Second Wind

January 10, 2007

Corporal Tyler Steele Leidig was killed in a car accident on the night of December 23, 2006, in his hometown of Saranac Lake, New York. He was 21-years-old. Tyler’s passing did not make many headlines across the country. His family said he would not want to be remembered that way. Tyler was a modest man, who possessed a character beyond words. He was considerate, loyal, and strong. His story gives a glimpse into the bedrock of this nation and it deserves to be told.

He joined the Marine Corps on October 12, 2004, and eventually became an Air Frame Mechanic. He helped fix Ch-46 helicopters in Medium Helicopter Squadron 268, based at Camp Pendleton California.

Tyler spent seven months in Iraq at Al Taqaddum airbase and returned to the states in March of 2005. Corporal Kenneth Brown-Lovelace, a fellow Marine Airframe Mechanic, worked with Tyler in Iraq and summed up his character with a story. One day, the base received a mortar attack. As people began running for shelter, Tyler first made sure all his tools were secured and then he checked on the Marines next to him before he and Corporal Brown-Lovelace made their way to the safety of a bunker. Courage under fire came naturally to Tyler. Friends and family in Saranac Lake said Tyler always put others first.

Tyler’s grandmother, Luci Leidig said “he was the type of kid you wanted to have around all the time.” She also said Tyler was very thoughtful and a good listener. Carol Reyell was Tyler’s seventh grade English teacher and she said “he was quiet, modest, and kind.” Tyler joined the Marine Corps with his brother, Corporal William Leidig, and they went to boot camp together at Paris Island, South Carolina and were even in the same platoon. When William was asked to give three words that would describe Tyler to a total stranger he said, “Gentle, kind, and loyal.” Loyalty seemed to be something Tyler was born with.

In early December 2006, Tyler married a girl named Sara at a quick ceremony in San Marcos, California. He had known her since the third grade and once told her, “I had you picked out from the beginning.” They kept their marriage a secret and were going to surprise friends and family with the news during Christmas. Sara said Tyler also planned to have a large, formal wedding in Saranac Lake in front of family and friends. They never got the chance.

The entire town of Saranac Lake seemed to be affected by Tyler’s death and mourners lined up by the hundreds for hours outside the funeral home. Tyler came from a large and close-knit family. His mother Janie had a unique way of honoring Tyler’s memory. She asked people in attendance to call or hug someone they loved in Tyler’s honor. It seemed like everybody in town took Janie’s advice. The Town of Saranac Lake treated the Marines from Tyler’s unit, and Marines from an honor, with overwhelming kindness and generosity. Everywhere they went, they were met with applause, handshakes, and hugs. Their money was not accepted, and they were told many times over that their service to this country was greatly appreciated. It was easy to see where Tyler got his character and spirit from.

Lieutenant Colonel John Gamelin was Tyler’s commanding officer. He attended the funeral and offered his condolences and support to Tyler’s family and friends. Lieutenant Colonel Gamelin said Tyler was currently the Marine of the Quarter at his unit. That was no surprise to anybody who knew him.

A flag was flown, in Tyler’s honor, over the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington Virginia and rushed to Saranac Lake to be given to Tyler’s wife Sara. A special honor for a very special person.

Tyler was laid to rest next to his grandfather at St. Bernard’s cemetery. His grandfather was a veteran who served this country in World War II and rarely talked about his service. His name was Carl Bevilacqua. He was described by those who knew him as a modest man who had a lot to be proud of. Modesty, strength, faith, and courage are traits that not only run in Tyler’s family but in the Town of Saranac Lake as well.

Those qualities were evident to me as I learned about Tyler’s life and the town of Saranac Lake. I did not know Tyler, but I have known men like him. I was simply there as part of the honor detail.

As I lifted the flag off Tyler’s casket, I was unable to stop my eyes from filling with tears. As I helped to fold it, I was suddenly ashamed of every complaint I ever had about my service to the Marine Corps. I eventually found myself at parade rest, looking beyond Tyler’s casket through some pine trees at a quiet, frozen lake with snow-covered hills rising behind it in the distance. I was unable to move.

The service ended and people streamed past me, but I still could not move. Over the last few days, the entire town of Saranac Lake had thanked me, and the Marines with me, for our service to this great country, and I quietly tried to find words to thank Corporal Tyler Steele Leidig for reminding me that service to something greater than one’s self carries with it a special honor.

I was standing there lost in thought when a woman, who appeared to be in her 70’s, carefully walked up to me and asked, “excuse me, sir, is it alright to talk to you now, or are you still on duty?” I smiled, shook her hand, and said that she could talk to me whenever she wanted to. Then I asked what I could do for her. She only wanted to thank me (and those like me) for our service. Then she locked arms with her husband, who also solemnly shook my hand, and they ambled off.

He was wearing dress blue trousers, a red satin jacket, with the Marine Corp’s emblem on it, and a worn-in VFW hat cocked at a right angle on his head. Beyond them, I noticed for the first time the numerous military markers and Marine Corp’s flags that dotted many of the gravestones at St. Bernard’s cemetery. It struck me that even in his death Tyler was still affecting people in a profound and positive way. I left Saranac Lake the next day with some kind of second wind. I will always be grateful to Tyler for that.

If you ever find yourself on leave and somewhere near Saranac Lake, New York, do yourself a favor and stop anywhere in town for a drink or something to eat. You will not have to say anything; they will already know you are not from the area. When they ask you what you do for a living and you tell them you serve this country, be prepared. They will thank you with such warmth and gratitude that you will never forget it.

In 2011, Tyler’s parents established a summer basketball camp scholarship in memory of their son and his love of the sport.