The following was originally published Memorial Day Weekend, 2014.
Five years ago Greg Saroyan wrote just an amazing article in USA Today. The title is stunning in its simplicity. He called it “For some people memorial day is every day.” Let me, if you will, read just a portion of that article. And then tell you about two friends who lost their lives in Iraq.
For grieving families the gathering place is section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery which has become a memorial to the sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 400 US troops killed in those countries are buried in section in 60, several hundred yards from Pres. John F. Kennedy’s grave.
… from a distance section 60 resembles much of Arlington cemetery where 300,000 are interred beneath but a closer look reveals greater splashes of color were families keep replenishing graveside flower arrangements
Mementoes, many from children or former comrades, are tucked next to headstones: construction-paper memorial cards in a child’s scrawl, medals and military insignia, teddy bears and stuffed Easter bunnies.
There is also a constant outpouring of grief, from those who shed quiet tears to the inconsolable. A father lies prostrate on his son’s grave; a mother sits in a thunderous downpour seemingly unaware her lawn chair is sinking into the softening earth.
“When you’re there, I feel like I’m totally focused on my own grief. And then each of the moms, they would just come up and kind of touch you on the shoulder. You turn around and they look into your eyes and tell you they’re sorry,” says Regina “Gina” Barnhurst.
One Christmas Eve, Leesa Philippon was among the first to pierce that veil of sorrow and gently pull Barnhurst into the club of grieving families.
“Gina was kneeling at her son’s site writing and had lit candles,” Philippon recalls. “I jumped out of the car, and I walked close to her, called her name and then immediately hugged her and introduced myself. She was so alone and in deep pain.”
I knew Leesa’s son, a Marine who is interned in Arlington. His name is Lcpl. Lawrence Philippon. A graduate of Conard High School, Larry chose the US Marines over college. His parents tell me 9-11 affected him greatly. For him it became a mission, even before he enlisted.
Larry was already an honored member of the United States Marines, a member of the color guard at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. Larry did not have to go to Iraq but like so many others he badgered the Marines until they let him go. Lisa Philippon remembers the day he left for Iraq. She said she did a flashback to the day she waved goodbye to him as he left for his first day in kindergarten.. Lisa and Ray were never to see their son again, killed in action while hunting AQ house to house in Iraq. Today he is buried in Arlington Cemetery. Today I mourn the death of a great American hero Lance Cpl. Lawrence Philippon.
360 miles north of Larry’s resting place is the grave site of another great American hero, Sgt. Felix Delgreco Junior. Felix grew up in Simsbury, played Little League (I know because I coached his team), went on to excel in high school and could probably have gone to any college he wanted. In Simsbury he was known as a brainiac. But, he too felt a calling that grew every day in his heart. Rejected by the Army for being, well a little too heavy, Felix trained night and day to get in shape so that the Army could never say no. When the Army finally accepted him, little did they know they were taking on a man would become one of their greatest soldiers.
He served with distinction in Bosnia and like Larry he too did not have to go to Iraq. But he volunteered and here’s why. In a letter he wrote just before his death to his parents, he told them he wasn’t sure if there were weapons of mass destruction … and didn’t care. What did matter were the children of Iraq. What mattered to him was that they would have the same opportunity he had to grow up free, to excel, to become whatever they wanted. This is what drove Sgt. del Greco.
Felix lost his life in Iraq when his convoy was ambushed and he took upon himself to grab the gun in the Humvee turret to protect his brothers. He died a hero.
This is the way America has been since its founding. Both my Dad, a Lieutenant on the USS Missouri BB63 (shown here as a newly minted Ensign), and and my step Dad, a lieutenant and Marine pilot, served together at Okinawa. Both survived, but their service left an indelible mark on their hearts. When my father passed, he asked before his death that his headstone simply read Lt AP Vicevich USN (active duty from 1942-1946, although he remained in the USNR for sometime after that).It is more than a calling … it is part of who you are.
I could quote George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Gen. Eisenhower, or my dad’s favorite, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. All good and necessary. But for me all you need to know is that since 1776 each service member felt that same calling in their heart. To defend and protect the Republic. To make us safe and in the process preserve for future generations the freedom the justice that is the American way.
May God rest their souls. May we never forget.