Vt. soldier’s death spurs heartache, healing
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | August 11,2013
Staff File Photo
A funeral procession transports the body of Vermont soldier Kyle Gilbert — killed in Iraq 10 years ago this month — to a cemetery in his hometown of Brattleboro.
Vermonter Kyle Gilbert’s parents still remember the last words their only child said on the phone before the 20-year-old soldier was killed in Iraq on Aug. 6, 2003: “Just don’t forget me.”
A decade later, they haven’t. They just didn’t anticipate the fallout.
When state leaders and national news crews flocked to Gilbert’s funeral 10 years ago, his hometown of Brattleboro stood united in grief. Then residents split over a proposed memorial on Main Street. His parents divorced. Friends felt torn when his mother and father held separate annual remembrances.
On Saturday, upon his aunt’s urging, Gilbert’s family and neighbors reunited at his hometown VFW. The public event aimed to honor his memory. But for the hundreds who gathered, it also offered an opportunity to heal.
When Gilbert joined the Army two weeks after graduating from high school in the carefree summer of 2001, he wanted to live the television commercial: earn money while learning how to jump out of planes just like his father did a quarter-century before.
Skydiving aside, his parents, Robert and Regina, vowed to be there every step of the way. When a history of childhood migraines threatened to deny their son military admission, they lobbied the state’s congressional delegation. When their boy traveled for training in Georgia, they moved south, too.
Sept. 11 changed everything. His family couldn’t tag along when Gilbert became one of the “first boots on the ground” in Baghdad. That’s why they were back in Vermont when the paratrooper, trying to help an ambushed colleague, was killed by a sniper.
“Dear Mom and Dad,” began the handwritten note pulled from his pocket. “By the time you read this I will have died for my country. Please don’t be sad.”
Family and friends met the hearse transporting Gilbert’s flag-draped coffin at the Brattleboro town line, then walked behind it almost two miles past the hospital where he was born Jan. 16, 1983, and the car wash, gas station and wheel alignment service where he worked before enlisting.
St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, chosen because it was the biggest house of worship in town, still couldn’t accommodate the dozens of people who spilled out the doors and into the auditorium of the adjacent parochial school. Everyone silent, the wailing whistle of a passing train spoke for all.
Vermont has suffered more Iraq-war deaths per capita than any other state. But Gilbert was the first (and so far only) Brattleboro soldier to die in combat since Vietnam. That’s why so many townspeople lined the streets to watch family and friends walk behind the hearse another two miles to the cemetery.
The procession passed a monument listing the names of the 30 locals who died in World War I, the 52 who died in World War II, the three who died in Korea, and the six who died in Vietnam.
“Dedicated in loving memory of the men and women of Brattleboro who made the supreme sacrifice,” the engraving said.
That Veterans Day, a local newspaper columnist suggested a memorial for Gilbert.
“The president has been way too busy to do more than pay lip service to the casualties of his war, or to personally honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on his behalf,” wrote the columnist, an opponent of George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion. “Let’s do it for him.”
A reader responded with a $100 check. Within months, townspeople donated $10,000 for a 4-foot-tall Vermont granite marker to be placed on a newly rebuilt downtown bridge.
But for some, supporting a “hometown hero” didn’t mean supporting the war. They protested plans for an etched eagle, American flag and the words “Freedom is not free” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” — the latter the Pentagon’s name for the invasion.
After a year of public debate, the town dedicated a simpler stone on Veterans Day 2004.
“Brattleboro remembers all the brave men and women who served our country or made the supreme sacrifice in Iraq,” it said. “As Kyle said, ‘Just don’t forget me.’”
His parents stood alongside a phalanx of press.
“We can’t hate the protesters — we need to keep that freedom of speech,” his mother told a reporter for USA Today. “We just wanted to remember Kyle. But things got politicized.”
The couple understood the challenge. Interviewed on the fifth anniversary of their son’s death in 2008, they said they remembered him daily. That’s why they were divorcing.
“When we looked at each other, that’s all we thought about,” Robert told the local paper.
“We never talked about it,” Regina added. “Not talking about it split us in half.”
In the years since, they’ve marked each August with separate memorial ads and separate memorial events. Then they surprised everyone last month by collaborating on a letter to the editor headlined “Help us remember Kyle” announcing Saturday’s gathering.
“We hope to see you there,” it ended, “Robert and Regina.”
The couple is no longer a couple. (Regina has remarried, and her husband, Vermont National Guard Sgt. Herbert Meckle, recently served 14 months in Afghanistan.) But Karen Kaiser, Robert’s sister and Kyle’s aunt, encouraged the joint event.
Hundreds of people accepted the invitation. They talked of how Kyle Gilbert received his black belt in karate by age 12. How his mother met privately with first lady Michelle Obama, an advocate for military families, during her visit to the state in 2011. How his father continues to maintain the red 1969 Chevelle he bought his son for his 16th birthday.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Regina says of the healing process. “You’re sad, you’re scared, you don’t want to talk to people, you do want to talk to people.”
Surrounded Saturday by family and friends, she was sure of one thing: “Kyle would want it this way.”