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Navy SEAL widow’s Memorial Day event honors America’s fallen

VIRGINIA BEACH – Three days before his 33rd birthday, Danny Quinlan received terrible news: Doctors found he had a brain tumor and an aneurysm. It was benign. But he had a surgery to remove it.

“Happy Birthday, yet?” said Quinlan, now 42. “I remember telling one of my daughters right before the surgery: Know that I love you. But when I wake up I do not know who you are.”

When doctors placed limits on his physical activity – the its toll. Walk was. Riding was. “It was a lifestyle change,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself that yes, I could go on.”

Thirteen months after his surgery, Quinlan met Patsy Dietz, the widow of Navy SEAL Danny Dietz, who was killed in 2005, the conflict in Afghanistan known as Operation Red Wings.

She was the motivational speaker at a healing camp in Virginia Beach. He was a guest looking for power. That was the beginning of the Danny Dietz Memorial Classic, a three-day rodeo and fundraiser, now in its 8th year. It will be held Friday through Sunday at the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds in Rosenberg, Texas.

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Quinlan remembers the way she talked about her husband and his bravery – his story made famous by the film and book, “Lone Survivor.” It gave him goose bumps.

The 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, Danny Dietz was a fighter, despite his small frame. He completed basic underwater demolition/SEAL training known as BUD/S – with a broken foot. “He fought until his last breath,” Patsy Dietz said recently from her Virginia Beach home.

They talked about their life at 24: they were young and in love, had a new house and two dogs. Like most young couples, they dreamed about having children and growing old together. But with a knock on the door of her world fell apart, ” she said.

“She was so passionate when she talked about Danny and her love for our country. Something resonated in me. It touched me in such a way,” Quinlan said. “Look at all those people that died so we can enjoy our freedoms. I was that guy. I took my freedom for granted.”

At that moment, he felt compelled to do something. He approached Dietz, and together with hundreds of volunteers, they created a patriotic blue-collar-Memorial Day event to honor Dietz and America’s cases.

“If there is a holiday that everyone should honor is the Memorial Day. It should not be about barbecues and pool parties,” he said. “It’s about the men and women who died for our freedom. People seem to forget that.”

What started as a team roping event has grown, both in size and popularity. Today, the Danny Dietz Memorial Classic is approved by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association with the world’s top cowboys compete in bareback riding and bull riding on the weekends.

“It is more than just an event or an action,” Quinlan said. “This is our way to say thank you to all those men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms.”

Tickets are $10 with all proceeds benefiting the Navy SEAL Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing permanent support to the Naval Special Warfare community, active-duty military and their families.

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According to Alison Messick, director of programs with the Navy SEAL Foundation, approximately $62,800 was paid in the proceeds of the Danny Dietz Memorial Classic last year.

“It is an honor to watch this grow year after year. It’s Patsy’s way to give back to those who come behind,” Messick said. “She is passionate and sincere. It is that authenticity that is truly an expression of who we are.”

Dietz knows military life. Her father was a Navy SEAL. She joined the Navy when she was 18 and married Dietz on 21. She became a widow at 24.

“If your life is taken away, without warning, you start to think about all these things you wish you could have said or done differently,” she said. “I know the feeling of that first knock. The feeling that you get when you see the men in uniform at the door.”

But she was resilient. Through the years, she leaned on her friends, a group of military spouses, many of whom are also widows, and with their help they eventually returned, she said.

Three years after becoming a widow, Dietz met another Navy SEAL. The year they met he accompanied her on her annual trip to Colorado for a visit to her ex-husband’s grave in Fort Logan National Cemetery. While there, the man, who they did not name for security reasons asked for a moment alone with her deceased husband’s grave. A month later, he proposed.

“He told me that it was very important to meet Danny,” she said, “and to ask him for permission to marry me.” They now have a 4-year-old daughter.

Each year, she is humbled by the amount of support that they are still strangers in the entire country.

For them, the Navy SEALs are celebrities. To Dietz, they are average Americans with special tasks. They are the fathers who coach little league. They are nervous on the first dates. They are men who mow the lawns and take out the trash. They take their daughters to the school dance.

“It’s not about the work that they have. It’s about the kind of people they are,” says Dietz. “The guys don’t show off with what they are doing. That is how we will behave. We have real families with real children. To us, they are human. They are not immortal.”

Dietz makes it a point to introduce herself to as many guests as possible during the Memorial Weekend events. She thanks him personally to skip the backyard barbecue instead of the honor of a fallen American.

“So many people don’t realize how many people hate this country and the way we live. They will go to any extreme to take that away from us,” she said. “When I see all those people, who do not know me, come to pay their respects, it gives me hope that their love for the military and with the holidays is still there.”

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