2 serve country

1 lost to war

Afghanistan was going to be `a piece of cake.' Now Russell Durgin's death leaves a town and a twin brother behind.

June 24, 2006|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

HENNIKER, N.H. -- Sean Durgin wasn't ready to reminisce about his brother. It was too hard to say, "We used to ... ." And he couldn't look at the body; he found it hard to even say that word.

It wasn't a body. It was Russell, the Army sergeant. Russell, the jokester, the goofball, the 23-year-old guy who loved to drink beer and planned on proposing to his girlfriend when he returned from Afghanistan.

But Russell Durgin died June 13 in an enemy ambush in the mountains. His twin brother Sean - himself a military man, an Air Force staff sergeant, now a member of the Maryland Air National Guard - had been here in his hometown to celebrate his recent graduation from the Community College of Baltimore County when the Army casualty officer brought the news of Russell's death.

The funeral is today. On Thursday, Sean couldn't even bring himself to go to the private family viewing. "I can't do it," he told his mother.

Instead, he took a long drive through the hills in this verdant corner of New Hampshire. It was a muggy day with barely a breeze. As he and his girlfriend rode down familiar roads, they talked about the past and about the future.

Sean had been planning to go to Qatar in July on a two-month assignment and then to attend the University of Maryland in the fall. But after Russell died, another member of his unit offered to take Sean's place overseas. He'll still go back to school, but now the summer is stretching out before him, confusingly empty. "I don't know what I'm going to do this summer. I don't want to say, `Get over it,' but just grieve. Take time off. Try to think about him," he said.

The twins had sturdy good looks and earnest smiles, but the Durgin boys had always been different. It's apparent, even in photographs from their childhood. Sean, his hair a shade lighter, often looked more serious. He'd be standing at attention, gazing out soberly, while Russell would stick up a thumb and grin impishly.

Sean would always think before acting while Russell was more spontaneous, more emotional. Sean worried about his brother sometimes, yet he seemed invincible - as though the good times would carry him through.

"He knew how to live life," Sean said. "He wasn't cocky or overconfident. ... He knew how to handle his men."

Henniker, a town of about 4,500, boasts a covered bridge near the sole traffic light downtown and a pharmacy with an old-fashioned fountain service and swivel seats. Everyone knows everyone here, and the news of Russell's death rolled through like a quake.

When Russell's body came home, police officers stood and saluted at every intersection. A high school friend organized a candlelight vigil, and an officer directed traffic into the church parking lot at the wake. Signs about the viewing, the funeral and the gathering downtown for a final good-bye salute were posted everywhere.

Some family friends knew out-of-town visitors would be coming and thought the highway overpass looked empty. As the sun began to set Thursday, they went out to the bridge with a stepstool and stuck little American flags along the top of the mesh fence.

Russell's mother, Jean Tully Durgin, had also planted American flags along the edge of her front lawn. Behind them was a picture of Russell as everyone seems to remember him - smiling, carefree. "You left us too soon but you will always be with us," a sign read. Another sign simply said "Welcome Home Russ."

Someone brought an extra refrigerator to the Durgins to hold all the food from friends. And all week, young people moved in and out. They smiled ruefully and talked in hushed tones.

Lester Durgin, the twins' father, is no longer married to their mother, but he was at the house all week too, eyes red-rimmed. The boys' four siblings were dazed. Jean Durgin moved around slowly, as if every part of her body ached. She cried when James O'Leary, Russell's friend from Iraq, arrived.

"I needed to see you," she said, hugging him and burying her face on his big shoulder. Her muffled sobs filled the kitchen with its gingham curtains. "He loved you guys. You know that."

O'Leary lifted his shirt. He had a new tattoo - a flag, an eagle and dog tags marked with Russell's initials.

In the living room, the family had set up two giant posterboards with photographs. Russell and Sean as babies, Russell kissing his girlfriend, Russell and Sean upright in their military uniforms.

Lester Durgin had served in the Marine Corps in the 1960s, and both boys always expected to join the military. When they were 17, despite their mother's apprehension, Sean joined the Air Force and Russell, the Army Reserve.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Russell was released to active duty and served in Korea, and then for a year in Iraq. He returned, retrained as a sniper and left for Afghanistan in March.

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