View Full Version : Community celebrates Marine cousins’ safe return

11-01-06, 08:23 PM
Community celebrates Marine cousins’ safe return
By Maureen Walsh/ Correspondent
Wednesday, November 1, 2006 - Updated: 02:00 PM EST

For three Marine reservists reunited with their families last week after a seven-month deployment to Iraq, there’s no doubt who should be mentioned first in any account of their safe return: the 11 men of the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines who didn’tmake it back with them:

LCpl. Christopher B. Cosgrove

LCpl. Eric P. Valdepenas

HM2 Christopher G. Walsh

Cpl. Jared M. Shoemaker

Cpl. Jordan C. Pierson

Capt. John J. McKenna IV

LCpl. Michael D. Glover

LCpl. Kurt E. Dechen

Cpl. Paul "Nick" King

Capt. Brian S. Letendre

Sgt. Matthew J. Fenton

The men who died and their families were never far from the thoughts of those who gathered Friday night to celebrate the homecoming of three cousins who served together in Iraq: Lance Corporal Joseph Pugsley of Weymouth, and Corporal Ryan Pugsley and Lance Corporal Kenneth Downey of Braintree.

The eleven names were read aloud at the Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated at Saint Francis of Assisi parish church, where the Rev. Kevin M. Sepe quoted from the Gospel reading, "There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."

Marines rely on each other, he said. They perform heroic acts each day that often go unrecognized, and many have laid down their lives for their friends.

To those who returned, Fr. Sepe said, "Your experiences in Iraq will have a profound and lasting effect on your lives. We pray that the Lord’s blessings will continue to pour down on you for the sacrifices you have made for your country, for democracy, and for the freedom of the people of Iraq."

The Mass also celebrated the safe return of three other unit members with Braintree connections who were not able to attend the service: Gunnery Sergeant Arthur Torrey, Lance Corporal Alexander Alabachian, and Sergeant David Rowland.

Community Effort

The Marines’ homecoming was a cause for community, as well as family, celebration.

They were escorted down Route 128 from Fort Devens Thursday by three Massachusetts State Police cruisers, joined at the Route 3 split by cruisers from the Braintree police.

They and their families and well-wishers were greeted outside the church Friday by a giant American flag suspended between two ladder trucks and illuminated by the rescue truck from the Braintree fire department.

The Quincy fire department provided the flag and covered Braintree’s calls while the engines were stationed at the church.

Braintree Firefighter Brian McNamee played "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and other tunes on the bagpipes at the entrance to the church and escorted the three soldiers in the opening procession to the strains of "The Marine Hymn."

Speaking for the trio at the Mass, LCpl. Downey said, "Thank you for the continued support while we were over there, the letters, prayers, CARE packages, some from people we never met."

"There were strong bonds among the three of us before, and they are even stronger," he said. "The cousins are back. We’re pretty excited."

Before the close of Mass, the three cousins led the congregation in a rousing chorus of "Our God is an Awesome God," a song they learned years earlier in the parish youth group and sang and signed as a prayer throughout their months in Iraq.

The celebration continued with a community reception at the Knights of Columbus Hall, where the tables were loaded with food donated by local stores and restaurants "for the heroes"and the music flowed courtesy of a local disc jockey who couldn’t be there in person but loaned out his equipment.

Many of the guests wore T-shirts with a picture of the three cousins in combat fatigues and the legend, "Land of the Free Because of the Brave."

’Living a Dream’

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 inspired the three first cousins to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves after high school graduation.

Their unit, nicknamed "New England’s Own," was called up in January, 2006, and deployed to Iraq for seven months.

The Marines’ mission was to help rebuild Fallujah and train the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, said LCpl. Downey, 21, of Braintree.

"In the streets, for the most part, we were welcome," he said. "We made a difference. We did a lot of good."

Having his cousins there was "like having a little piece of home," he said. "We would share stories of home. If we were stressing, we would talk things through."

Actually being home "hasn’t hit yet. It’s like living a dream," said LCpl. Downey. "I never realized how awesome Braintree was. The big thing is being able to drive down the street, go see friends, and walk to Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning."

"There are a lot of restrictions in Iraq," he said. "There, you wake up and it’s game time. You go do your job, and your life could be taken away. It’s tough.

"I think it’s good that we went. It’s better to be back."

"Words cannot describe the joy you feel," said Joan Bailey, LCpl. Downey’s mother. "Just to see him at the computer or eating a bowl of cereal, just the simplest things."

Bailey’s 82-year-old mother was seated at the edge of the crowd at Fort Devens when all the families were hugging and kissing their Marines, she said.

"Kenny saw her out of the corner of his eye, and when he ran right through the crowd to his grandmother, I just lost it."

At the same time the families feel elated at the return of their sons, Bailey said they are thinking all the time of the 11 who did not come home.

"There was a little fly in the church tonight. Sergeant Fenton always wanted to be a fly on the wall in our family," she said.


After a man shook his hand and thanked him for his service, LCpl. Joseph Pugsley, 22, of Weymouth, said, "I don’t even know who that is. It’s so overwhelming, the gratitude and friendship. Coming back, knowing they appreciate you. They know we’ve been through something, and they love you, that’s great to see."

"Seriously, I don’t think I deserve any of this. I did my part. I did my job. Now I just want to come home."

LCpl. Pugsley said the Marines saw some combat, but also cleared trash, rebuilt homes, and assisted families.

"We were not an occupation force," he said. "There were the bad guys, but most of the people realized we were there to help. We want people here to realize that, too."

"Put aside everything political, whatever side you’re on, and come together," he said. "Never forget the sacrifices our 11 brothers made."

"They went over and showed people the Americans weren’t the boogie man," said Bob Pugsley, LCpl. Pugsley’s father. "My ’little baby’ was over there teaching them there is a better way.

"We were afraid the whole time Joe was over there. He’d be on the cell phone and say, ’I gotta call you back.’ Twenty minutes later, he’d call and say, ’We had a mortar attack.’

"The best part since he got home was yesterday morning when I finally got to grab him," Bob Pugsley said. "I didn’t want to let go."

LCpl. Pugsley’s mother Laurie said, "It was stressful yet comforting to know they were together, but having them all in one location was scary."

Hearing from one cousin meant hearing about all three, she said, and e-mail was wonderful for keeping in close touch.

Now that her son is home, she said, "I loved getting up this morning and just watching him sleep. That was just the best feeling. I know he’s there. I can see him. I told him, ’Sleep as late as you want, but I am going to look at you.’"

’They’re good guys’

Corporal Ryan Pugsley, 20, of Braintree, said it hasn’t been necessary for him to pull rank on his cousins.

"They’re good guys," he said. "They do what needs to be done. They usually have it done before anyone higher up tells them to do it."

Cpl. Pugsley switched reserve assignments and took a voluntary deployment to be with his cousins. He was waiting for them when they landed in Iraq.

"I knew what I was getting into, that I’d be in a combat zone," he said. "I don’t think anyone can be prepared, even those on their fourth or fifth tour. It changes so fast."

Being overseas and then coming home has made him realize all the things he takes for granted, he said, "even a simple trip down the street in my truck to get a sandwich. Over there, every time you get in a vehicle, you put on 50 pounds of Kevlar. And at the chow hall, you might feel like ribs, but they’re only serving fried catfish."

"It’s unbelievable, just being back," said Cpl. Pugsley. "It’s almost surreal."

"It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, incredibly happy, exciting, exuberant," said his mother, Cathy Pugsley. "We’ve been so excited our guys were coming home, so sad for those who didn’t and those 11 families. It’s been mixed, up and down all day."

"I do notice their maturity," she said. "They were interviewing them yesterday, asking really tough questions, and they handled it so well. I was so proud. They talked from the heart."

Like his cousins, Cpl. Pugsley is committed to the Marine Corps Reserves for several more years, and his mother doesn’t know what the future holds.

"I’m just enjoying the moment now," she said. "I just threw my arms around him. That’s all I need."

"It’s been like heaven for us," agreed her husband, Stephen Pugsley. "Just having them home and being able to put my arms around him and know that he’s safe is tremendous."

A Promise Kept

"We can’t ever comprehend what they’ve been through, and there are things they’ll only be able to share with each other," he said. "This has changed our whole family. It has strengthened our faith and pulled us together."

The deaths of the men from their unit, particularly their good friend Sgt. Matt Fenton, "have been very emotional for all of us. It’s difficult for them to celebrate, knowing they lost 11 guys," said Stephen Pugsley.

The families met Sgt. Fenton in January when the reserve unit was called up, and he rode with the Pugsleys to Fort Devens.

"Matt saw that we were all nervous. He was older, 24, and he was trying to calm us," said Pugsley. "He said that he would see that they made it back himself. The irony is that he didn’t make it."

Sgt. Fenton suffered a serious head wound on April 26 and died May 5.

"My fondest memory of this homecoming was over in the church tonight, sitting down with this community, kneeling down to thank God for what He did in bringing our kids home," said Stephen Pugsley. "We know Matt is looking down on them. He kept his promise."