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Gold Star mom brings ‘hero’ Marine son back to life with book

American Flag (Unsplash/Lucas Sankey)

In the years since Marine Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Price was killed in heavy fighting in Badghis province, Afghanistan, on July 29, 2012, the Marine Raider’s exploits have lived on.

Price, along with fellow Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan Gifford, sped across 800 meters of exposed ground on all-terrain vehicles to come to the aid of Afghan commandos pinned down during a cordon-and-search on an enemy compound filled with insurgent fighters.

After treating and evacuating several casualties, Price took out an enemy sniper. Then he and Gifford scaled the compound and dropped grenades down a chimney on the enemy.

The Marines were shot from behind by the only surviving insurgent as they searched the compound. Their killer was then taken out by a Marine sniper. For their efforts, which singlehandedly turned the tide and won the battle, Price, 27, was awarded a posthumous Silver Star; Gifford, 34, was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross.

While the Marine Corps legend might live forever, the stories of Dan Price – the person – will fade with time. That’s why Price’s mother, Ruth, penned “No Stray Bullets: The Making of an American Hero,” about her remarkable son’s short life.

“Dan was such an awesome guy, and I’m his mom, so I really just wanted to use specific incidents to bring out his personality so that other people could get that for themselves, just get a little bit of who Dan was and what we lost,” Ruth Price told Stars and Stripes last month.

At a time when less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military, most are unaware of the price paid to become one of America’s elite warriors and the consequences on the family when one falls. “No Stray Bullets” offers a window into the years of training, the constant combat deployments, the physical wear-and-tear and the grief of a mother forced to bury her son.

Tales of a son

The book starts off with the operation that killed Price and Gifford and their exploits with Special Operations Task Force West, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan. It then quickly shifts to Price’s birth at Zeeland Community Hospital in Michigan on June 8, 1985.

He was impatient and demanding as a baby, and he was not a “cuddler.”

“He cried for attention, but then pushed away from any comforting,” Ruth Price wrote. “Many evening hours were spent hiking up and down the hallway in our tiny two bedroom mobile home, trying to console the crying baby.”

Price had an insatiable appetite his entire life; he started eating cereal as soon as he came home from the hospital. He was mischievous, and left unattended for a moment, he once covered an entire room with the contents of an oversize bottle of baby powder.

When Price was 3, his family moved to a 10-acre hobby farm in Holland, Mich. Playground fights were common for Price, who often challenged bullies picking on weaker kids at school.

“We knew that Dan would never get into trouble by being in the wrong crowd,” Ruth Price wrote. “Any trouble he got into would be because he chose to get into it. He would most likely be the leader of whatever crowd he was with. Although every child is special, Dan had the personality to lead and accomplish great things.”

Price was raised in a strict, devout Christian household. He was helpful and determined and had a strong work ethic, his mother said. Ruth Price relates how these traits served him in his military career.

When Price was in the third grade, he began homeschooling. He raised and exhibited livestock. When he was 11, he began working on a neighbor’s pig farm. He worked there until he joined the Marine Corps.

Ruth Price is a first-time author. “No Stray Bullets,” while well-written, is light on history and context. She declines to name the Marines and even some family members in her son’s life, including his wife. She says this was deliberate, to focus on her son.

But the book more than makes up for any shortcomings with Ruth Price’s honesty.

She details her son’s struggles with algebra, his fear of heights, his fear of failure, his anxiety, including the time he wept as he led an animal that he had raised to slaughter.

“Dan shared with his teammates that he won third place in Junior Showmanship, but left out the fact that he bawled like a baby when he led the steer that now trusted him to the semitrailer that would take him away to be slaughtered,” Ruth Price wrote.

Her son enlisted in 2003. From that point, he took every Marine Corps training course he could. Uniquely qualified, he worked toward deploying and fighting America’s wars. He worked and worked until he was the best of the best. He was often chosen for leadership positions in the units he served.

He joined Marine special operations in 2008. He deployed six times and was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor in 2009 for saving 15 Marines and a handful of Afghans after they walked into an ambush. But other stories she includes reveal who Price was — like the time he took a Marine’s 80-pound pack on top of his own during a hike at the Basic Reconnaissance Course after the Marine collapsed.

Price grew up hunting, but after killing people in combat, his mother says, he could never again be content doing so.

His sister Rebecca jokingly called him “Rambo,” she told Stars and Stripes for an earlier story, and while Dan Price’s military exploits seem superhuman, he was simply a regular guy with the heart of a warrior, according to the book.

Felled by a ricocheted bullet to the kneecap during a combat deployment in 2011, Price was in the gym within weeks, two days after reconstructive surgery. He worked hard to get back into the fight. However, he first had to deal with a demon so common to America’s wounded troops.

“After approximately six weeks on the opioid pain medications, he was already dependent on them,” Ruth Price wrote. “Quitting them cold turkey left him not only in physical pain but in depression for several days. Dan wanted to just sit on the couch and cry.”

He persevered. Within nine months of his injury, he had an almost perfect score on a physical fitness test and was reinstated to full active duty.

‘Such a waste’

On April 23, 2012, Price deployed to Herat, Afghanistan. When Gifford’s team took several casualties, Price volunteered to take a spot. Both men were killed on the July 29 mission.

In “No Stray Bullets,” Ruth Price describes the day that three Marines in uniform came to their door as the end, but she also describes how it was a beginning of sorts for their family. Price turned to her Christian faith to find answers. She takes readers with her as she processed the grief.

“Suddenly, the remote possibility was a reality. It no longer mattered that he was one of the best, fighting alongside of the best. His extensive training meant nothing. His sniper qualifications became worthless. It seemed like such a waste,” Ruth Price wrote. “What is the purpose of such deep emotional pain manifested so intensely that we experienced physical pain in our bodies?”

With “No Stray Bullets,” Ruth Price resisted the urge to inflate her son’s legend. She doesn’t sugarcoat his flaws. She relates how her son did not think women belonged in the military and how he didn’t believe the wars he ultimately gave his life for would make a long-term difference in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“One thing that particularly bothered Dan was the position of women in Iraqi and Afghani society,” she wrote. “He saw that women were viewed as possessions, like American dogs.”

Ruth Price provides an unvarnished view of her son’s life that only a mother could, revealing the man behind the uniform.

She said that writing the biography was cathartic but painful, as she was forced to relive his life and his tragic death.

“It’s the story of our son,” she said. “In my opinion, he’s an American military hero who needs to be remembered; his story needs to be told. Like I said in the book, one of those Gold Star dads told us shortly after Dan was killed that, ‘We are the voices of our dead sons. If we don’t tell their stories, they won’t be told.’”

The book, released in April, is available on Amazon.


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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