As a parent of a child serving in the military, Beth Cieless was acutely aware of what was happening in Iraq in 2005. She knew the situation was so grave that her son, Marine 1st Lt. Brian Stann, might never come home.
For seven months, she had to catch her breath every time the phone rang. She understood every call brought the potential for the worst possible news.
But she also wanted that phone to ring to hear him tell her he was safe.
"Every day you don't hear from him is torture," Cieless said.
The calls weren't coming. Occasionally she received an email, and she knew Stann was safe for the time being. But she longed to hear her son's voice, for him to assure her that he was all right.
She watched reports of Operation Matador on the television news and knew her son was involved. Nine Marines and more than 125 insurgents died in fighting in Karabilah, Iraq, along the Syrian border.
What Cieless didn't know then was how intimately connected her son was.
"He did email once and said I might hear some things and that it was rough and that he might receive some sort of an award," Cieless said.
Beth Cieless long had been convinced her son was destined for greatness. She remembered him as a leader from the time he was a boy.
He was in charge in high school. He was in charge as a member of the football team at the U.S. Naval Academy.
"He had tremendous character, tenacity, toughness and leadership skills," said Navy coach Paul Johnson, who led Stann his senior year. "He was the type of guy who had the respect of every guy on the team. They understood the type of effort he put into the thing."
Cieless heard reports of intense fighting during Operation Matador and tried not to let herself imagine the worst.
But when she learned two Marines had risked their lives to save others, she was convinced her son was involved.
"If there was someone injured in a tank and needed to be pulled out and saved, I knew Brian would dive in there and do it," she said. "That's the type of kid he's always been."
She was right.
Stann, 26, was the 2nd Mobile Assault Platoon leader with Weapons Company in May 2005 when his unit came under heavy assault while trying to seize a bridge in Karabilah.
The military referred to it as a "360-degree fight" and reported that Stann's unit faced more than 30 rocket-propelled grenade attacks, multiple machine guns firing and detonating improvised explosive devices.
An IED had hit one of Stann's tanks, trapping four Marines. Stann and Sgt. Luke Miller went into the tank to pull out the men and rush them through heavy enemy fire to safety.
For his actions, Stann received a Silver Star, the third-highest medal given by the military, for extraordinary heroism.
In presenting Stann with his award, Maj. Gen. Richard Huck said, "He has great strength of character and endurance, which was shown when everything happened over a week and he kept on going. It doesn't even capture all that happened."
Stann, who is now stationed in Camp Lejeune, N.C., said his experience in the Marine Corps has made it easier for him to become a professional mixed martial arts fighter.
He's 3-0 and will face his toughest test Sunday at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas when he meets former pro wrestler Craig Zellner in a three-round light heavyweight bout on a WEC card.
Stann said he became interested in mixed martial arts while he was training to become an infantry officer at Quantico, Va.
When he was in his first deployment in Iraq, from February 2005 to September 2005 (he served another seven-month deployment in 2006), he began to email MMA promoters hoping to be allowed to fight.
He eventually got in touch with WEC matchmaker Scott Adams after he had had one pro fight. Adams took a look at the results of that fight and knew he had to get in touch with Stann.
"The thing that intrigued me was that he had beaten Aaron Stark, who was a Division I wrestler," Adams said. "He was a tough customer from a good camp, and so I knew if you beat Aaron Stark, you have to be pretty good."
Adams signed Stann to a WEC contract and he reeled off two more wins, setting up Sunday's fight against Zellner. And though Adams raves about Zellner's talent – "He's a former amateur boxer and he's extremely athletic," – Stann isn't concerned.
"In MMA, nobody is going to be shooting at you or throwing grenades at you," Stann said.
Stann, who is a striker, was a star quarterback in high school in Scranton, Pa. He went to Navy and began as a quarterback but frequently was asked to change positions. He eventually settled at linebacker.
His mother said it was difficult for Stann when the coaches wanted him to change positions.
She spoke with him about transferring. Army was interested in him as a quarterback. So, too, she said, was Yale.
Cieless had long talks about the pros and cons but said he never wavered.
"He would just say he's not a quitter and he knew there had to be life after football and that maybe this was a way of preparing him for that," she said.
Stann said he believes he could have played quarterback elsewhere, but he never seriously considered it.
"If I'd played in a more traditional offense, quarterback was my true position and maybe I would have had a better career," he said. "But I wouldn't trade that for the opportunity that was given to me, to lead Marines into combat."
Stann said he wants to participate in programs to aid injured Marines and said he'll dedicate the fight Sunday to Travis Manion, a friend who died in fighting in Iraq.
He vowed never to tap and said he'd have to be knocked cold to be forced to quit.
Johnson, who said he never saw Stann give less than his best, predicted Zellner will have his hands full.
"Brian's a tough, tough kid, and he's hard to stop once he has his mind made up," Johnson said. "He's totally fearless. I'll tell you this: I wouldn't want to fight him."
- Brian Stann