Dying veteran's wish to see his son graduate comes true

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by Sarah Hoye

CNN

Posted on July 1, 2012 at 7:07 PM

Updated Sunday, Jul 1 at 7:16 PM

PARRIS ISLAND, South Carolina (CNN) -- Charles Burns steadies himself, using the arms of his wheelchair, before pushing up into a standing position.

His wife, Lisa, places a firm hand under his frail arm, helping him to his feet.

Once upright, Charles places his hand across his heart as the band plays the national anthem at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, the training facility for all Marine recruits east of the Mississippi River.

The former chief petty officer in the Navy, who served a one-year tour of duty as a crew member on patrols along the Mekong River Delta in South Vietnam during that war, had just one wish for Father's Day -- to watch his son, Ryan, graduate from Marine Corps boot camp.

On Friday, his wish came true.

"I've done this trip a million times in my mind," he said.

"Have a little pride in yourself. And stick to it, whatever it is," Charles Burns says.

The 65-year-old Navy veteran is dying, making last week's feat bittersweet.

But not even a series of strokes, diabetes and heart failure would stop him from making the 1,000-mile trek from Rockland, Massachusetts, to Parris Island, South Carolina, to see his boy.

"I promised him I wouldn't die unless he got out here with his uniform, in one piece, and that he earned it," he said. "Outside of that, my commitment is just being a father. I'm happy it turned out the way it is."

With help from the Norwell Visiting Nurses Association and Hospice, and on-site medical assistance available from the Marines in case an issue arose, Charles was able to see his son's big day in person.

"Ryan," he said, pausing. "He's an amazing kid. There isn't anything he's done, or will do, that he doesn't excel in."

Following a stroke in 1998, Charles' health forced him to retire from his post as a power lineman for Boston Edison, the electric company serving the Boston area.

By the time Ryan enlisted in the Marines last fall, his father had already spent six months in the hospital in need of treatment for heart failure. That and diabetes rule him out for a heart transplant. He entered hospice care in September. Ryan left for boot camp in April.

Charles smiles in pride as Ryan's Platoon 2053, Hotel Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion passes his front-row perch in the covered stands, while a weeping Lisa buries her face in a tear-soaked tissue.

"Every child, whether it's a boy or a girl, when they say they want to be a Marine, or want to be something other than just a civilian, that means a lot to me," he said.

Scores of family members rush onto the concrete parade grounds after the ceremony concludes.

Among the crowd is Charles, who is pushed by Lisa toward Ryan as he emerges from the crowd.

"There he is," yells Lisa.

Ryan, dressed in full uniform, quick-steps toward his parents and throws his arms around his father. The two share a long, quiet embrace before Ryan hugs his crying mother.

"Amazing. Loving and fate-filled amazing," Lisa said about attending graduation.

Military service is a Burns tradition. Charles joined the Navy following high school in 1965. Ryan's grandfather served in the Army during World War II.

Ryan, now 20, was a fourth-grader when he first decided he wanted to join the military after watching the 9/11 attacks. Then, 12 weeks ago, he answered the call of duty when he left for boot camp.

It's mission accomplished for Ryan, now an official U.S. Marine, and his terminally ill father.

"Me and my dad had a bet. When I came here to Parris Island, it was 'I'll finish boot camp as long as you make it to my graduation.' So we both had mission accomplished. And we're here today. So I couldn't ask for anything more," he said.

Ryan said he doesn't know what keeps his father going, adding that he was humbled to have "that much support" from his family.

"He's definitely the strongest will-powered man I know. There's no fight he hasn't been able to overcome. He's never given up," Ryan said. "He's my hero."

As for Charles, he draws strength from his wife and son, and is taking life one day at a time.

"Have a little pride in yourself. And stick to it, whatever it is. Don't let up, even if you fail. Tomorrow you can start again," he said.

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