Johnny Cash once sang, “I fell in to a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames went higher and it burns, burns, burns. The ring of fire, the ring of fire.” Corporal Todd Michael Penn Jr. of the United States Marine Core, originally from Laplace, LA, or as most knew him, Michael, 20, developed a love for Johnny Cash when he needed to take his mind off of his tireless radiation treatments.
Todd Penn Sr., 54, who was the father of Michael said, “On the night of Oct. 14, 2015 at 9:37 p.m., my phone rang and it said, Quantico, Virginia. I knew where the main headquarters of the Marine base were and I said, ‘Oh my God. Why is the Marine Core calling me tonight?’ I said, ‘this is not good.’”
Todd recollected on the phone call from the Marine Core that night of Oct. 14 regarding his son. Todd said,
“The lady on the other end of the line said, ‘I have a message for you and it’s a red statement, are you ready to receive it?’ and I said, ‘Yes I am.’ The statement was pretty simple because I will never forget exactly what it said. She said, ‘Your son, Lance Corporal Penn collapsed in the field in Okinawa, Japan. He was rushed to the hospital and a very large, life threatening tumor was discovered in his brain. We do not believe he will survive the next 48 hours and upon his request, we are going to fly you and your wife to Okinawa, Japan.”
Todd and his wife, Michael’s stepmother, Michelle Penn flew to Okinawa, Japan on the next plane out and were prepared for the worst. He said, “When we were flying to japan, I firmly believed that Michael was going to be dead and when we got there we would be taking him home in a pine box across the Pacific.” By the time Michael’s parents had arrived in Okinawa, Japan, the surgeon at Naha City Hospital completed Michael’s emergency brain surgery.
According to Todd, Michael was unable to report to duty that morning of Oct. 14 because of the amount of pain he was enduring. Michael had told his roommate and Marine best friend, Corporal Nicholas Poe, to tell their Gunnery Sergeant, Robert Bryan that he would be at work as soon as he could. Unfortunately, Michael was unable to report to duty that day because he had a seizure that paralyzed the entire left side of his body. Michael’s vital signs continued to decline and he was rushed to Naha hospital where the neurosurgeon pushed his surgery ahead of a 3-year-old girl’s because he was not going to survive another 10 minutes.
Todd said, “Three days after the surgery, I knew my son was going to die.” Michael was diagnosed with stage four Glioblastoma, brain cancer that was the size of an orange on the right, front temporal lobe of his brain. Todd said, “The doctor said, ‘I’m telling you now, 12-18 months, and six months if he doesn’t do chemo and radiation.’ He said, ‘There is a zero percent survival rate for this.’”
Michael’s Gunnery Sergeant of the United States Marine Core, Robert Bryan said, “I was with Michael from the beginning all the way to the very end.” Bryan explained how after Michael had his first brain surgery that he suffered from brain damage. He said, “He went from a hard charging, marine motivated, 20-year-old to unfortunately, there were days and weeks when he was 5 years old.”
Bryan explained that there were signs that Michael was not acting as his normal, driven self, but in hindsight, Bryan didn’t expect terminal brain cancer to be the reason. Bryan said, “We were about two months into deployment and it’s at that two month factor that young Marines start to fade back and I was like, ‘Aw man I’m going to lose this guy and we are not even halfway through deployment.” Bryan explained three instances where he noticed something off about Michael. One of the instances was that he was the slowest in their wind sprints drill when he usually was the fastest.
Todd said, Michael decided to receive treatment and radiation to extend his life. However, Michael was unaware that his cancer was terminal because he did not have the brain capacity to remember. Michelle Penn, Michael’s stepmother, said, “I thank God that maybe it was a blessing that he didn’t know or that he didn’t understand that he was going to die because he was never sad or depressed.”
Even when he was at his weakest, his family and friends admired his strength. Austin Douroux, 21 and Michael’s high school best friend said, “Michael never complained about anything, except when you didn’t feed him.” Todd also noted that Michael never showed fear in his time of departure. He said, “I would ask him if he was scared and he said, ‘Dad, I’m not scared; I’m a Marine.”
Michael received treatment at Balboa Naval` Hospital in San Diego, however, during the time that Todd Penn was with his son, he was running out of vacation time at his job, Waterford 3 Nuclear Power Plant. Todd boasted about the support system that he had, and explained the support of his coworkers and friends at his job. Todd explained that his vacation time had been exhausted for the rest of the year because he was with Michael during his treatments in San Diego. He decided that he would take the short term Family Medical Leave Act to protect his job, but he would be unpaid. Todd explained that a woman called him from the headquarters of his job and he knew that she would address him about the exhausted vacation time that he had spent. Todd said, “The lady on the phone said, ‘I’ve been working in HR for a very long time and over the years I have never seen anybody get vacation donations that exceeded a thousand hours.’ She said, ‘What I have sitting on my desk right now is a stack of paperwork from your employees at Waterford 3. An excess of 1500 hours and I need to know what you want to do with all of this.’” Todd choked up as he explained how touched he was by what his coworkers had done for him and that same day, in addition to the donated vacation time, Todd received an $11,000 donation through GoFundMe.org from his coworkers to help him with his medical expenses for his son.
March 6, 2017, Michael’s MRI showed a new growth that was the size of a grape on the left, frontal lobe of his brain. Todd said, “Michael never left the hospital ever again after the second surgery.” Michael began to slowly decline post-surgery.
Bryan said, “I was out in the middle of Bulgaria conducting an exercise and I got a text from Todd saying that Michael probably has about a week to live and within 48 hours, me and Corporal Poe were on a plane to New Orleans to take care of Michael and make sure that he was in the hands of the Marine Core for his last moments.” Bryan said, “A lot of people tell me, ‘That’s not what you sign up for.’, but it’s exactly what you sign up for. No matter where your Marines are at or what they are doing, if they are in the dire situation that Michael was in, there is no other place where the leadership is set to go and that’s exactly where we went.”
May 25, 2017, Michael Penn passed away at 4:55 a.m. Todd said, “I was very relieved because he wasn’t suffering anymore. I felt total, complete relief.” Bryan and Poe were there for Michael’s last breath. Bryan said, “To be honest, the last day when his body was starting to go into that isolated phase of death, it was very surreal and I am very religious so I just feel like Jesus had come down into that whole household and just kind of had everybody at peace and took Michael with him.” Michael’s best friend from high school, Douroux said, “The night that he died, I could tell the way he hugged me that it was his last.”
When Michael passed away, his family, friends and fellow Marine’s lives changed permanently. Bryan said, “I will always cherish it. I will always be honored to know, for one of my marines, unfortunately before his passing, that I was able to at least provide that connection from the Marine Core to the family and be able to be the person to provide the flag during the military honors and give the eulogy.”
On May 31, 2017, with taps humming in the background, Todd Penn Sr., Austin Douroux and Sergeant Bryan walked with the United States Marine, Corporal Todd Michael Penn Jr. one last time to lay him to rest. With a 21 Gun Salute and the American Flag draped over his casket, Michael was honored by his family, friends and fellow Marines to send him off to his final deployment. Todd said, “Marines guard the gates of Heaven when they die, and that is exactly where he is.”
“And it burns, burns, burns. The ring of fire, the ring of fire.” Semper Fi