Twin battles holiday memories

Man tries to move on after his brother is killed in Afghanistan

December 24, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

The videos arrived last Christmas, but most of the year passed before Sean Durgin could bring himself to watch them.

Then finally, one day, he opened the digital files and there was his twin brother, Russell Durgin, an Army sergeant who died June 13, 2006, fighting in Afghanistan. In the videos, he is mugging for the camera, charming as ever. He is joking. He is flashing that irrepressible grin - smiling while he talks, smiling while hail falls, smiling while the wind rattles around him on an Afghan mountaintop.

"Just another day in paradise, living the dream," Russell says in one of the clips his family found in his camera when his belongings were returned to them.

Sean laughed aloud watching on a recent afternoon in his White Marsh apartment. "That's definitely him," he said.

Two birthdays have passed since Russell died in an enemy ambush in the mountains at age 23. And now, the second Christmas approaches. Like so many others who have lost loved ones in the war, Sean is trying to keep going; he's trying to make his twin proud.

But it is still so difficult. In some ways, he will never move on, he says. He doesn't want to.

"Sometimes I just get frustrated, so frustrated," said Durgin, a solemn, gentle 25-year-old. "Usually in life, if you get frustrated, there's something you can do. You can complain, throw it away, get something else. But there's nothing I can do.

"It's so frustrating having to wait the rest of my life to know when I die, will I see him?"

It was worst at the beginning. Sean, who served overseas as an Air Force staff sergeant and is now a member of the Maryland Air National Guard, had planned to go back to school full time at the University of Maryland, College Park that fall.

But he was horribly depressed. He would go to classes, but they were overwhelming. The drive was long and he felt out of place as an older commuter student. And he couldn't stop thinking about Russ. Sometimes memories would spin through his head; mostly he would think about how he was never going to see his twin again.

He withdrew from school and went to work full time for his Guard unit as an aircraft mechanic.

Christmas came and he went home to Henniker, the small town in New Hampshire where he grew up. That morning, he walked down the stairs in tears, his mother, Jean Durgin, recalls.

"He just remembers every Christmas when the two of them walked down the stairs together to see what Santa had brought. He said it just felt very painful to be walking down the stairs alone," she said in a telephone interview from Henniker.

The ache that comes with remembering is probably what has kept Sean in Maryland even though he has had opportunities to be transferred to a post in New Hampshire, his mother says.

"I think it's too hard for him to be up here," she said. "He's not trying to avoid missing Russell. But I think it's easier for him to distract himself being away."

Grieving experts say that Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries are especially hard, but in some ways, to Sean, days are all numbingly similar.

"If I didn't think about it every day, probably it would be harder at holiday times," he said. "But it's there every day. ... He's always with me, always on my mind."

One day in January, he woke up and felt a little different. It wasn't exactly that he felt better, but he could function. "It was like a cloud had lifted," he said.

Gradually, over months, life became more bearable, even likable. The work with the Guard felt comfortingly familiar. He ended one relationship and, eventually, started another. He took classes at Towson University and University of Maryland University College. He traveled to Europe with his mother and one of his brothers on a trip that Russ had once talked about taking.

A close friend who trained with Sean in Little Rock, Ark., moved to Maryland at the end of the summer and they rented an apartment together. Sean joined the White Marsh volunteer fire department and started thinking - almost obsessively - about buying a house.

On Labor Day weekend, five of Russ' men - buddies from Afghanistan - traveled to New Hampshire to visit Sean, his mother and the rest of the family. Sean took them to his brother's grave, to the memorial at the high school and to a bridge that was renamed in Russ' honor. Mostly, they sat around, drank beer and reminisced. They laughed a lot.

Each story is like getting a piece of Russ back, his mother says.

This month, Jean Durgin trudged out in the snow with a friend and placed a wreath with red, white and blue ribbons on Russ' bridge. She will place stars with the names of all the New Hampshire servicemen who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan on a tree in her front yard. Already, she installed a big gold star at the top for Russ.

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