"He was our first fatality. As an Army family we've been very fortunate. You pay your dues . . ."

Sherry Ritz is a trim woman with clear eyes, short gray hair and great self-command. She is talking about her son, killed in action on Grenada.

He was Capt. Michael Francis Ritz, Army Ranger, paratrooper, company commander with the 82nd Airborne. About as elite as you could get. He was one of 18 U.S. servicemen killed in the controversial invasion of the tiny Caribbean island a year ago today. (A 19th serviceman died of wounds last June.)

"He would be 29 now," Sherry Ritz says. "He would have been married two years next June. He never saw the baby. Martha was six months pregnant when he died."

After the first shock of learning that their youngest son was dead, Sherry Ritz and her husband, Robert E. Ritz, a retired colonel, were amazed to discover that they were hungry for details. They wanted to know everything.

"Michael was airlifted in. He was in the first plane that landed, just behind the group that chuted in," says the father, doing his best to keep the pride out of his voice.

At 10 o'clock on the morning of Oct. 25, 1983, the first wave, a Ranger battalion, was parachuted onto the new airfield at Point Salines. The second battalion landed shortly after in transport planes.

"About 4:30 the next morning some Rangers were being withdrawn from a hill near the airfield at a village called Celeste, and his company was to replace them. He was going on a reconnaissance up the hill with a couple others when he passed two unmanned gun emplacements. He turned, probably to say something. They said he seemed to be laughing, but it was probably a gasp. A pistol got him in the head."

Staff Sgt. Gary L. Epps was fatally wounded in the same ambush. The others, a platoon leader and a radio operator, ran back to get help. They returned and drove off the ambushers.

"He was hit in the right eye, the head, the chest. Five bullets. A doctor who knew him happened to be the first person to see him when he was brought off the hill. The doctor said he never knew what hit him," Ritz says evenly. "When the people came back to get him, they found he'd been moved, propped against a tree. They were going to booby-trap the body -- it was all wired up but no explosives attached yet."

He snorts. "Cubans. Construction workers! Yeah . . ."

Ritz has seen death. An enlisted man in World War II, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, went to Korea and later Vietnam as an officer, retiring as chief of staff at Fort Lee, Va., after 33 years, 10 months and 22 days in the Army.

"Had to write a lot of letters to next of kin," he says. "It's always painful, but when you're in combat you know what to expect. Mike's grandfather was in Burma with Wingate's Raiders. His uncle went to Vietnam twice."

His hands go palm up, an offering gesture.

Michael's oldest brother, William, wrote an article for The Denver Post:

When he was growing up, we called him Mikey. He was much like any other little boy -- playing cowboys, climbing trees, riding sleds, throwing footballs and gradually warming to the idea that girls weren't so bad after all. He was a superbly gifted athlete and earned all-conference honors in football and soccer . . ."

William, 34, served in the Army, too, as a captain. The former newsman now works for Phillips Petroleum. The other brother, Robert, 31, is a nurse at Madigan Army hospital. The youngest is a daughter, Susan Kontevich of Williamsburg, Va. There are seven grandchildren.

Michael was born in Germany, went to school in Virginia, Kansas, Michigan, graduated from high school in Mannheim, Germany, went straight to The Citadel, the southern military academy, and from there to Fort Benning for his basic officers' course and Ranger school.

On his first assignment, to Alaska, he dated the sister of his commanding officer's wife, a Carolina girl named Martha Goodall. He called her Marty.

"Michael loved the life," his father muses, "since he was a boy and had a GI Joe. He was in the sea scouts and sea cadets, did the Outward Bound program in Germany. He was doing what he believed in, what he was trained to do. It makes it easier if your child dies in a cause. The same week he died, two kids were killed in a drag race here."

An altar boy as a youngster, Michael believed in a God and went to mass regularly, but his religion was his private business, and he didn't wear it on his sleeve . . . He was called on to do a job and he did it as best he could . . .

Three days after Michael was killed, President Reagan sent the family a letter. Scores of students at the Grenada medical school -- whose presence on the island was part of the reason for invading it -- wrote. When the funeral was held at Fort Bragg, friends came from as far away as Hawaii. Phone calls came from as far away as Saudi Arabia.

"We hadn't realized how many lives he'd touched," his mother says. "A sixth grade in Colorado sent some jokes to cheer us up. Friends we hadn't heard from in 25 years called. A man who had just lost his daughter in a car crash. And not one crank call. We weren't harassed as some were during Vietnam."

Next Monday Martha Ritz will fly to Grenada for the dedication of a memorial to her husband.

"I think she needs to," Sherry Ritz says. "It's part of the grief cycle. He left on a Monday night to go on the alert. As he'd done before. Never really said goodbye . . ."

She and her husband will baby-sit their grandson, Michael Francis Jr. It's their pleasure, she says.

There is a reason for this happening, she says. A purpose.

The two of them, smiling a cordial farewell, stand on the porch of their comfortable house overlooking the rolling ground of a small park, covered with leaves now, the young maples nearly bare. Overhead in the tall oaks, starlings chatter and bustle. The air is smoky with autumn.