Remembering Marylanders lost to terror

7 who died in attack on Pentagon and war in Afghanistan honored

`It's too difficult'

Family members unveil names of loved ones on memorial plaque

May 28, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Devora Wolk Pontell, filled with a bravery and resolve beyond her years, stood in a line yesterday that no woman should ever have to endure.

When it was her turn, the 26-year-old widow took a deep breath, slowly walked to the Children of Liberty Memorial at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens and peeled off a small American flag, revealing the name of her husband, Darin H. Pontell, 26, a Navy lieutenant who was killed Sept. 11 in the Pentagon.

Devora Pontell tenderly touched the raised letters that formed his name, then gently kissed her fingers. If he were alive, the couple, both from Howard County, would have been married 14 months.

The crowd of a few hundred groaned in sympathy. They had come to the Memorial Day ceremony to honor the seven Marylanders killed in the past year in the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism, as well as thousands of others who have given their lives for their country.

For many, this Memorial Day brings a sadness and uncertainty not known in this country in decades. For those who lost a loved one, the day offered bits of solace at a time when they say it is almost impossible to heal because of a constant barrage of reminders.

"We haven't gotten any closure," Pontell said after the ceremony, her voice cracking as she clutched her husband's dog tags that hang from her neck. "Every time we turn on the TV or open a newspaper we see it. I don't watch the news or read the paper anymore. It's too difficult."

Darin Pontell's name is emblazoned on the memorial next to those of five other Marylanders killed in the Pentagon attack -- Kris Romeo Bishundat, Lawrence D. Getzfred, William R. Ruth, Clifford Patterson and Ronald J. Vauk. The final name is Walter "Trae" Cohee III, who died in January when the helicopter transporting him crashed in northern Afghanistan.

They are the latest names placed on the Children of Liberty Memorial, which was dedicated in 1990 to Maryland residents who have died in service at the hands of terrorists.

The 21 names on the memorial also include those killed in bombings in Beirut; Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen; and the seven men who died during the liberation of Kuwait.

Addressing the crowd, Brigadier Gen. Carole Briscoe, deputy assistant adjutant general for the Maryland National Guard, said this Memorial Day is more significant than those in recent years because the country is at war.

"Today, our Memorial Day celebrations have acquired a deeper meaning. Now more than ever, we recognize what it means to honor those who died for our country," Briscoe said. "Last year, we were remembering past wars; today our concerns are more immediate than reflective. As we endure this war on terrorism, we have to realize it is going to be long and torturous.

"While we honor our dead, we must also look upon their action as the tedious and dangerous work necessary to maintain our way of life."

A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, keynote speaker and executive director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told the crowd this year's celebration is much more personal for many, as he looked at the rows of tearful, grieving parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and wives sitting under tents surrounded by flowers.

"Today we remember the terrible toll terrorism takes on us individually, as a state and as a nation," Krongard said. "The names we entrust to memorial today were great men. Some were husbands, all were sons."

One grieving mother, Basmattie Bishundat of Waldorf, was the first to unveil a name on the memorial yesterday. She peeled back the flag for her 23-year-old son -- a Navy information systems technician 2nd class known as Romeo -- as her shoulders convulsed with sobs.

He died three days shy of his 24th birthday. He had been working in the Pentagon three months.

"I just can't believe I'm doing this, attending a remembrance, that I am able to do it," Bishundat said after the ceremony as she stood with her husband, Bhola. "I can't believe I have the strength and courage."

Bishundat, their only son, was "just blooming alive," always running off to play sports or to try daredevil stunts like sky diving, said his father.

When the couple get sad, their two daughters remind them that Bishundat would not want them to grieve.

"They say, `You know he'd be mad if he saw you sad,'" Basmattie Bishundat said. "And I know that is true."

Grieving is a little different for Pontell, who still lives in the Gaithersburg house she shared with her husband.

She had known him since sixth grade, and the two graduated together from Atholton High School in 1993. They didn't start dating until after college, when they decided they were a perfect match.

Now she takes each day as it comes, trying not to become overwhelmed by the almost unbearable weight of sadness.

"You do these things, go to work, spend time with your friends and family to distract you," said Pontell, a lawyer in the Howard County state's attorney's office.

But she still has her husband's bulky dog tag dangling from a chain on her neck. It was given to her two days after his body was found.

It is her way of keeping him close to her heart.

"I can't imagine taking it off," she said.

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