going to be an Army Ranger. Upon graduating in 2006, he enlisted in the United States Army on Aug. 1. He went on to graduate from Ranger School and was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Benning, Ga. Ryan served three previous deployments to Afghanistan before his final deployment to Iraq and during his time in service he earned numerous military awards and decorations including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Even with the loss of Ryan, Sherrie has continued to learn from him every day. One of the lessons that has stuck with her most is the ability to pick oneself back up when down. Ryan had done that in his final moments before succumbing to his injuries and Sherrie continues to do that while she works through her own grief.
“He taught me it was OK to fall, it was OK to go to your knees, but you’ve got to get back up,” Sherrie said. “I’ve reflected over all the accomplishments and things my son has done and that’s the thing that stood out more than anything. If you want something bad enough, don’t give up. It’s OK to fall. It’s OK to fail, but get back up.”
Although he is gone, Ryan has not been forgotten by his high school home. After his death, hundreds attended a memorial service at the school. In past years, the football team has held remembrances during games to raise money for military organizations including K9s for Warriors and Warriors360. His No. 33 is retired by the team and many times the team will carry a No. 33 flag with them on the field. Sherrie hopes people can learn from her son to live life to its absolute fullest as a celebration of the freedom he and so many others have fought for.
“I don’t know if it was intentional for him, but what he left was to live your life in honor and do good to others,” Sherrie said. “Live your life and live it to the fullest. Live it the best you can and live it for those who died for you.”
Much like she had hoped, Sherrie’s son is not forgotten and will forever be remembered by those people who he impacted in life. Much like the date of 9/11 being immortalized by Americans, May 13, 2009 will be immortalized by those in Fredericksburg and the rest of Spotsylvania County. Corporal Ryan McGhee may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.