WASHINGTON — Ryan McGlothlin was set for life: a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the College of William & Mary, a doctoral research fellowship in chemistry at Stanford University, a bright future on the cutting edge of science.
He gave it all up to join the Marines. On Nov. 16, at age 26, he was killed in Iraq.
In a speech here Wednesday, President Bush singled out McGlothlin's life story, calling the young lieutenant a symbol of "the greatest force for freedom in human history," a man who "felt a special obligation to step up because he had been given so much."
Ryan McGlothlin was an interesting choice for the president's speechwriting team. When White House speechwriters contacted his parents Monday to ask for permission to mention him, they were told that McGlothlin had not voted for Bush in 2000 or 2004.
But, Donald and Ruth McGlothlin said, they told the White House that Bush could use their son's story as long as it was not reduced to a sound bite or taken out of context. And they vetted the words the president delivered.
"My son told us, to our faces, 'I won't vote for Mr. Bush, but I'll take a bullet for him,' " Donald McGlothlin said in an interview Wednesday.
Valedictorian of his high school class, Ryan McGlothlin, the youngest of three boys, was drawn to the military from childhood. "He liked to play GI soldier, and he looked up uniforms and weaponry in the encyclopedia," recalled his mother, a counselor at Lebanon High School in Lebanon, Va.
He won an Army ROTC scholarship for his last three years of college, but it was withdrawn after recruiters learned he had had a respiratory illness as a child. His mother said McGlothlin then worked even harder, training his muscles and his mind, to convince the military that he was healthy. And he set his sights on the Marine Corps, which boasts of its selectivity.
Upon graduation, McGlothlin won a doctoral research fellowship in chemistry at Stanford. But two years into his doctoral program, after winning a medical waiver for his childhood wheezing, he left Stanford for Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, followed by six months of advanced officer training. He was the honor graduate in his class of 220 second lieutenants, his mother proudly noted.
"As a Marine, he found his niche," she said.
His father said McGlothlin was livid about the Sept. 11 attacks -- "just furious that someone had attacked American citizens on our soil." Initially, he said, his son thought the U.S. should have focused its attention on rooting out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- "cutting off the head of the beast and disabling the beast's ability to come back."
But after arriving in Iraq, Ryan McGlothlin became convinced that the fight had to be won there. In a letter he wrote five days before his death -- and received by his family after his funeral -- he outlined his views.
"I know this war is not the most popular one back home, but people must understand that to pull out before the Iraqi army is fully ready to assume responsibility for the security of their own country is not only irresponsible of us but would ensure the persistence of terrorism," Ryan wrote. "If you walk through these cities and see how terrified the Iraqi citizens are of the terrorists and how thankful they are that we finally came to their cities, you could not possibly consider doing this job incompletely."
In giving the White House permission to use McGlothlin as an example, his father said, "we wanted to be sure Ryan's thoughts were communicated to as many people as might listen."
Like his own father, a legislator in Virginia for 22 years, Donald McGlothlin is a Democrat. But he believes that what Bush says about staying the course in Iraq "is what we need to do."
"Nobody knows the pain a family has to go through to lose a child to this war," Donald McGlothlin said. "I would do anything to have been spared this. But I don't want the gifts that these men and women are making to the Iraqi people to go for naught."
On Wednesday, he recalled the last time the two took a trip together. Ryan McGlothlin was at Officer Candidate School at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., and father and son drove to Washington to visit the nation's monuments.
"We went to every memorial ... he read every inscription," Donald McGlothlin said. "He had a deep reverence for the sacrifices."
Ryan McGlothlin was buried in Lebanon, posthumously promoted to first lieutenant and awarded the Purple Heart. At the time of his death, Bush said Wednesday, "in his pocket was a poem that Ryan had read at his high school graduation, and it represented the spirit of this fine Marine. The poem was called 'Don't Quit.' "
Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.