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updated 6/2/2004 4:41:31 PM ET 2004-06-02T20:41:31

With eyes closed, the brutal reality of the day fades and it’s possible to disappear into a dream out of the past and hear the little boy laugh as he runs across a sunlit field chasing a fly ball. Of course that was before the boy became a man, grew up, graduated from Brentwood High on Long Island, joined the Army and took his noble life off to war half a world away.

“He always volunteered to be first,” his mother said.

It is Memorial Day in America, when memory marches down the boulevard accompanied by the harsh note of headlines reporting the latest of history’s battles along with a fresh list of the brave, buried before their time because they had the courage to serve and the nerve to enlist. It is a day when the soft spring air and the lush green grass of cemeteries are beyond politics. Prayers for the dead contain no partisanship.

The soldier’s name was Michael Esposito. He was 22 when he was killed in action at a place called Deh Rawood in Afghanistan. He was fighting alongside Anthony Lagman of Yonkers, who was 26, the two of them wearing sergeant’s stripes on the uniform they earned with the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division, the Triple-Deuce of the 10th.

Sgt. Esposito’s mother, Dawn, is a nurse. His father, Michael, works for Canada Dry. Today, both planned to be on the flight deck of the Intrepid for services honoring sacrifice and loss.

“A lot of his friends from the unit are coming this weekend,” Dawn Esposito said. “They’re coming to see us and the Lagmans, too. No soldier stands alone.”

It was March 18, 24 hours after St. Patrick’s Day. Esposito and Lagman were going house to house in a village where hatred is a prospering crop. They cleared three rooms and removed two women who were wounded as Taliban gunmen tried to shoot it out with the boys from Triple-Deuce.

“This was not the first time Michael asked to lead the squad,” his mother said.

They carried the injured to safety before returning to complete the job. Back inside, they were met with a hail of gunfire. Both men, Michael Esposito and Anthony Lagman, died right there in a barren land where the enemy constantly plots to kill more here.

Across the years, the meaning of Memorial Day has changed, altered by periods of peace and years of indifference to danger faced by those who serve the nation. This year, though, is different as casualties mount and political campaigns thrive.

But on the peaceful slopes of Calverton National Cemetery and cemeteries everywhere there is no debate over the deeds of the dead. Flags flutter alongside quiet graves marked by history’s bouts, fought by hometown heroes who remain frozen forever young in the minds of all who knew and loved them.

Michael Esposito joined the Army two weeks before his 18th birthday in his senior year at Brentwood High in 1999. His duty was done 24 months later, but then two towers fell and the world changed.

“He reenlisted after September 11,” Dawn Esposito said.

A soldier’s life plays out a long way from the daily existence the rest of us enjoy and afford because of the determination of a few to do a duty that receives little notice until death interrupts, calling attention to the fact that thousands have volunteered to combat terror in distant lands. Less than 36 months ago, Afghanistan was a trivia question for geography majors and Iraq was home to a crazed tyrant. Now, both are battlefields, no different than past scarred acres like Omaha Beach, the Choisin Reservoir, Hue City and Fallujah, where America’s best went and fought and died for their friends alongside as well as for strangers who rarely pause to consider their service.

Now, the sun shines high in a cloudless blue sky. Summer is in the air and the sounds of that little boy laughing in a Little League uniform are as loud and clear as the bright horizon.

Shut your eyes and it’s possible to hear him, to see him through a mother’s eyes. In his new and final uniform, the pride of a nation. This boy’s name was Michael Esposito. He would have been 23 last week but he rests today in Calverton Cemetery, buried alongside his friend Anthony Lagman; both boys belonging to their parents as well as all of America, the country they died defending.

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