Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, killed in Niger earlier this month, is remembered by his family as a relentless student who hated losing.
When she thinks of her son, the man, Karen Black can’t help remembering the boy: the boy who grew up in Puyallup, the boy who teased his older brother, the boy who hated losing, the boy who taught himself chess, languages and anatomy.
“He’s always had this driven, kind of a risk-taker kind of personality,” she said Monday, slipping into present tense. “And he needs a challenge. Always needed a challenge.”
Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, died after an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger, along with three fellow Special Forces soldiers: Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39; Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29; and Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25.
Karen Black is keenly aware of the media storm surrounding President Donald Trump’s phone call to the widow of La David Johnson. Her family prefers not to discuss it, or anything related to communication with the president.
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“We want to stay above the fray, she said. “It’s about the four and the two.”
By “the four,” she meant her son and the three slain soldiers. “The two” refers to two soldiers wounded in the attack.
Black returned to Puyallup this week, after a memorial service for her son in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She’s barely had time to go through the old photos and scrapbooks.
In one of them, Bryan is a sixth-grader, smiling as he sits at a chessboard. The image is cut into a star. It marks a moment his mother recalls as defining.
Bryan learned chess in the fourth grade. He was following in his older brother Jason’s footsteps. Jason had entered a tournament and won a trophy. Bryan tried the same thing and didn’t win a trophy.
His reaction: “absolute, total irritation and annoyance,” his mother said.
That summer, Bryan bought a magnetic chess board and two books, and studied obsessively. He and his brother became regulars at the Tacoma Chess Club. Children weren’t common there, but the gray, grizzled, chain-smoking men who played agreed among themselves to open the doors and set up a fan whenever the Black boys came to play.
A year later, Bryan was dominating the state in his grade level. In 1994, he reached the national finals for his age group and came in second. He learned at the feet of the best, including grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, then a Seattle resident and one of the world’s best players.
Black believes that early experience fed her son’s later achievements. He learned how to learn, and learned that success would follow.
“(Bryan) taught himself to study because he was so darn annoyed, and he blew it out of the water, he dominated,” she recalled.
He took up wrestling in junior high and posed for a photo in his wrestling singlet while staring at a chessboard, mimicking Rodin’s The Thinker. He played the bassoon at school, choosing it because it was a strange-looking instrument and difficult to play.
Always a good student, Bryan graduated from Puyallup High School and completed an associate degree at the same time. He finished college at Central Washington University at the age of 20, with a degree in business.
Though his father, Hank Black, is a retired Marine, Bryan didn’t opt for military service at first. He moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, where he taught skiing, worked construction jobs in the offseason, and met his wife, Michelle.
Later, they moved to Fayetteville, where they raised two sons: Ezekiel, 11, and Isaac, 9.
Apart from that, Bryan became a canny stock trader — another skill he picked up by study, and by trading chess lessons with an expert. But he wasn’t satisfied.
“He needed to do kind of a career reset,” his mother said. “He decided that the military was a place to do that.”
Bryan opted for the Army, wanting the physicality and the trenches, she said. He became a Green Beret and a Special Forces medic.
Black has been thinking about that lately, remembering another story from junior-high days. Bryan came home with a dead bird. He assured his mother it was dead when he found it.
Curious about its anatomy, he had snipped off a leg.
“Look at this,” he told his mother, and pulled the tendons. The leg moved.
Black pegs the moment as the beginning of her son’s interest in medicine. In Niger, he relied on his now-standard methods of relentless study.
Bryan’s team responded to a motorcycle accident, she recalled. A civilian had hurt his leg but had no money to go to the hospital. Bryan looked the man over and set up a surgical tent.
He recently described the experience to his mother. He said he’d gone over the procedure in training, but he had to look up the stitch method in a book because it was a bit tricky.
“The tendon was torn and he actually repaired the tendon,” Black said. “I think back to that little seventh-grader who was playing with the bird’s foot and studying it.”
At last week’s memorial service, Hank Black spoke of his son’s ceaseless drive.
“Some people could, would, should,” he said. “Other people do. Bryan did.”
It’s a gloomy fact that deployed soldiers must plan for the worst. That includes picking music for possible memorial services. Bryan picked “Finnegan’s Wake,” by the Irish Rovers, a bustling tune, and one last loving joke for his family. The Blacks don’t have a drop of Irish blood.
“He wanted an Irish wake song,” his mother said. “He thought it was absolutely hilarious.”