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Army veteran reveals lifelong ‘secret’ in obituary

RENSSELAER, N.Y. (WTEN) — U.S. Army veteran Edward Thomas Ryan died at the age of 85 on June 1 in Albany, New York. In his obituary, the retired colonel revealed a secret that he’d kept hidden for decades.

“I must tell you one more thing,” Ryan wrote. “I was Gay all my life: thru grade school, thru High School, thru College, thru Life. I was in a loving and caring relationship with Paul Cavagnaro of North Greenbush. He was the love of my life. We had 25 great years together. Paul died in 1994 from a medical Procedure gone wrong. I’ll be buried next to Paul.”

“I’m sorry for not having the courage to come out as Gay. I was afraid of being ostracized: by Family, Friends, and Co-Workers. Seeing how people like me were treated, I just could not do it. Now that my secret is known, I’ll forever Rest in Peace,” he continued.

Ryan served in Vietnam at a time when being gay in the military was grounds for dishonorable discharge and a forfeit of the right to receive most veterans’ benefits. It wasn’t until 1994, the same year that Ryan’s longtime partner Paul died, that the U.S. adopted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

In 2011, that policy was repealed, prohibiting discrimination against anyone for their sexual orientation in the armed forces. 

Thomas Tiernan served in the Rensselaer Fire Department with Ryan for over 10 years. Rensselaer is located just 2 miles away from Albany.

Tiernan said the colonel “would do anything for anybody.” He also said he was surprised by the note in Ryan’s obituary, but he insisted that it doesn’t change the way he thinks about his friend.

“People have a right to live the way they want to live,” Tiernan said. “I never judge people. Most of the people that I worked with at the firehouse wouldn’t judge either.”

The two maintained a friendship on Facebook through the years, and Tiernan said their mutual friends on the social media site were happy that Ryan got to share his final message.

“I think they’re all proud,” Tiernan said. “Just imagine what it was for him not to be able to say anything.”

When asked if he thought the brigade of firefighters who worked at the station all those years ago would have been okay with the news, Tiernan replied, “Everybody accepted Ed because he was Ed. I think it would have went okay.”

Thomas understands why Ryan kept his personal life private, hiding his secret in the military.

“It would have been mind boggling,” Thomas said.

Rensselaer Mayor Michael Stammel, who is married to Ryan’s niece, Cathy, reiterated sentiments about the colonel’s kind heart.

“He would do anything for his family. All you had to do was pick up the phone. If you needed Ed Thomas, Ed Thomas was there for you,” said Stammel.

Stammel said that, among family members, there hasn’t been much talk of the note.

“For me, it was not a surprise. You know, most of his nieces and nephew, that I know of anyway, sure had some sort of inkling or knew that. But again, what’s private is private, and that’s the way it should always be,” he explained.

“Did he ever come out and tell me or did I ever ask him? No. We had so much respect for Eddie Ryan that never would we broach such a discussion,” he added. “I think that’s the way it should always be. Why should it be anybody else’s business unless they want to share it?”

Rensselaer City Fire Department Chief William Brooking had known Ryan and his family for most of his life. He emphasized the importance of acceptance.

“I’m not sure of the exact community from which he felt unsafe,” Brooking said. “I know our firefighters that are here today, when we show up, we’re here to help you. Whatever your situation is, we’re here to mitigate it and be on our way. We’re not here to judge or characterize anybody for who they are and what they do.”

Brooking also remembered Thomas as a dapper guy.

“Whether it be 2 in the morning or afternoon, his hair was never out of place,” he said.

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