(We’re happy to honor a reader’s request this Memorial Day Weekend to reprint this essay by Betsy Fitzgerald, originally published when Marine Sergeant William Woitowicz returned to Groton two years ago after losing his life in Afghanistan.)
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It looked like the 4th of July. American flags lined the street, poles stuck in the grass. Families; groups of teenagers on their own; adults on their own, but talking to others, lingered on the Town Hall steps and in front of the Main Street Cafe. Many held small flags. The unmistakable sweet smell of honeysuckle drifted across the sidewalk. Still yet another flag, mammoth, had been hoisted aloft by cherry pickers operated by workers from Groton Electric Light Department. Crews from TV stations set up cameras. A group of students from the private Groton School handed out mini-flags. Traffic edged along, stopping as bystanders crossed the street to greet friends or simply find a better vantage point. Next to me, a mother with a tow-headed five-year-old son good-naturedly kept him occupied with clapping games. With buzz-cut hair and the smile of the innocent, he made the morning all the sadder.
I came of age during the heat and height of the Vietnam War. I was a student at UCONN Storrs and took part in all manner of peaceful protests. Always, always, always those protests included words of gratitude for those who were serving the country. Many were drafted, some enlisted. Many died, many came back forever changed. Ultimately, Vietnam became the unwinnable war. My father was a decorated hero of World War II–he came home to a grateful country. It’s the least we owe those who serve.
So this morning, I was with the crowds on Main Street waiting for the cortege for William Woitowicz, posthumously given the rank of sergeant. Twenty-two-years old. A Marine. In the photo that has been posted in recent days, he has the smile of the innocent and is a grown-up towhead. He died in Afghanistan last week. I never met him, nor his family. I’m too new to town to know many people, but the reality changes when it’s the boy next door. And it is heart-breakingly sad.
Most of us waited an hour, folks talking quietly. Then traffic stopped. I checked my cell and saw an update from a friend that the cortege was minutes away, headed past the Nashoba Valley hospital. Then there was no sound, no movement. I thought of the tsunami videos with deadly silence in the instant when the ocean withdraws before roaring back destroying those in its path. I thought of the mother of this boy. I thought about how this scene is repeated regularly across the country. Blue lights appeared in the distance, red lights behind. A phalanx of motorcycle police in tight formation rolled toward us, engines growling. Police cars. I placed my hand over my heart as the hearse with seal of the United States Marine Corps moved past us in silence.
In gratitude to William and all those who serve and have served. My wish is that we can bring them back alive, and soon.