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Brother's death can't sway teen from Army

FORRESTON, Ill. -- Nobody would have faulted Joe Tyrrell if he changed his mind about joining the Army.

Not after standing over the hospital bed of the badly burned body of his brother, seeing only emptiness where his arms should have been, understanding then as few do the price some soldiers serving in Iraq have paid.

But after his family buried Private Scott Matthew Tyrrell, 19-year-old Joe, with their blessing, enlisted in the Army.

In an interview at his mother's home in this tiny Illinois town, Joe Tyrrell recalled what he told his brother, who lay before him unconscious. "I told him that I had the responsibility of joining the military and I was going to do it for him.

"It was always something I wanted to do," Tyrrell said, "but now I felt like I needed to do it."

It happens in towns and cities across the United States -- a sibling follows a brother or sister into the military. In Illinois, for example, among the soldiers killed in Iraq were Army Specialist Brandon Rowe, First Sergeant Brian Slavenas of the Illinois National Guard, and Army Private Matthew Bush -- all of whom are survived by siblings who were either serving or had served in the armed forces.

Yet, as casualties in Iraq continue to mount and more questions are raised about the war, and as headlines are dominated by such dramas as the capture of Saddam Hussein, quiet stories like that of the Tyrrell brothers sometimes get lost.

"What the Army did for Scott was wonderful," said his mother, Susan. "I am not angry at all. I am very proud of Scott and I am very proud of Joe."

Any understanding of how a mother just weeks past the death of a child could say that begins with the boy Scott Tyrrell was.

The way his mother tells it, Scott had a difficult childhood. Overweight, with a learning disability that made reading a struggle, "he was picked on all his life," she said.

In high school, he told his family he was going to become a soldier. "After he decided to enlist, we saw such a transformation in him," said his aunt, Mary Beth Mitchell of Elgin.

About a month after he graduated from high school, Tyrrell was in boot camp. A few months later that transformation was obvious. Gone were about 45 pounds.

"I didn't recognize him," said Joe. Also gone was the teenager unsure of himself and what he wanted to do with his life.

He was a solid, confident young man, the memory that the Tyrrells held on to when they were told last month there had been a terrible accident.

On Nov. 14, Scott Tyrrell, a combat engineer, was operating an armored earth mover. His job was to help build a dirt berm in front of the entrance of a bunker loaded with collected enemy ammunition that the Army hoped to protect from looting and use against coalition forces, according to a report received by the Tyrrells.

For unknown reasons the bunker exploded, and Tyrrell's earth mover was engulfed in flames.

Less than two days later, the Army called Tyrrell's family and told them he was in a hospital in Germany. "They said Scott was burned really bad and . . . [doctors] had to remove his arms," said Kelly Zitelman, his sister.

After Tyrrell's condition stabilized, he was flown to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where his family joined him.

When they arrived, they did not recognize Tyrrell. His face was covered with white cream, his badly swollen body wrapped in "white padding," said Zitelman. And his arms had been amputated above the elbows.

Only his feet appeared normal; his boots had protected them from the fire. "He would wrap his toes around my finger when I talked to him," said his mother.

Family members said doctors told them there was a chance, maybe 50-50, that Tyrrell would survive. But whether he would ever walk again or how well he would see was uncertain. They said they had to decide whether to take him off the ventilator and allow him to die or wait to see if he would regain enough strength while on the ventilator to survive on his own later.

Psychologists were brought in to talk to them, as were other burn victims. But while they said they all wanted to keep him on the ventilator, they soon concluded that Tyrrell would not have wanted to live the life the fire had left him. He had told his mother as much before he was injured, saying he'd rather die than be attached to a ventilator.

Joe Tyrrell said there would be no way to explain to his brother how they could have let him live a life in which he couldn't be a soldier any more. Zitelman said that as much as she wanted her brother around for her own selfish reasons, she kept thinking about her 5-year-old son, who adored his Uncle Scott. "Scott would never be able to hug Ethan again," she said.

Said Susan Tyrrell: "I told the surgeon I didn't want to bury my son in four or five years when he figures out how to end his life."

Tyrrell's surgeon, Major Sandra Wanek, had been neutral. But when family members told her of their decision to remove him from the ventilator, her words suggested that she agreed with, or at least supported, their decision.

"She said, `OK, guys, let's go make him whole,' " said Tyrrell's mother. Tyrrell was taken off the ventilator the night of Nov. 19, and he died the next evening. He was 21.

Tyrrell's family insist they are not angry at the Army. Scott's life was short, but it had meaning. The Army, they said, made him happy.

Now, weeks after his death, family members have no doubt they did the right thing.

"He'll never grow old; he'll always be a hero," said his mother.

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