‘I don’t think you ever get over it’
Grief still fresh for many Bay State military families this Memorial Day
Kyle Van De Giesen — the quarterback who led North Attleborough to a state Super Bowl Championship in 1997, a St. Anselm College graduate who fulfilled his dream of becoming a Marine pilot — was about to leave Afghanistan after his third deployment, returning home for the birth of his second child.
He was on his final mission last fall when his AH-1 Cobra collided with another Marine helicopter over Helmand Province just before sunrise Oct. 26. His son, Colin, was born four days after he was buried.
“He was so close,’’ said his mother, Ruth Ann Van De Giesen. “It was just a matter of hours that he would have been done.’’
In the past year, eight Massachusetts service members have been killed in Afghanistan, where the toll has climbed in recent years even as deaths in the Iraq war abate. For many of their families, only the support of relatives, neighbors, and communities has made it possible for them to confront their loss on this Memorial Day.
Today, the Van De Giesen family’s first Memorial Day without Kyle, his mother will be presented with the official report of the fatal crash. She spent the weekend with friends and family remembering his legacy. On Friday, nearly 500 guests joined a fund-raiser for scholarships in Van De Giesen’s name for two North Attleborough gradu ates who demonstrate the Marine Corps values of honor, courage, and commitment.
Organizing the event was a welcome distraction for his friends and family.
“It gives us a goal and it does keep us focused and it does use our energy,’’ said his mother.
For some families, the grief is still so fresh, it’s difficult to place their loss in the context of Memorial Day. Paul Barrett can hardly fathom that his boy, who was not quite 21, will now be one of those remembered on the national holiday. Army National Guard Sergeant Robert J. Barrett was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in April.
“I just can’t put my hands around the idea of him being immortalized, I guess, with MacArthur, Patton, all the previous heroes,’’ he said. “At 20, it’s a bit hard to swallow, especially when he worked so hard to get where he was at. Since he was 8 years old this is where he wanted to be.’’
Paul Barrett and his wife, Carlene, were asked to be honorary marshals of today’s Memorial Day Parade in Fall River. They are anticipating it with honor, but also a fair bit of dread. “I don’t know how it’s going to be,’’ said Carlene Barrett. “Am I looking forward to it? No, I’m not.’’
Barrett’s parents had thought he was out of harm’s reach on the day he was killed. He was temporarily on desk duty while awaiting a hernia operation; he’d kept it from his father because he didn’t want to worry him, but Carlene had just filled him in.
“And three hours later, they were knocking on the door,’’ said Carlene Barrett. “You know as soon as you see them. I told him, get out. I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.’’
Far more Massachusetts natives have died while serving in Iraq — 90 since the invasion there since 2003 — than in Afghanistan, where the Bay State’s death toll is 27 since the war began in late 2001. But deaths in Iraq have declined since 2007, and there has not been a Massachusetts fatality in Iraq since Sept. 3, 2009, when Specialist Jordan Shay, 22, of Amesbury, died in a vehicle crash near Baquba. Meanwhile, the Afghan war is claiming more lives.
For some families, this Memorial Day comes before the actual memorials for their loved ones have even ended. Marine Sergeant Joshua D. Desforges — the most recent Massachusetts casualty — was killed in Afghanistan on May 12. His father, David Desforges, just received his ashes on Tuesday.
“It’s the rottenest thing I’ve ever been through in my life,’’ he said.
If there is small comfort to be found for a father who held his son’s wake on the day that would have marked his 24th birthday, it is this: “He lived life every single day to the fullest,’’ he recalled.
The Desforges family has a video — which David Desforges can’t yet bear to review — that shows his son getting ready to jump out of a plane. Joshua Desforges and a friend had driven past a billboard for skydiving and spontaneously decided it was time to try it.
“I’m going to take a lesson from my son, because there’s been a lot of sitting around wasting time,’’ David Desforges said. “The TV in my house hasn’t gone on in two weeks. I have other, more important things to do.’’
Some don’t know how they will face the day today. They are always remembering the ones they lost. “To some degree, it’s just another day,’’ said David Tellier, father of Zachary Tellier, who died in 2007. “Because when something like this happens you think about it all the time.’’
“I don’t think you ever get over it,’’ said Carlene Barrett. “I just deal with it day to day and hope tomorrow’s going to be a better day. But it seems to me it’s getting worse instead of better.’’
In the meantime, they seek comfort in family and friends — particularly the children, like Barrett’s 2-year-old daughter, Sophie. Van De Giesen’s widow, Megan, brought his son, now 6 months old, and 2-year-old daughter, Avery, back to Massachusetts, where they are now near both extended families.
“They’re loved, they’re adored, and they give us a reason to celebrate,’’ said Ruth Ann Van De Giesen.
“Hard to say whether things get easier. You just get through them,’’ she added. “We’re very grateful that we have the little ones and everybody’s well.’’
The warm embrace of their communities has helped. Each family was awestruck by the support offered from their neighbors, whether they were friends or strangers. “People brought us food. People brought us drink. We even had a lady walk in the door with a big, giant package of toilet paper,’’ said David Desforges. “This is the length people thought to go to for us.’’
Joshua Desforges’s funeral procession brought hundreds to line the streets of Ludlow — his hometown of about 22,000 near Springfield — which hadn’t seen a war casualty since Vietnam. People Joshua didn’t know waited for two hours to thank his family for his service, said David Desforges. The Westford Air Force base went quiet during the services. When dozens of Marines came to Ludlow for the funeral, a local hotel donated rooms to them and a Ludlow restaurant offered them prime rib dinners.
“One Marine said, ‘I always knew there were a lot of patriots in the United States. I just never knew they all lived in Ludlow,’ ’’ Desforges said.
Still, Carlene Barrett is amazed by the way life goes on, even on Memorial Day. How the nation does not screech to a halt, as it once did, to remember the fallen. She knows someone who has a dental appointment today.
“Imagine, she’s going to the dentist on Memorial Day. They’re not even closed?’’ she said. “When I grew up, if the bank and the post office closed, so did everything else. You sat with your family and had a cookout.’’
Sarah Schweitzer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org