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Rockin’ in the Free World
Ryan Means had dreamed of joining the Army since the age of six, but it was not until his childhood playmate and best buddy Adam White was killed in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers that he was mobilized into action. The despair of riding his bike around New York City, posting flyers, checking in with hospitals, and, finally, accepting that Adam was dead were more than he could take sitting down. He never sat down much, anyway. After a couple of years of percolating grief, resolve and rage, Ryan, then 31, left his career in New York and, with Adam’s initials tattooed on his torso, enlisted in the Army, determined to “get” Osama Bin Laden.
Eventually, his dream became a nightmare.
With Memorial Day approaching, any story about a soldier who is willing to serve, to give his life, to go after the enemy can stand in for the many thousands of stories out there – all of them worthy. But though Memorial Day recognizes service members who’ve died in battle, this isn’t a story about a soldier killed in combat.
This is a story about undying courage in the face of an unbeatable enemy that waged a personal attack on Ryan’s body. The graduate of his beloved University of Georgia seemed dauntless and indestructible as he regularly challenged convention and authority. Let’s be honest, he was an action figure come to life: handsome, crazy wild, funny, loving and devoted.
Ryan, the son of Mary Jo and Al Means, of Atlanta, brother of Alfie, Tommy and Michael, consistently tested his own personal and mental capacities – and those of others. “I sure loved him,” Mary Jo says with a wry smile, “but I didn’t always love his behavior.” More often than not, though, his fearless behavior ended up endearing him even more.
After basic training and Airborne school at Fort Benning, GA, Ryan was chosen to go through the grueling training for the Special Forces at Fort Bragg, N.C. In North Carolina he met Heather Hohman in and not long after they married and settled near Fort Campbell, KY, before Ryan – the oldest on his elite team of 12 – shipped out in Jan. 2009. His daughter was one year old and Heather was pregnant with another girl, due in June.
It was almost exactly two years ago that Ryan came home, after barely six months in Iraq, to be treated for a rare cancer in his bile duct. When diagnosed in Iraq, the doctor told him he had zero chance of survival. To Ryan, those were fighting words – and fight he did. “Needless to say, calling Heather that morning at 3 a.m… to say I had liver cancer was not much fun,” Ryan wrote later.
Once back in the U.S., Ryan began documenting his fight in a series of eloquent, passionate and defiantly upbeat emails sent to friends and family. So compelling were they, and so heartfelt, that they went viral. There’s no telling how many readers he eventually had.
On May 31, Ryan started a battery of tests at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and faced his first “Hail Mary,” making it through an emergency procedure to stabilize him enough to travel to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City on June for what he called the “MAIN EVENT,” surgery.
Despite the original odds, Ryan knew he had a lot going for him: “age, physical condition, beautiful wife, great kids, attitude, good looks, family, long tab, desire, etc.” and the surgeon now gave him a 40% chance of surviving: “100% better than the other prognosis I’ve received,” he typed out.
Not long after Ryan arrived in New York, Heather gave birth to Sophie – right across the street from Sloan Kettering, close enough for one of Ryan’s Green Beret buddies to unplug him from his IVs and wheel him over in time for that main event. “It was a humbling and beautiful event which did nothing but strengthen my resolve to kick this thing,” he wrote.
In mid-June, Ryan wrote, “I cannot stop shaking my head and laughing at the situation. That’s all you can really do at this point. I love the challenges and can’t wait to add cancer survivor to my list of achievements.” He said that, “A major source of inspiration came from the guys with me on the AIRVAC bird who were much worse off in the short term. Of course on the surface I looked a little yellow but otherwise fine. These guys were far from it and some would likely never see family or friends again. It became almost easy at this point to deal with my situation and my overall perspective could not have been any better; so many soldiers’ lives are ended in an instant while I had practically been given years extra already.”
While waiting for his surgery, Ryan and his young family lived in an apartment – “I’m kicking it with three hotties in a sweet apt on the Upper East Side…being around my wife and TWO daughters makes me think that life simply can’t get any better….I just have too much stuff going for me to stop right now.” They were able to walk around – “like a semi-normal family” – as Ryan relished sharing some of the haunts and stories from the times with his friend, Adam.
Every email Ryan wrote included wonder, gratitude and appreciation for his friends (“this incredible network…now coming out of the woodwork to provide me an overwhelming amount of support, prayer and love”) and his very close-knit (“my foundation”) family. “I don’t see this as any sort of popularity thing or ego trip but rather a validation of the choices I’ve made in my life – starting with my wife who somehow raised a toddler while pregnant for six months and then dealt with this without so much as a whimper or a tear (at least that she’s shown me). I’ve never witnessed such strength, beauty and grace.”
Each email also included his signature sign-off: Keep on rockin’ in the free world! – a patriotic reference to Neil Young’s song said to be pro-American, pro-democracy.
As the surgery date approached, Ryan became even more philosophical. “The only thing I’ve found more important than maintaining a positive mental attitude is keeping a sense of humor…In my short life, I’ve found that even in the most dire of circumstances being able to laugh in the face of adversity is critical to succeeding. Fortunately, my mother has reinforced the gallows humor concept from an early age and it still carries me through…”
His positive, winning outlook never wavered. “Considering that we started at 0% chance of survival, I, of course, hear 40% as being 99%….
“I cannot explain the excitement of going into this operation other than it’s similar to all of the great sporting events; Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Masters, the World Series etc…rolled into one (perhaps we call it the Super Bowel instead?). It stands to be the most exciting 10 hour ordeal with the outcome far more important than any sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.”
Ryan had enormous faith in his surgeon, Dr. Fong – “the best of the best” – and continued to appreciate the outpouring of support. “The so-called strength, courage and determination … that so many of you have mentioned is not something I see as an inherent, special quality that only I possess, but rather it’s been a direct result of the love and support from family and friends as well as the training that the Army has put me through over the past five years – both of which have simply not allowed me to consider anything else but winning and continuing on with my blessed life.”
When the email went on to say that the complications from surgery “were far too great” and that Ryan had died, it was incomprehensible. In the face of all his joy and optimism and excitement taking on this challenge, how could that be?
Staff Sergeant Ryan Patman Means died on Tuesday, July 7, 2009 just as the sun rose over New York City. Heather climbed onto the hospital bed to hold him as she had not been able to while he was still alive. As Heather bent over towards Ryan, Mary Jo wrapped his warm arms around her.
There were three funerals: one at Fort Campbell, Kentucky with his Special Forces team present; one at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta with 1,800 mourners all holding American flags; and, finally, one at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington where he was laid to rest.
The story doesn’t end there. In early May, when Osama Bin Laden was killed, Heather and everyone else in the Means family began getting phone calls, emails and texts to share the good news. The outpouring was extraordinary.
Heather – who saved every email, text, instant message and hand-written note from Ryan – is compiling them, with her own perspective, into a book, knowing her daughters will cherish every word.
There are more words and lots of photos from friends and family on the Ryan Patman Means tribute page on Facebook and the video of the burial at Arlington () where you can see Heather receiving the American flag – strong, brave and composed. “Ryan said, ‘No tears,’” she explained.
Knowing Ryan as she did – “known for hiding presents and making me open clues and solve puzzles to find them” – Heather scoured his computer after he died, and found this unfinished letter:
While I’m still supremely confident about the outcome, I wanted to share something about myself which isn’t very easy especially considering how extremely tough I am, that I’m an unstoppable member of the nation’s elite fighting force, a barrel-chested freedom fighter and generally someone who was born without feelings or a conscience. The secret to my attitude is what I consider a gift from God. Something that I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned to anyone but now somehow feel obligated to share with the world, which I really don’t like. The one thing that has always managed to get me through the darkest of times, and there have been more than I can really remember, is this strange and uncontrollable ability to see beauty where I really don’t think other people can. It’s odd because I’ll be in the midst of a hellish situation or simply walking down the street and just for an instant, something will catch my eye, whether it be the flight of a bird, wind rustling through some trees, a person in the midst of a genuine emotion, the way my daughter looks at me; really it can be anything or everything but in the blink of an eye, my heart fills with such passion, joy and happiness that I almost clutch my chest because I think that my heart is literally going to explode and at that moment I know that no matter what may happen, everything is, in the long run, going to be OK. The way I see this strange phenomenon is that God is telling me that he is all around us and that everything is simply going to be OK.
Editor’s note: This story first posted on Legacy.com