Saturday August 3, 2013

Editor's note: This story was first published in the Aug. 13, 2003 Reformer.

BRATTLEBORO -- Hundreds of people lined Canal Street Tuesday night in a solemn welcome home ceremony for a 20-year-old Brattleboro solider killed in Iraq last week.

Pvt. Kyle Gilbert, 20, of the Army's 82nd Airborne division died last Wednesday in Baghdad, Iraq, Vermont's fourth casualty in the war and Brattleboro's first since the Vietnam War.

A hearse carrying Gilbert's body made its way down Canal Street toward Main Street, surrounded by a police and military escort, including the local chapters of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"We came out to pay our respects," said Arnold Wetherby of Brattleboro, who was standing at the corner of Canal and Generous streets with a large sign calling Gilbert a home town hero. "There's nothing else we could do but come out here and show our support."

Scheduled to begin near Exit 1 at 7 p.m., hundreds began gathering along Canal Street as early as 6 p.m. A small crowd of Gilbert's family members and friends joined local war veterans in the parking lot of The Outlet Center to reminisce, tell stories and prepare for the long hike to the Atamaniuk Funeral House on Terrace Street.

"Have you seen this?" asked Rep. Patricia O'Donnell, R-Vernon, pointing at the hundreds of people lined up along the street, waving American flags and holding banners.


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"That's how Brattleboro welcomes home a hero."

"It's amazing," agreed Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro. "It makes me very proud to live in this community."

Shortly after 7 p.m., the hearse carrying Gilbert's body rolled off the highway and meshed with the troop of police officers, firefighters and veterans waiting at The Outlet Center.

Suddenly, as the faint echo of the military drumroll pounded down the street, the crowds, just moments ago alive with dialogue and energy, grew quiet. No babies cried, no dogs barked, no car horns blared; the only sound was the mesmerizing drums and the faint tapping of saddened feet on concrete.

The procession strolled past the Colonels, Brattleboro Union High School's football team, wearing their jerseys and holding candles, gathered in front of the Walgreens store. A crowd in front of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital held a large American flag and a banner reading, "We will never forget Pvt. Kyle Gilbert."

Teenage boys took off their hats as the procession drove by, hands were placed over hearts, some saluted the hearse, while others lit candles and weeped openly.

The businesses along Canal Street, the convenience stores, the retail stores, the pizza joints and coffee shops, all paused as the hearse drove by. Store owners, customers and employees watched from the fronts of the stores, their heads bowed.

Waving tiny flags, Tom Whelan and Yvonne Tunnard, both of Guilford, reflected on the circumstances of Gilbert's death. Both said they opposed the war in Iraq, but added that a death such as this one transcends politics and philosophies.

"I'm just filled with sorrow for this young man and his family," said Whelan. "I'm here tonight to give them support."

"I think this has gone on too long ... I hope the men and women over there can all come home soon," said Tunnard.

In front of a house at the corner of Canal Street and Oak Grove Avenue, members of Gilbert's family had set up signs, candles and flags. Several of them wore shirts with his face printed on them.

"It was beautiful ... I'm so thankful that the people of Brattleboro came out for this," said a tearful Richard Gilbert, Kyle Gilbert's uncle. "It helps relieve some of the pain we are feeling. I'm happy that I live in such a great town."

Leona Gilbert, Kyle's grandmother, said she was overwhelmed by the support from the community. She hoped people didn't forget that there are still other young soldiers in Iraq that could be harmed or killed.

"I hope people continue to remember the sacrifices they are making for us," she said, fighting back tears. "The other soldiers need our support too. Keep your flags and your ribbons up."