Even as a kid, Ian Frank Tortorici rejected the limelight.

His father, Jon Frank, liked to express his pride in him by posting photos and videos of him on social media.

But the boy would insist, “Don’t put me on Facebook.”

When Frank uploaded a video of his son’s wrestling highlights to YouTube — “he had a move, a cradle, he just mastered that move,” Frank recalled — Tortorici wrote in the comments, “To whom it may concern, I do not condone this video.”

So Frank knows that when his son volunteered to fight in Ukraine, it wasn’t because he wanted attention. And he knows that his son, who was killed June 27 at age 32 in what Frank said was a missile strike in Kramatorsk, wouldn’t have wanted people to make a fuss over his death.

But Frank said he feels he has to get his son’s story out.

“I just have to, because he’s not here and he can’t stop me,” he said in an interview with Marine Corps Times on Friday. “I have to tell the world who he is.”

The father said, “I didn’t know who he was.”

One of five children, Tortorici “was always a guardian,” his younger brother, Taylor Frank, wrote in a Facebook statement July 3. Taylor Frank, who often was in the hospital as a kid, remembered his brother reading to him or distracting him with funny faces so he wouldn’t notice the needles.

Tortorici developed an interest in the military at age 14, when he decided to do Devil Pups, a program that gives youth a taste of life in the Marine Corps. He loved it, Jon Frank said.

As a teen, Tortorici considered the Navy Reserve as a way to pay for college but spoke to a Marine recruiter with prompting from his dad, a Marine veteran. That was it: He became a Marine reservist.

The young man grew up with the last name Frank and served in the Marine Corps under that name but adopted Tortorici, his great-grandfather’s name, as an adult.

He changed his name the way he did everything else in life, according to his father. He announced once, with little fanfare, that he would do it, and then he did it.

Tortorici served in the Reserve as a data systems technician beginning in 2009 and left as a corporal, according to Marine spokeswoman Yvonne Carlock. His Reserve end of current contract was listed in the Marine Corps’ databases as 2016, according to Carlock, though Jon Frank said his time in the Reserve ended the year prior.

He was activated for 10 months at Miramar, California, where he was part of Marine Wing Support Squadron 473, though he never got sent on his expected deployment to Bahrain, Jon Frank said.

Tortorici didn’t fit in with the “bravado” of the Corps, and he didn’t like to tell people he was a Marine, his father said.

After graduating from Seattle Pacific University, the young man tried out teaching and tech but decided to become a law enforcement officer for the National Park Service and later for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In his time off, Tortorici would strap on a backpack and explore Europe — especially Eastern Europe, according to Frank.

It was there that Tortorici met a young Ukrainian woman, who would become his girlfriend, Frank later learned.

When Russia’s war in Ukraine began in February 2022, Tortorici’s girlfriend urged him to provide humanitarian aid rather than volunteer on the front lines, as she later recounted to Frank.

But Tortorici signed up with the Ukrainian International Legion, a group of foreign citizens fighting for Ukraine.

Characteristically, he kept that decision to himself, until March 2022, when Tortorici told Frank via an out-of-the-blue secure message that he had gone to volunteer in Ukraine.

‘I’ll come home when it’s over’

Throughout the next 15 months, Tortorici would fight in seminal battles across Ukraine, according to Frank.

Sometimes, he shared details; other times, he went silent for weekslong stretches during which his father feared the worst.

Frank noticed from the messages that his son had changed, had become bolder. Prouder.

In photos, his kit always looked spiffy, and it was clear to Frank that Tortorici took immense pride in every part of his uniform. That was unusual for Tortorici, who once had bought the cheapest car he could find in the Sunday newspaper, with vinyl seats and roll-up windows, Frank said.

When his father asked him to come home, Tortorici invariably responded, “I’ll come home when it’s over.”

In late June, Tortorici had some time off from fighting on the front lines. He told Frank he was heading to Kramtorsk, Ukraine.

When Frank saw news on Telegram of a Russian missile strike hitting a restaurant in that city, he worried. His son rarely splurged, but when he did it was on things that made him laugh and on food.

Frank messaged Tortorici but got no response.

A few days later came the call from the State Department.

With his death, Tortorici became at least the fifth U.S. Marine veteran to be killed volunteering in Ukraine.

The other Marine vets known to have died in the war in Ukraine are former Sgt. Cooper “Harris” Andrews, 26, killed in April; former Cpl. Pete Reed, 33, killed in February; and retired Capt. Grady Kurpasi, 50, and Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, each killed in April 2022.

The State Department has discouraged Americans from volunteering in Ukraine, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has welcomed foreign volunteers.

After Tortorici’s death, his grieving father heard more about his son’s last year and a quarter from those who fought alongside him.

His comrades said Tortorici showed no fear and always insisted on being the first to hit the trenches, according to Frank.

They said he thrice had an instinct to move positions, saving himself and others from artillery fire each time. They said he would push back with officers if he believed something wasn’t right, and the officers would listen because they respected his battlefield experience.

“I’m learning so many things about him,” Frank said. “I just don’t understand how that’s my son. It’s not my son who they’re talking about. He’s not a warrior. And to them, that’s all he is. Somebody who was born to do this.”

Tortorici will never get to live out what his father said was his plan of marrying his girlfriend and raising a family with her on a farm in Eastern Europe.

But one consolation for Frank is that his son, in fighting for Ukraine with the men on his team, finally found a place he felt like he belonged.

“Everybody’s sharing pictures with me,” Frank said, “and I’ve never seen his face so happy in his whole life.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected July 13 to clarify the end date of Tortorici’s Marine Corps service and the type of car he bought.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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