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LOCKPORT, Ill. — The wedding was set. As Jim McNerney looked on, he saw his youngest daughter, Megan, in a beautiful white gown.

It was a moment McNerney had been waiting for — walking his youngest daughter down the aisle.

McNerney sat in a wheelchair, his eyes taking in the view of his family, in a place he loved. A baseball cap reading “Vietnam Veteran” placed firmly on his head.  It’s one of the many hats this U.S. Marine Veteran has worn over the years.

Indeed, a happy day at Big Run Wolf Ranch in Lockport, about 35 miles southwest of Chicago’s Loop. Megan picked the ranch because of its special meaning. For decades, her dad worked there as an educator. The ranch is a wildlife conservation sanctuary, recusing animals and giving them a home, when the only other alternative was euthanasia.

“Blown away, right Dad,” she asked.

“Blown away is right,” McNerney said. His voice not a strong as it once was. 

Years ago, McNerney’s health began to fail.

“After multiple exposures to agent orange, for the last 10 years he’s been fighting one terrible thing after another,” long-time friend John Basile said.

Basile is the president of Big Run Wolf Ranch. 

“The [Veterans’ Administration] been doing very well for him,” Basile said. “They’ve gotten him this far but he now has inoperable brain cancer and the VA said there’s nothing else we can do.”

Basile said his friend’s role in the U.S. Marines.  Corporal James McNerney, 1st Marines, 1st Battlion, served in Vietnam in the late 1960s, the height of the war.

The diagnosis lead Megan to move up her wedding and for the family to bring the motto “Never leave a Marine behind” into full effect.

Before the wedding ceremony, another ceremony was held, lead by active duty U.S. Marines.  This one was to honor the guest of honor, McNerney.

“Everything that he’s gone through in life, I think he’s completely deserving of the special dedication that he had today. Especially on this day,” Megan said.

The wedding is a final goal in this Marine’s life. With the help of those Marines, McNerney escorted his youngest daughter down the aisle, and danced with Megan during the reception.

Just eight days after the wedding, McNerney succumbed to cancer. He was 74.

The memories of that early autumn wedding though serve as a reminder. That even in sorrow, there is celebration in McNerney’s life, his service and his dedication to his family. His legacy is one that proves this Marine will never leave his family behind.