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The government was supposed to take care of mentally disabled Marine combat veteran Brian Callan. It didn't.

"You have to look hard at Brian's makeup in his last years, and how he felt about himself," says his father, Dr. Laurence Callan, a retired public-health professor and administrator who now lives in Honolulu. "Becoming a totally disabled veteran had to be a shattering blow to the strength and character he had put together to meet crisis after crisis in his life."

It was a turn of events that those who knew Brian Callan say they never would have expected.

Callan was born on June 11, 1958, the first of Larry and Jerri Callan's boys. Sean, Peter, Tim and Bob followed in that order -- five in five years. (The couple divorced in 1980.)

Chief warrant officer Callan earned numerous medals and commendations during his 15-year career as a United States Marine.
Jackie Mercandetti
Chief warrant officer Callan earned numerous medals and commendations during his 15-year career as a United States Marine.
U.S. Marine L. Brian Callan, circa 1994.
courtesy of Jerri Glover
U.S. Marine L. Brian Callan, circa 1994.

In 1972, the Callans took the extraordinary step of moving to the small town of Fort Defiance, Arizona, where Larry Callan had accepted a job as assistant director of the Navajo Health Authority. The Callans embraced life in Indian country, though many of the Native Americans weren't eager to accept this fair-skinned, Irish-American clan.

"You have to remember, this was during the height of the AIM [American Indian Movement], and resentment toward Anglos from my peers was very, very strong," says Ken Todakonzie, a Navajo who was one of Callan's best friends for almost 30 years.

"The Callan boys had an awful lot of fights at first. But I didn't feel that way towards him. I was a shy guy, and unconfident, and he encouraged me in a lot of areas, more like a big brother though we are the same age. By our sophomore year, Brian had everyone on our football team working as one unit. Everybody at school knew and liked him."

Callan later earned All-Conference honors as a tackle for the Window Rock High Fighting Scouts, playing on both offense and defense, and was co-captain in his senior year with his pal Todakonzie.

But Callan walked in circles other than athletics. He was elected student-body president as a senior in 1976, and Todakonzie says he developed a knack for being outspoken without getting in too much trouble with school officials.

Callan often spoke to Todakonzie about wanting to join the Marines after graduation, but ultimately decided to get more education so he might start at a higher rank.

To that end, Callan enrolled at Mesa Community College, where he matriculated for two years before transferring to ASU. There, he was a member of the ROTC program, and continued to go to school part-time for the next four years. (He later earned his bachelor's and master's degrees while in the Marines.)

Callan got married in June 1979 to Thelma Begaye, a Navajo from Window Rock. She was four months pregnant at the time. Years later, Callan learned for certain what he'd long suspected -- that he hadn't been the father of Thelma's first-born, Cheryl. But that never kept him from loving the child as if she'd been his own.

"He was my real father even if he wasn't my natural father," says Cheryl Callan, now a mother of two who lives in Flagstaff. "He called me his precious princess and that's how he treated me, even when I played my evil little stepdaughter games with him as a teenager."

In March 1982, Callan enlisted in the Corps and was assigned to the 3rd Marine Regiment in Hawaii, where he served for a time as a clerk in the Intelligence unit.

Hungry for action, Callan volunteered in May 1983 for duty with the Third Battalion, Third Marines, a unit then assigned as part of a "peacekeeping" force in Beirut, Lebanon. Later that year, he spent a few months in Beirut, and left shortly before a terrorist drove into the U.S. compound toting a 12,000-pound bomb, killing 242 Americans -- all but one of them a Marine.

The Marines promoted Callan to sergeant in May 1986, and assigned him to Twenty-Nine Palms, California. By now separated from Thelma, he took temporary custody of his two small children. His brother Peter helped him care for the kids for months during that time.

"It wasn't an easy time for Brian. I don't think any time as an adult was that easy time for him now that I think of it," says Peter Callan, who lives in Miami Beach, Florida. "He was pushing forward in the military, and was a lot more rigid in those days than he was in the last few years. But he loved those kids with everything he had in him."

Callan won another promotion in September 1989, this time to staff sergeant. But his personal life continued to be turbulent, and his divorce from Thelma was final in 1990.

Soon after that, Callan decided to resign from the Corps.

"Brian loved the Marines with all his heart, but he wanted to be near his two kids before they got too screwed up," says his brother Sean. "He always felt bad that he hadn't been able to be around them much when they were growing up."

But Thelma Callan appealed to a Navajo court to regain custody of her children and won her case. Her ex-husband would be allowed visitation with the kids, but that was all.

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