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For some families, Memorial Day means more this year

More than 800 U.S. servicemembers have died in Iraq, and because most of the casualties were after May 2003, this Memorial Day will be a more somber one.
Joshua Menusa, 4, holds a photo of his father, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, who was killed March 27 in Iraq.Nick Ut / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On Memorial Day, Stacy Menusa will head to a cemetery with her 4-year-old son Joshua, who thinks every American flag waves for his father, just like the one that was draped over his coffin.

Menusa’s husband, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, was killed in an ambush on March 27, 2003, the day his battalion arrived in Iraq. She hopes one day she will be able to explain the war to Joshua.

For now, there is some comfort in his innocence.

“I’ll be driving down the road, and he’ll be freaking out, ’Look, a flag for Daddy!”’ the 32-year-old said from Santa Maria.

More than 800 U.S. servicemembers have died in Iraq, and because most of the casualties were after May 2003, this Memorial Day will be a more somber one. The deaths, combined with ongoing fighting and allegations of prisoner abuse, have taken their toll on support for the war.

But for the families of those killed, Memorial Day is not about politics or polls. It’s about honoring those who gave their lives for their country.

Debra Baker will take her 9-year-old son, James-Dante, to a park in northeast Pennsylvania where volunteers erected 4,000 small flags as part of a Healing Field memorial.

Last year, Baker went to a picnic with her husband, Army Sgt. Sherwood Baker, who set up audio equipment and played patriotic music for family and friends. Sherwood Baker was killed last month in an explosion in Baghdad.

“He would probably strike me from heaven if we didn’t honor the day,” Baker said.

William Maher Jr. and his wife, Adeline, have agreed to let a television news crew accompany them to the National Cemetery in Beverly, N.J., where their son, Army Spc. William J. Maher III, 35, is buried.

Adeline Maher said she hoped her family’s story would inspire the public to do more to support America’s troops.

“The press never tells you the good things. They always show you and tell you the bad things. They never show the soldiers playing with the kids and giving them gum,” the 59-year-old mother said from her home in Yardley, Pa.

'Different respect'
For 43-year-old Deb Granahan, Memorial Day used to be a great excuse to hit the sales racks or strike up the grill for a family barbecue. This year, she will attend a parade in Middlebury, Conn., given in honor of her son, Pfc. Anthony D’Agostino, one of 16 U.S. soldiers killed when their helicopter was shot down near Baghdad Nov. 2.

“I have such a different respect and understanding of Memorial Day,” she said. “I will remember not only my son, but others who have passed on and who have given us our freedom.”

Others take comfort in remembering the living — the 135,000 men and women still serving in Iraq.

Since her son died July 28, Adeline Maher has been involved in AdoptaPlatoon Soldier Support Effort, a nonprofit that connects deployed troops with pen pals.

“I had to something. I had all this energy inside of me. I guess I could have gone into a depression. But no, my son wouldn’t have done that. I do what he would have done,” she said.

Volunteers at Connecticut's State Armory put together 1,500 care packages Saturday filled with lip balm, foot powder, sun screen and nonperishable foods, as well as notes to the soldiers from school children and postcards signed by cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, a Connecticut resident.

“The soldiers have told us there’s nothing better than getting a letter or some picture drawn by a school child,” said drive organizer Sue Saidel.

In Los Angeles, Engracia Cirin will honor the brother she lost by living the American life he only dreamed of.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, a 28-year-old native of Guatemala, was one of the first U.S. casualties in Iraq. He was killed by friendly fire on March 21, 2003 and posthumously awarded citizenship.

Cirin, 33, came to this country after his death, and is still learning about Memorial Day — and almost everything else American. On Monday, she will ride in a local parade with her husband and infant son, the first in the family to be born in the United States.

'You can't look back'
For Vivian and James LaMont, it’s the second Memorial Day to mourn the death of the youngest of their nine children, Marine Capt. Andrew David LaMont. He was killed on May 19, 2003, when the supply helicopter he was piloting crashed in Iraq.

This year, the LaMonts are leaving behind the constant reminders of their son in Eureka, Calif., where for years they led the Rotary Club’s local Memorial Day celebration. Vivian LaMont said she and her husband are looking forward to a fresh start in a place where they weren’t immediately known as parents who lost a son in Iraq.

“I think my husband and I are starting another journey in being somewhere else,” she said. “You can miss the person very much, but to agonize over it would be a detriment to his memory. You can’t look back.”

No matter where she goes, the memory of her son’s life — not his death — will remain.

“He’s really here with me,” she said.

For Stacy Menusa, there are reminders of her husband in 4-year-old Joshua, who like his father considers himself a “Mr. Fix-it” as he carts plastic tools around the house.

Before he left for Iraq, Joseph Menusa promised everything would be all right. When she’s down, Stacy looks at his pictures and thinks he might be right.

“He still picks me up,” she said, “even if he’s gone.”