'Don't forget me' -- Family, friends honor fallen soldier's wish

Saturday August 3, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- There was Kyle Gilbert the kid, posing proudly with his martial-arts trophies or clutching a newspaper on the couch, mugging for the camera with his dad.

There was Kyle Gilbert the teenager, a jokester who did the robot dance to get a laugh and drove a red 1969 Chevelle with big rims and custom plates reading "UNREAL1."

And there was Kyle Gilbert the soldier, communicating sporadically from a faraway war zone through hastily jotted notes and hard-to-hear satellite telephone calls.

The last such call with his mother ended with these words: "Just don't forget me."

Now, 10 years after he was killed by a sniper, family and friends are recalling Brattleboro's only Iraq casualty: Kyle Gilbert, the much-loved son, the best friend and, if those who mourn him have anything to do with it, the long-remembered hero.

"We all miss him, that's for sure," said Gilbert's aunt, Karen Kaiser of Brattleboro. "He didn't even have a chance to grow up."

Kyle Charles Gilbert's short life spanned 20 years, six months and 21 days. He was a smart, focused boy who took a shine to martial arts as early as age 5.

Gilbert would go on to earn a black belt before he became a teenager, garnering awards and competing in tournaments along the way.

"He was a good student," said his mother, Regina Meckle. "Everybody knew him in karate because he was always winning awards, so it was in the paper."

Gilbert's mother remembers her son as a "nice young man. Very respectful. He was one of those kids who always took the time to talk to you."

Kaiser recalls a kid who loved Christmas, "especially when he was little and even when he was older." She knew her nephew as a bit of a wisecracker with an unmistakably good heart.

"Just being funny," Kaiser said. "He was always happy. He always had a big smile. He was just a good kid."

Zee Theodorou was a close friend of Gilbert's from their childhood days onward. They grew up together, went to class together, worked a car-wash job together, goofed off together and occasionally got on each other's nerves.

"He had a very strong personality," Theodorou said. "He was outgoing, but he had a very strong way about him -- you don't mess with him or his family or his friends. He was very loyal. He stood up for what he believed in. He had a huge heart."

When it came time for a career-day gathering in high school, they both took information from military representatives.

Theodorou eventually would decline. But his best friend never hesitated.

Gilbert "knew right away," Theodorou said. "He said, ‘I'm going to do this.'"

At home, Gilbert had never seemed inclined to go to college. His martial-arts background and his family's military history -- his father, Robert Gilbert, had served four years -- indicated another path.

"He signed up for eight years. So if everything went his way, I think he might've (made a career in the Army)," Meckle said.

"He wanted to join the military. He already had the structure and discipline. He traveled a lot already," she said. "He said he wanted to jump out of planes like his dad, so he did."

Gilbert graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 2001. He was already in the Army when the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, drastically changed the complexion of the commitment he had made to his country.

"Robert knew that, when Sept. 11 happened, a change was going to happen in the military," Meckle said. "And I didn't quite get it."

Gilbert's parents also didn't get much -- or even any -- solid information as their son was preparing to go to war in Iraq in early 2003. The soldiers of Gilbert's 82nd Airborne Division were among "the first boots on the ground" in the war in Iraq, his mother later learned.

The first communication from her son came in the form of a piece of cardboard that showed up at Kaiser's home. The Gilberts had moved, but Kyle Gilbert remembered his aunt's address and had written home on a scrap that, at first, was mistaken for trash.

"We didn't know. We didn't hear for months," Meckle said. "Then Karen had called us and said, ‘We got an Iraqi box top with a note from Kyle on it.'"

Robert Gilbert understood the need for secrecy.

The Army "didn't want them calling us up and telling us where they are," he said. "Once he was in Baghdad and he was set, then he could tell us that's where they were."

There were occasional, unscheduled phone calls as well. It was difficult to communicate, and not just because the connection was chronically poor.

"When he did call, we were excited -- very excited," Meckle said. "But it was hard to talk because we were both so excited."

Kyle "mainly told me about what he wanted in a care package -- what magazines he wanted, newspapers, food," Meckle said. More serious talk was reserved for his dad, but Robert Gilbert says his son did not divulge many details of his time in Iraq.

"He didn't want us to worry," Meckle said. "Even though we were, and he knew we were. That's the kind of young man he was."

Theodorou got a few calls from Iraq, too. He could tell that the war was weighing on his friend, but they also discussed cars and other, lighter topics.

"He said, ‘Man, some of these Arab girls are pretty hot,'" Theodorou said with a laugh. "Something as random as that. As serious as it was, and as stressed out as he was, he found something to say that was goofy or funny."

Things were more serious for Gilbert's last call home on July 21, 2003.

"I remember it because I had to put in for a day off two weeks in advance, and for some reason I picked that date and I just happened to be home," Meckle said.

Kyle had uttered the words "just don't forget me," when "the phone went dead," his mother recalled.

Robert Gilbert explained the context of that request.

"That came about because, when he called us, he told us that they were going to have to stay longer. He only had a couple of months left. He was supposed to come home," he said.

"He wasn't happy. What that meant was, he didn't want us to forget that he was over there. Keep sending him stuff."

Kaiser did just that, mailing a care package that included Oreos and Cracker Jack. But Gilbert never got that box: A little over two weeks later, his unit was caught in an ambush.

A terse U.S. Department of Defense press release issued on Aug. 8, 2003, put it this way:

"Pvt. Kyle C. Gilbert, 20, of Brattleboro, Vt., was killed on Aug. 6 in Baghdad, Iraq. An Iraqi vehicle opened fire on Gilbert's unit. Gilbert died of injuries received during the ambush. Gilbert was assigned to C Company, 2nd Battalion, 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C."

It took days for the government to find and notify Kyle's parents.

"Kyle didn't have our address, so the military didn't have our address," Robert Gilbert said. "They went to the address they had and waited until finally one of the neighbors came out and asked them what they were doing."

In their grief, those who knew and loved Gilbert set about honoring his last request.

There was a hero's welcome for Gilbert's return to his hometown. Then-Brattleboro state Rep. Daryl Pillsbury had known Gilbert and pitched in to help organize a procession for the fallen soldier, but even he couldn't believe the size of the crowd that gathered.

Off Exit 1 of Interstate 91, "we had hundreds of people at that outlet center, and then maybe another thousand on the way into town," Pillsbury recalled.

"It was unbelievable," he added. "It was really overwhelming, how many people showed up."

There was a similar turnout for the trip to the burial site. But there was less unanimity about a subsequent effort to place a marker honoring Gilbert at a bridge carrying Brattleboro's Main Street over Whetstone Brook.

In a community divided over the war, there was concern about the memorial's appearance and its wording. Gilbert's parents admit that the debate was hurtful, but they say they were satisfied with a compromise that allowed the project to go forward.

"That was tough for us, because he died defending his country. Whether you're against the war or for the war, he sacrificed his life," Meckle said. "It ended up being bigger than we ever thought it would be. We handled it, I think, pretty well. Because we were going to support our son."

The marker declares that "Brattleboro remembers all the brave men and women who served our country or made the supreme sacrifice in Iraq."

It also bears these words: "As Kyle said, ‘Just don't forget me.'"

The same sentiment graces Gilbert's headstone at Locust Ridge Cemetery off Black Mountain Road. The stone includes Gilbert's portrait, a rendering of a parachutist's badge, a picture of a young Kyle in mid-karate kick and a vivid reproduction of the prized Chevelle.

Robert Gilbert bought that car for his son's 16th birthday. And he has no intention of ever parting with it.

"Never. Absolutely not," he said. "I knew what he wanted to have done with it -- how he wanted to fix it up. Over the years, I've slowly done some of that stuff that he wanted. It wasn't that it needed this or that. But it was what he wanted."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.

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