Tablet Life & Arts

Grieving father sends wounded soldiers to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball

For Doug Robinson, the arrival of the Marine Corps Birthday Ball each November carries a duffel bag’s worth of bittersweet emotions. The formal affair was beloved by his son, Ryan — a Marine who delighted in the pomp and circumstance of the ball until his death in 2008.

Ryan can’t go to the ball anymore, his father says, but others can — with his help. Taking up the banner, Robinson started a nonprofit organization called Ryan’s Project ( in 2010 and began raising funds that have sent six to 10 soldiers a year to one of the local Marine Corps balls.

“The Marine Corps is different from the other services,” the Keller resident says. “They’re a family. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

The United States Marine Corps Birthday Ball is the formal gala that takes place on or around Nov. 10 each year to celebrate the establishment of the Continental Marines in 1775. The balls honor Marine Corps history, traditions and accomplishments.

This year, Ryan’s former unit, the 14th Marine Regiment, celebrates Saturday at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, while the Marine Aircraft Group 41 will throw a party Friday at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

Ryan’s service

Ryan joined the Marines shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Deployed in Iraq for 15 months, he survived several roadside explosions from improvised devices but returned home in 2006 with a traumatic brain injury. He endured seizures, severe headaches and tremors, logging a lot of time in Veterans Administration hospitals, his father recalls.

But Ryan remained true to the Corps, relishing the opportunity to don his dress blues and celebrate the November birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps.

His son worried about other veterans who were dealing with injury and hardships, Robinson says.

“Ryan would ask me, ‘How come none of these wounded guys are ever at the Marine Corps Ball?’ ” he says. “They’ve been forgotten.’ ”

On Sept. 1, 2008, at age 29, Ryan died of a massive seizure at his North Richland Hills apartment. His father started Ryan’s Project as a tribute to Ryan, a 1997 Keller High School graduate, and as a way to carry out his son’s wish to help more wounded Marines attend the annual gala.

“The Marine Corps Ball is a party for guys to get together and remember the guys who made it and the guys who didn’t — to remember what it is to be a Marine,” Robinson says.

He has never been a Marine, but he says military service runs in his family. He served in the Air Force. His father was in the Marines, serving as one of “Carlson’s Raiders” running special ops in Japan during World War II. (He was wounded and met Robinson’s mother, who was an Army nurse.) His brothers were in the Navy and Marines, and oldest son Jason was in the Navy.

Establishing the fund

The first hurdle to granting Ryan’s wish to help Marines attend the ball was in locating wounded soldiers. Medical privacy laws make the information tough to get.

Fortunately, Robinson says Gordon England, former secretary of the Navy and deputy decretary of defense, helped him get in touch with the U.S. Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, which provides nonmedical assistance to wounded, ill or injured Marines. Area officials with the Wounded Warrior Regiment refer soldiers who are interested in attending the annual Corps bash but may not have the resources.

“They contact us and we find out what their needs are,” he says.

Sometimes a Marine may have post-traumatic stress disorder and be out of work. Ryan’s Project can buy his ticket to the ball. Another soldier may have an amputation and need a uniform altered or have severe medical issues that require an attendant, transportation and overnight accommodations.

Janeen Bagette, an Air Force veteran and a Ryan’s Project board member who trains service dogs for veterans, says attending the Marine Corps Birthday Ball can be a valuable part of a soldier’s healing process.

“For a number of reasons, it does these guys so much good to get connected back to their brothers and sisters in the Marines,” she says. “It’s assisting them in getting back into the world. It’s almost like a weight is lifted off of them.”

Robinson says his one regret is that he didn’t start Ryan’s Project while his son was still alive.

“For some of these other guys, this might be their ‘Make a Wish,’ ” he says. “We just want to make sure they know they’re not forgotten.”