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Wartime losses hit hard in tightknit Fall River

Army Specialist Ethan Goncalo died Saturday in Kabul, Afghanistan. Army Specialist Ethan Goncalo died Saturday in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Mass. National Guard via AP)
By David Abel and John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / December 14, 2010

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FALL RIVER — A week before Army Specialist Ethan Goncalo was scheduled to speak at BMC Durfee High School, where he had been an A student known for his fastball, the 21-year-old died in Afghanistan.

He became the school’s third graduate to die in uniform this year and the fourth service member from Fall River.

In Massachusetts, only Boston, with six times the population of Fall River, has lost more of its own in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths.

“As a community, it’s tough . . . very tough,’’ principal Paul Marshall said yesterday.

Marshall said the succession of deaths has made him wonder whether it was wise for adminis trators to steer students into the military.

“In time of peace, it’s a great opportunity,’’ he said. “Kids can get their education paid for, but they are literally putting their life on the line.’’

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Fall River has lost five service members, and Boston has lost seven.

Goncalo, who was assigned to the First Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment in Worcester, died Saturday in Kabul of injuries sustained in a noncombat-related incident, military officials said.

In addition to Goncalo, Fall River has lost Army Private Michael E. Bouthot, a 19-year-old who died in Iraq in 2006; Army Sergeant Robert Barrett, a 21-year-old who died in Afghanistan in April; Army Specialist Scott Andrews, also 21, who was killed in June in Afghanistan; and Marine Corporal Paul Fagundes, 29, who died July 4 while trying to rescue fellow Marines drowning in a rip current off Guantanamo Bay. Barrett and Fagundes were also Durfee graduates.

“It seems surreal that we would lose this many heroes,’’ said Manuel DaPonte, director of veterans services in Fall River, which has about 90,000 residents.

“It’s really hard to believe. It doesn’t seem real or fair for so many people to die from a city our size.’’

Mayor Will Flanagan said it was hard for him to imagine attending his fourth military funeral this year, his first term in office.

“It has had a toll on me,’’ he said. “This is a time for me to reflect and to be there for the families and the city, to honor any requests they have.’’

He said the city has paid tribute to the fallen in parades and through benefits. In addition, he said the city plans to rename the reconstructed Brightman Street Bridge the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge when it is rededicated in the spring.

“Fall River is a hard-working community, a patriotic community, and our young men see the military as a way to serve,’’ said Flanagan. “It provides them stability in their lives and gives them an opportunity to further their education and to earn an income.’’

He added: “We are deeply saddened by the loss, but these young men paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and democracy. Their losses are not in vain, and their memories will not be forgotten.’’

At Durfee yesterday, friends, coaches, and administrators described Goncalo as a talented baseball player, a driven student, and a good friend. He had agreed to address his school during his upcoming leave.

Marshall said each of the young men who attended the 2,200-student school was the kind of person you would want beside you in a foxhole.

“They were stand-up kids,’’ he said. “The common thing is that they made their commitment with their eyes wide open.’’

He said Goncalo, who graduated from Durfee in 2008 after transferring there a year earlier from Bishop Connolly High School, fit in immediately. “It felt like he was here for four [years],’’ Marshall said. “He was that kind of kid.’’

Brad Bustin, the varsity baseball coach at Durfee, described Goncalo as “dedicated, well-rounded, and a hard worker.’’ Goncalo was a utility player who caught and pitched, with an arm strong enough to play outfield and a glove good enough to play first base.

“He was a nice, nice kid, easy to get along with and liked by all the other kids,’’ Bustin said. “He was just a happy person, a happy kid, always smiling.’’

The school put a large piece of paper in the school cafeteria with several boxes of magic markers. Students described Goncalo as a “good man’’ and a “big brother.’’

“You were a great teammate, friend, and an overall good man,’’ wrote one student, Nathan Farias. “Thank you for all you helped me with.’’

Danielle Santos, another student, also thanked the fallen soldier.

“You were the nicest guy and a great athlete,’’ she wrote. “You will be missed.’’

Goncalo’s relatives could not be reached yesterday and were apparently heading to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where his body was to be brought sometime today or tomorrow, city officials said. The military did not release details about his death.

On Goncalo’s Facebook page, friends sang his praises.

Bryanna Rego, who attended Bishop Connolly High School with Goncalo, recalled how he loved to goof around.

“Ethan was an amazing person,’’ she wrote. “. . . He made an impact on so many people’s lives, and his face will be engraved in not only mine, but in the hearts of everyone who knew him.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com., John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.