ELYRIA, Ohio — Marti Miller Sparks remembers one of the key reasons why her unmarried son Lane decided in 2004 to enlist in the Army. “He had a friend who had just gotten home from the Navy,” Sparks said. “He was a young dad and a young husband. And Lane said, ‘Mom, if I could just take the place of at least one husband, one young dad, so that he wouldn’t have to go and leave a family, then that’s the difference I want to make.’” On April 30, during his second tour of duty in Iraq, Sgt. Norman Lane Tollett of Company C, 1st Battalion of the 504th Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was killed by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol in Baghdad. He was buried May 6 with full military honors after a funeral service
at Elyria Catholic High School’s coliseum, one day before his 31st birthday.
We tell his story this Memorial Day as a way to honor all those who gave their lives in military service for their country. As U.S. Military Services Archbishop Edwin O’Brien put it, “Though they are not all professedly religious, the young members of our Armed Forces are, in large numbers, spiritual and God-seeking. In a shimmering but unmistakable way, as they willingly offer their lives for others, they reflect the greater love that Jesus praised.”
Sgt. Tollett gave his life for his friends, said those who knew him.
“This dangerous duty was a natural mission for Sgt. Tollett, and we mourn his loss,” Maj. Gen. David Huntoon, commandant of the U.S. Army War College, said at the funeral service, the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram reported. “It’s clear he was an outstanding leader who always looked out for his fellow troops.”
Said Huntoon, “He was a true hero; the epitome of selfless service.”
Tollett’s great-uncle, Father Allan Laubenthal, presided over the service. Father Laubenthal, a retired priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and the former rector of St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland, will also be the principal celebrant at a June 2 memorial Mass for the eldest of his niece’s three sons.
Many of Tollett’s relatives and friends were in attendance at his funeral service, the Chronicle-Telegram reported, including his father Dave Tollett, his brothers Don and Ryan, his stepfather David Sparks and his girlfriend Lesley Graham.
“We salute his devotion and his extraordinary example,” Huntoon said before presenting Tollett’s family with the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a Good Conduct Medal.
Growing up, Lane attended Catholic schools and was co-captain of the football team in his senior year at Elyria Catholic High School. He also sometimes served at family Masses, Father Laubenthal said.
Lane’s mother said that her son’s Catholic faith was the bedrock upon which his ethic of service was founded.
“His Christian convictions — that’s what added to his compassionate nature and his drive for serving this way,” Sparks said.
Along with the return of his friend from his Navy service, Tollett’s decision to join the Army was prompted by two other events. In 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, he visited Ground Zero.
“If I never remember anything else about the rest of that weekend,” he told his mother after returning to Ohio, “I will never forget the sights, sounds, smells, the entire atmosphere of that entire area.”
Another influence was the example of Pat Tillman, the pro football player who gave up his career to join the Army Rangers in 2002 and who was killed in action in Afghanistan in April 2004.
Sparks said that when her son finally decided to leave his job and join the Army in the summer of 2004, she told him of her concerns about the dangers he would face. But once she understood that Lane had made up his mind after a long period of careful consideration, “I told him that I respected his decision and supported him 100%,” she said.
Tollett was named honor grad of his battalion when he completed his training at Fort Benning, Ga., in November 2004. Beginning in September 2005, he served a five-month tour at Camp Suse in northeast Iraq, returning home in January of 2006.
Twelve months later, he returned to Iraq for a second combat tour, serving this time in the violent streets of Baghdad, where he was killed.
Outpouring of Love
Asked if the death of her oldest son has challenged her Catholic convictions, Sparks emphatically said No.
“It hasn’t changed it at all,” she said. “God did not do this to Lane, I don’t blame God or the faith — I thank God I do have the faith, that I know everything is in God’s hands, that I know that he was protecting Lane as long as he was able to. I don’t have any wavering in that.”
Sparks and her uncle, Father Laubenthal, both said they were deeply moved by the outpouring of love that has been triggered by Lane’s death in combat.
One of his college friends has established a website (lane-tollett.memory-of.com) in his memory, and a fund has also been established to fund a new scoreboard in his honor at the Knights of Columbus Field at Elyria Catholic High School.
“It’s unbelievable — I still can’t fathom it,” his mother said. “There are strangers from all over who are offering prayers and things like that, and there is not one negative from anyone.”
Father Laubenthal remembers his great-nephew as “a young man that was proud of his family and his country and his state. I think he was a true patriot in that sense, that he did join [the military] because it was a worthy cause.”
Father Laubenthal noted that such expressions of patriotism are in keeping with Catholic doctrine.
“The Christian faith has always been known for supporting patriotism, and the Christian faith has always supported people’s generosity in serving their country,” he said. “As a virtue, patriotism has always been something that the Church has blessed and has fostered.”
Added Father Laubenthal, “I think a young man like Lane, who saw this as a contribution to his country, would certainly see himself supported in that by his faith.”
Msgr. Philip Hill, chief of staff to the Army’s chief of chaplains, said there are no figures for how many Catholic soldiers have lost their lives in the Iraq conflict. But Msgr. Hill said that they likely constitute about a quarter of all battlefield deaths, proportionate to the overall percentage of military personnel who are Catholic.
As of May 17, a total of 3,403 members of the U.S. military have been killed since the Iraq conflict began in March 2003, according to the Associated Press.
Msgr. Hill said that a solid faith is a strong asset for soldiers in combat.
“A person who is a good person morally brings to the fight a person who is more stable, a person who has a lot more hope, a person who can look beyond even this life to things that are more important in the next,” Msgr. Hill said. “And all of that has a great deal to do with the soldier’s ability to function on the battlefield.”
Pope John Paul II paid tribute to members of the military with a Jubilee Year day in their honor. That day he spoke of those who had fallen:
“Forgetting themselves and despising danger, they rendered the community a priceless service. … But where did they find the strength necessary to do their duty to the full? … Many of them believed in Christ, and his words illumined their existence and gave exemplary value to their sacrifice.”
While they are sustained by their own faith, Tollett’s relatives are nonetheless deeply wounded by their loss.
“It’s been devastating,” said Father Laubenthal. “I’ve seen my sister and my niece age in front of me.”
“I’ve had to dig deep into my own faith to find the strength to be an uncle, a priest, a guide, a comforter … to be on hand for support,” Father Laubenthal said. “The same as I am as a priest always, but of course the demand is increased when you’re a relative, when you’re dealing with one of your own.”
For her part, Lane’s mother singled out the prayers of others for helping her family to cope with their grief over Lane’s battlefield death.
“That’s the only thing that’s keeping us going these last couple of weeks — the tremendous outpouring of support that’s given us the strength to weather it,” she said. “Not to get over it, we never will. But that is helping us.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.
INFORMATION To learn how to send care packages to the troops, see page 8.