They remember, lest we forget

Families gather to honor 27 who died in war in past year

May 29, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

Alison DuVal should have been planning her wedding this spring in Maryland, followed by an exciting life in Italy as the wife of E. Austin Koth, a sailor in the Navy who would have been stationed there.

Instead, DuVal was sitting with her mother under a white tent at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens yesterday, remembering her fiance, a petty officer second class who died in July in Iraq when a bomb he was defusing exploded.

The DuVals joined the families of 26 other soldiers, Marines and sailors who were honored yesterday at the Baltimore County cemetery. They represent the 27 Marylanders who have died in Iraq since Memorial Day one year ago.

Some cried; many sat stoically and listened. Some wore T-shirts with patriotic slogans like "Marine mom," others wore somber suits with American flags pinned to their lapels. Small American flags flapped in the breeze between the trees.

They stood for taps and color guard processions and listened as the band played "You're a Grand Old Flag." There were grandparents and babies, close friends and siblings. Many of the dead who were honored yesterday had only just begun their adult lives - the youngest was 19, the oldest 49; most were in their 20s.

DuVal, who wore a button with Koth's handsome, tanned face and two red-white-and-blue ribbons reading "My love, our hero," learned of her fiance's death just three weeks before he was scheduled to come home.

"He was my best friend in the whole wide world," DuVal said. "And when he died, I had this huge feeling of loss and sadness, and he's the only one I wanted to turn to."

As she spoke, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger came over to greet her. As it turned out, the congressman's daughter, who was due with his first grandchild any minute, went to high school with DuVal. Ruppersberger called his daughter on his cell phone and passed it to DuVal so the two could catch up for few minutes.

Ruppersberger has been to Iraq many times and deals with defense issues frequently on Capitol Hill, but seeing the 28-year-old DuVal under the mourners' tent made him visibly sad.

"When you see someone who went to school with your daughter, it makes it so much more real," he said.

Sitting in the front row, Kelly and Gary Swanson were thinking about their son, Staff Sgt. Christopher Swanson, who died four days before Koth in Ramadi, Iraq. Swanson was so excited to be in the Army that he joined right out of high school. The avid soccer player, who was active in church youth group activities, left his southern Anne Arundel County home shortly after graduation for his first mission.

He died during his third tour in Iraq, and it was the mission that had worried his mother the most: "I knew where he was at," she said. "It was a bad area."

Wearing a black shirt and a rhinestone pin that said "Hooah!" the all-purpose Army greeting, Kelly Swanson said her son was also supposed to be helping to plan a wedding - his brother is engaged, and Christopher Swanson was going to be his best man.

"He was doing what he wanted to do," said Kelly Swanson, a management analyst for the Department of Justice. "He was proud of it, and we're real proud of him."

Gary Swanson, a police detective in Washington, is retiring in a few days, and he plans to devote his free time to setting up a foundation that will help the families of soldiers.

"Memorial Day is every day of the year for families who make the ultimate sacrifice. Some of the true heroes are the spouses that are waiting here at home," he said. "It's OK to hate the war, but you have got to love the warrior. And we're so proud of all of these guys and their service."

For DuVal, who has been to several memorial services honoring fallen soldiers, yesterday was particularly hard. Koth is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, not far from the Circle of the Immortals, where yesterday's ceremony was held.

When Koth turned 30, DuVal sent him a package filled with confetti and a balloon that still had some helium left in it after the overseas trip. It also had a gift certificate for a skydiving trip - something her adventurous fiance, already an accomplished springboard diver, looked forward to doing.

Now that the contents of that package have come back to her, DuVal plans to honor his memory by taking the plunge herself.

"I am going skydiving. I figure somebody has to use that gift certificate, and he would be very proud of me," she said. "I want to live not just for me but for him. He gave us so much. I owe him something."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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