VIRGINIA BEACH – Three days before his 33rd birthday, Danny Quinlan received terrifying news: Doctors found he had a brain tumor and an aneurysm. It was benign. But he needed surgery to have them removed.
“Happy Birthday, right?” said Quinlan, now 42. “I remember telling my daughters right before surgery: Know that I love you. But when I wake up I may not know who you are.”
When doctors placed limits on his physical activities – it took a toll on him. Running was out. Horseback riding was out. “It was a lifestyle change,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself that yes, I could handle this.”
Thirteen months after his surgery, Quinlan met Patsy Dietz, the widow of Navy SEAL Danny Dietz, who was killed in a 2005 combat 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 strength. That was the start 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.
Quinlan remembers the way she spoke about her husband and his bravery - his story made famous by the movie and book, “Lone Survivor.” It gave him goosebumps.
At 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.
She spoke 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 kids and growing old together. But with one knock on the door her world fell apart, she said.
“She was so passionate when she spoke about Danny and her love for our country. Something resonated inside of me. It hit me in such a manner,” Quinlan said. “Look at all these people who died so we can enjoy our freedoms. I was that guy. I took my freedom for granted.”
In 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 fallen.
“If there is one holiday everyone should respect it is Memorial Day. It shouldn’t be about barbeques and pool parties,” he said. “It’s about the men and women who died for our freedom. People forget that.”
What began as a team roping event has grown in both size and popularity. Today, the Danny Dietz Memorial Classic is sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association with the world’s top cowboys competing in bareback riding and bull riding throughout the weekend.
“It’s more than just an event or a fundraiser,” Quinlan said. “This is our way of saying thank you to all of those men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms.”
Tickets are $10 with all proceeds benefiting the Navy SEAL Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing ongoing support to the Naval Special Warfare community, active-duty military and their families.
According to Alison Messick, director of programs with the Navy SEAL Foundation, about $62,800 was donated in proceeds from the Danny Dietz Memorial Classic last year.
“It’s an honor to watch this grow year after year. It’s Patsy’s way of giving back to those who come behind,” Messick said. “She is passionate and genuine. It’s that authenticity that truly expresses who we are.”
Dietz knows military life well. Her father was a Navy SEAL. She joined the Navy when she was 18 and married Dietz at 21. She became a widow at 24.
“When your life is taken from you without warning, you start thinking 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 you get when you see the men in uniform at your door.”
But she was resilient. Throughout the years, she leaned on her friends, a group of military spouses, many of whom are also widows and with their help she eventually bounced back, she said.
Three years after becoming a widow, Dietz met another Navy SEAL. The year they met he accompanied her on her yearly trip to Colorado to visit her late husband’s grave at Fort Logan National Cemetery. While there, the man, who she did not name because of security reasons, asked for a moment alone at her late husband’s grave. A month later, he proposed.
“He told me 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.
Every year, she is humbled by the amount of support she continues to receive from strangers across the country.
To them, Navy SEALs are celebrities. To Dietz, they are average Americans with extraordinary jobs. They are dads who coach little league. They get nervous on first dates. They are husbands who mow the lawns and take out the trash. They take their daughters to school dances.
“It’s not about the job they have. It’s about the kind of men they are,” said Dietz. “The guys don’t flaunt what they do. That’s how we carry ourselves. We have real families with real kids. 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 them personally for skipping the backyard barbecues to instead honor a fallen American.
“So many don’t realize how much 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 these people, who don’t know me, come out to pay their respects, it gives me hope that their love for military and patriotism is still there.”