Ethan Barclay-Weberpal was home in Janesville over Christmas, on leave from the Marines.
He saw a homeless man on a bitter cold night, stopped, took him to McDonald’s, talked and gave him money.
“That’s who he was. His faith wasn’t just lip service. He lived it,” said his father, Scott Weberpal.
A few weeks later, Ethan, 18, was dead in an incident at Camp Pendleton, California, that his parents struggle to understand.
Scott and Ethan’s mother, Casey Barclay, talked about their son in an interview with a Gazette reporter Thursday night.
They take comfort in the hundreds of messages they have received, many from strangers across the country and the world, many of them in the military.
Scott said his Wednesday Facebook post describing his loss has been shared nearly 12,000 times, and he has received at least 2,000 messages of condolence.
“It’s all been positive. I’ve had Gold Star families reach out, (saying) ‘We know what you’re going through,’” he said. “It’s like the military is one giant family.”
Messages also came from Marines who knew the private first class, “saying what a great guy he was, sharing pictures, offering to help in any way they can while they are hurting themselves,” Casey said.
One of those Marines described Ethan as an “amazing” young man who brought a smile to everyone who knew him, and one of the few who continued to go to church.
The Marine said the pastor once invited anyone who knew the songs to lead them, and Ethan knew all the words.
“He led a lot of people to God,” Casey said.
“Those are messages that make you say, ...” Scott said, hesitating.
“They make you ask why,” Casey said, finishing the thought.
Scott said messages make him smile or cry, but they are a comfort to read when he is alone, keeping his mind from wandering into what-ifs.
“He was really coming into his own as a person. It’s tough. He had so much ahead of him,” Scott said.
Over and over, those who knew him said he never swore or spoke poorly of anyone, even when those around him were, Casey said, “which makes it so hard to understand how and why this happened, because he was such a good person.”
He didn’t party or sneak off to Mexico with others, Scott said.
“He didn’t have to break the rules to have fun,” his mother added.
“I just need everybody to know what a good-hearted kid he was, and how he cared for other people,” Casey said.
His parents described Ethan as a happy kid who loved to have fun, fish and play pranks on people and was determined to do what he set his mind to.
With a summer birthday, they had to decide when he would enter school. They decided he would go early. He played basketball, football and baseball.
“He was never the biggest or strongest kid, but he was always determined to get better and stronger and never gave up because of it,” Scott said.
Ethan was in show choir at Edison Middle School, where his teacher, Sharon Schrank, said he was like a ray of sunshine.
“He helped others. He had a great sense of humor that brought a smile to many! He ate lunch in the choir room with several other kids, some in show choir, and made everyone feel welcome,” Schrank recalled in a message to The Gazette.
Ethan entered Marine boot camp at Parris Island last July. He graduated in October before being sent to Camp Pendleton for infantry training.
He planned to serve out his four-year contract and then go to college with the idea of becoming a youth minister, his parents said.
He was close to the youth pastor and members of the youth group in his nondenominational church in Almont, Michigan.
Two weeks before he shipped out, he preached at church, saying he was called by God to join the Marines, Casey said.
The Marines “is not a place where people who are God-driven are called to frequently, but he felt he was called to be there,” she said.
Ethan is also survived by three half-brothers and one half-sister, ages 8 to 16, with whom he was raised.
Funeral services will be in Janesville. Details likely will be announced soon, his parents said.