View Full Version : They left teammates, they came home Marines

11-22-06, 06:35 AM
By Patrick Ball/ Correspondent
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Just five years ago, they were teammates, Gaels, members of the Clinton Senior High School football fraternity. It was Thanksgiving, and they were about to beat the Maynard Tigers and go on to win their third straight Central-Western Mass Division 3 Super Bowl Championship - a feat that would forever immortalize them in the hearts of Clinton High School super-fans.

Bryan Gaw, was a senior captain and offensive guard and linebacker for the defense. Kurtis Backiel, a junior, was the fullback and kicker. Juniors Casey Gannon and Jonathan Vanasse were defensive ends.

But after they graduated they would join a second, more prestigious fraternity.

By the spring of 2004, they were among "The few, the proud" - they were members of the United States Marine Corp, 1st Battalion 25th Marines.

Their battalion was deployed to Iraq in mid-March. Backiel, Gannon and Gaw were stationed at Camp Baharia, Fallujah; Vanasse was at Entry Center Point One, just outside of the city.


"New England's Own," the 1St Battalion 25th Marines, were activated on Dec. 1, 2005. Gaw and Vanasse left school. Gannon and Backiel left their jobs.

For families left at home, holding on to peace of mind comes in different forms.

A Mass was held at St. John's, for the four, before they left. Father Walsh gave medals to, and blessed Kurtis Backiel, and Jonathan Vanasse, who were in attendance.

"During the 'Prayer of the Faithful,' people were all praying for them," Paula Backiel said. "They were on prayer lists at other churches, in other states. Because of all the prayers, I knew that those boys would be OK."

Kelli Vanasse said, "Jimmy McNally gave Jonathan a rosary prayer ring that Jon kept in his pocket. For Paula and I, that [Mass] meant so much, it was such a comfort."

Gerry Gaw said that when the news came that Bryan was to be activated, his eldest son, Mike, who was also a Marine, said that he would not cut his hair until Bryan came home. Uncles Phil O'Toole and Franny Garrity joined Mike in growing out their hair.

"So I said, 'Well, I'm shaving mine,'" said Gaw. "I went to a wedding and I saw Scott Czermack and Willie Vasquez, they asked why I shaved my head, and they started shaving theirs too."

Kevin and Susan Gannon left their computer on all night, every night, with the volume up all the way.With Casey waking up when they would go to sleep, they figured if the volume was up all the way, they'd hear if he tried to Instant Message them.

Pete Backiel had been climbing with the "Flags on the 48" groups or about four years. The "Flags on the 48" began when a few climbers flew a flag atop Mt. Liberty in honor of Sept. 11. In the past few years, teams of climbers have climbed up the 48 New Hampshire peaks more than 4,000 feet, and flown flags from each peak.

So, on Sept. 9, with his son Kurtis stationed in Iraq, Backiel climbed Mt. Jefferson with the Marine Corp flag, and hung it with the American flag atop the peak.

"It was windy, and the flag hung straight. It was pretty patriotic, happy and solemn," he said.

"I did it in honor of my son, and all the Marines who've served. It was the least I could do to show my support. It was for my emotional benefit as well as his. I e-mailed Kurt some pictures of it. He only had a month left, and I think he needed it. The days were dragging for him, too."


For the four in Iraq, it was the friendships they forged through football, and by growing up together in Clinton, that meant the most while overseas.

Just being able to see a friend from home in a foreign, hostile country.

It was little things like flipping each other the bird to say "hi" while passing on patrol, or throwing water bottles at each other's post that could make each day a little bit better.

Kurtis Backiel said, "We'd run into each other a few times a week. We would talk about all the rumors in town.

"On Casey's birthday, I climbed on top of a wall locker, tied his mattress, backpack and random gear to a beam going across our tent," he said.

"I walked in, saw all my stuff hanging 20 feet in the air, and thought 'Kurt, you suck,'" Gannon recalled

But support came from back home as well.

Kevin Grady organized 16 packages from Turners' Hall, four for each of them. The packages were compiled through donations, and Middle School fundraising. They received letters and pictures from fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Clinton Middle School.

Mike Notaro and the Clinton Little League sent letters and baseballs to Iraq. Each of the four got a ball signed by the team that they played for, when they were little leaguers.

"People were always supportive," Bryan Gaw said. "They sent tons of packages - snacks, socks, baby wipes. It wasn't just for us. They sent enough that we could share it with our neighbors."

The community support certainly did not go unnoticed by the parents of the Marines.

"When they played football, Clinton always had the largest away-game crowds," Pete Backiel said. "The fans are pretty avid supporting the teams. They were the same way with these guys over there. Everybody I talked to was so supportive. I went to pay with my credit card at a store downtown, and the clerk asked 'Are you Kurt's father? Tell him I said Thank You.'"

Homeward bound

As September arrived, the anticipation began to develop, and apprehension grew. The boys would be home in just over a month

"When you see on television that Marines have been killed in the Ambar Province - you don't realize what that does to you," Gerry Gaw said. "Then you find out that its someone else's kid, and that's even worse."

Carol Gaw felt it too.

"You go to bed sick to your stomach, and you wake up every morning sick to your stomach," she said. "We just wanted to stay close to home."

In mid-October, after seven months overseas, the 25th Marines returned stateside.

For Susan Gannon, the day Casey arrived in Maine is a day she will never forget.

"Casey's the only one with the Marine hymn as a ring tone on my cell. So, when I was at work, and I heard that ring ... He was one of the last ones out. I answered and heard 'Hi Mom. I'm in Maine.' He could have spent two years in California [from there], but at least he was home."

The arrival

On Oct. 26, "New England's Own" rode into Devens on busses. Thousands of people congregated to welcome their boys home.

"When the busses pulled in, you could have heard a pin drop," Kelli Vanasse recalled.

The Marines exited the busses, and collected their gear. Paula Backiel rang a cowbell so loudly that she broke it.

The Marines marched toward their awaiting friends and family.

"1st Battalion 25th Marines, you are dismissed," Lt. Col. Christopher A. Landro shouted.

"I could have flown over my house," Carol Gaw said.

The boys were back in town.

At home

Sitting in a booth at the back of the Old Timer Restaurant, just one week ago, each of the four Marines said lessons they learned during their football careers have transcended the football field and helped them as members of the Marine Corps.

"Platoon, team - it's the same idea," said Gaw. "You've got to rely on the guy next to you to do their job - this is just a step up. The camaraderie is the same."

Gannon remembered overhearing a phrase drilled into the head of the offensive line during practices.

"You learned to 'Keep your head on a swivel,'" he said.

This piece of advice, given to an offensive guard, refers to being able to pick up an unblocked defender. For a Marine, in Fallujah, it is not difficult to see how keeping your head "on a swivel" can be a valuable habit to form.

Vanasse played off the reference, and related to how it is taken to another level.

"On the football field you trust your lineman to make the blocks," he said. "In Iraq, you have to rely on the guy on your right and the guy on your left. It breaks down like a team, with squads."

Each of the four has plans to go back to school.

Gaw will be returning to WPI and, Backiel will start classes at UMass Amherst, and Vanasse will begin going to Westfield State, in January. Gannon has yet to decide where he will resume his education.

Coming full circle

Looking ahead to the holiday, Paula Backiel sums up, succinctly, what each family must be feeling.

"I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving," she said. "We've all got a lot to be thankful for."

Tomorrow morning, on Thanksgiving Day, before they sit down to dinner with their families, the four Marines will head to the Veterans Memorial Athletic Field to watch the Gaels take on the Maynard Tigers, in their legendary former coach's final game at the helm. They will be four years removed from their playing days, and viewing the field from a slightly different perspective.

"We didn't think much of it [the name] when we were playing on it. I never thought we'd be veterans," said Backiel.

Vanasse said that even during his playing days, he knew he wanted to be a part of the military.

"But I never thought about coming home with veteran status. It still hasn't really sunk in," he said.

But now, whether or not their status has "sunk in," they will be entering the complex with a designation different than they ever have before. Gaw, Backiel, Gannon, and Vanasse will not be players and they will not just be fans - they will be veterans.