Every day, Gail Muren sends a text to her son, Danny, with the same message.
“I love you. Be smart. Be safe,” she writes.
These days, she is able to tell Danny, 18, those words in person. Danny, who recently graduated from the Marine Recruit Training Depot at San Diego, Calif., had a homecoming fit for a Marine at the family’s home in rural Huntley.
Danny Muren graduated in January, a semester early, from Huntley High School so he could enlist. It has always been his dream to become a Marine.
It’s a dream that almost didn’t come true.
In May 2011, Danny miraculously walked away from a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer. He suffered a serious injury to his knee that made him wonder if he would be able to enlist.
But Danny survived that accident, learned an important lesson and has given his life to the Marine Corps.
Danny was driving home from prom on Route 47, He was just a few miles from his family’s home and was about to turn onto North Union Road.
He does not remember a lot.
“It came back in pieces,” he said of his memory of that night. “It’s not really clear. It’s foggy.”
Danny remembers the red Subaru he was driving — his family’s new car that he decided to take at the last minute — and getting ready to turn onto North Union Road. He remembers nodding off for a second. Then came the impact.
The Subaru hit the tractor-trailer head on.
Ed Muren came upon the scene minutes later.
“You can’t imagine, as a father, to walk up to that scene. I remember thinking this is serious,” he said.
“I see what I think is a blanket over the car,” Ed Muren said. “It turns out to be the airbags. I walked up and the passenger door was open.”
He went to a nearby ambulance, looking for his son. He found Danny strapped to a gurney. Ed Muren asked the paramedics if his son was going to be OK.
The paramedic told him Danny was alert and even walked into the ambulance on his own.
Ed Muren asked Danny if anything was broken.
Danny showed him his mangled arm, hanging at an unnatural angle. “Well, this doesn’t look right,” Danny said.
There was something else wrong.
Also damaged was a ligament in the back of his knee, the posterior cruciate ligament, or PCL.
Danny was able to walk but he had a tremendous amount of pain, he said.
The injury left him wondering if he would be able to become a Marine, which he had wanted since he was a child.
“It was my biggest fear,” Danny said. “I had no backup plan. It was the Marines all the way.”
A lifelong dream
Danny has talked about becoming a Marine since he was little. His mom remembers him talking about it at age 3.
His uncle, James LeRoy, inspired him.
LeRoy, who grew up in Bartlett and attended Elgin High School, was a U.S. Marine Corps scout/sniper. He later became a full-time air show pilot.
He was Danny’s idol.
In July 2008, LeRoy was performing in an air show in Dayton, Ohio, when his plane crashed. He died of his injuries. He left behind his wife, who is Danny’s paternal aunt, and a young son.
“It still doesn’t seem real,” Danny said.
Neither did the possibility that his injury might stop him from entering the Marines.
Danny was able to walk after the accident but he needed surgery to place metal plates in his forearm. While he still could walk, it was very painful, he said. The leg injury would have kept him from doing the rigorous trainings Marines must undergo.
He had PCL replacement surgery, and then spent nine months on bed rest.
The accident and his injuries sidelined his plans. But in March, after passing physical exams by Marine doctors, he was cleared to go to basic training.
“I was never 100 percent sure till I shipped out,” he said.
The first month of basic training was tough, but his knee held out. During his training, he thought about his uncle every day.
He graduated a few weeks ago, officially becoming a Marine.
Danny sat in his family’s living room last week as his homecoming party started. He had no clue his family planned it. Family members arrived with hugs, cards and best wishes.
His journey seems unbelievable.
“I was always told life is a gift. Certain things happen to you for a reason. This accident showed me … I can get hurt,” he said.
He knows he can get hurt doing his job as motor vehicle operator; the guy mans the guns in Humvee. A speaker who talked to Danny’s basic-training class did the same job and told the young recruits to expect to hit roadside bombs at least twice during their deployment.
“I was told it’s one of the most dangerous jobs,” Danny said, adding that the speaker also said Humvees are very protected.
“I’m mentally prepared already.”
“If I had my choice, he wouldn’t do it,” Ed Muren said. “I would prefer both (Danny and his brother, Joe, also a Marine) go to school. Both said ‘it’s not my thing.’ But I’ve raised these boys to make these decisions. Being parents to me means supporting your kids. So now we are all-out a Marine family.”
Danny leaves next week. He will been gone for three months as he learns his job.
His mom, Gail, is enjoying every moment of having her sons at home. Joe was also home for a visit.
“I’m happy when they are here,” she said. When they leave, she has days when she cries. “It’s hard. I say a lot of prayers.”
She’ll also be texting every day, “I love you. Be smart. Be safe.”