Remembering those who never came home
BRATTLEBORO -- Philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying, "Only the dead have seen the end of war."
And Memorial Day has, since the American Civil War, been a special occasion set aside to remember the brave men and women who answered the call of duty and never returned home. Brattleboro was one of countless hometowns across the United States to honor fallen patriots and express gratitude for both those who made the ultimate sacrifice and the scarred families left behind.
The American Legion Post 5 hosted a memorial service at the Brattleboro Common following a series of brief tribute services at special spots throughout town. The memorial service was headlined by Dr. Robert Tortolani, a physician and Vietnam war veteran who praised all military personnel and shared a couple of stories about how war has hit home. He said it was an honor and a privilege to be asked to speak on Memorial Day.
"I think it is also entirely fitting that the good Lord gives us a few raindrops to remind us of the tears that I think a lot of us are feeling on this day. And we remember those heroes -- those countless heroes -- who have given their lives for our country, for their comrades and, indeed, for us," he said from a podium near the war memorial.
Tortolani first told the crowd about John Steele Tyler, a Brattleboro native who was born in 1843 and moved to New York as a young boy. Tyler, Tortolani said, often visited his grandparents in Brattleboro and returned to the town at the age of 15 to apprentice in his uncle's law firm. When the Civil War broke out about two and a half years later, he volunteered to fight for the Union. He trained at what is now the Brattleboro Common for three months before seeing combat. Lt. Col. Tyler was shot in the thigh during the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 and died two and a half weeks later. On Monday, Tortolani said Tyler's body was brought back to Brattleboro 150 years ago -- to the day.
Tortolani then talked about a war hero with whom he had a personal connection. He said John Fitzgibbons was born in a small town in Massachusetts and grew up to attend Boston College, where he joined the ROTC and concentrated in infantry, later becoming a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Tortolani said Fitzgibbons was deployed to Vietnam in 1968 -- within days of his own deployment -- just three months after getting married. Fitzgibbons broke his ankle while training and Tortolani spent the next six weeks involved in his immediate care.
"It was during that time, in the evenings when we had some downtime, that we often talked about life and how things were going and about our futures after Vietnam. Obviously, he couldn't stop talking about his new bride and all the plans they had for when he got back from Vietnam," Tortolani said, before getting choked up. "On Nov. 25 of ‘68, I returned him to full duty and on that very night he was killed. His whole platoon was basically wiped out."
Tortolani said a friend informed him last year of a Boston Globe article that mentioned Fitzgibbons. He was able to make contact with one of his fallen comrade's sisters and recently spent a day with the sisters and Fitzgibbons' 92-year-old mother.
"It was an amazing day," he said. "I was received as a son and brother. It was remarkable -- life-changing, really."
Tortolani wrapped up his speech by saying Tyler and Fitzgibbons, if they could speak today, would ask everyone to keep them and all other veterans in their thoughts and prayers and to enjoy the freedoms their sacrifices helped secure.
Before the memorial service, a bus brought American Legion participants around town for five tribute ceremonies at local cemeteries. The first stop was the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge in downtown Brattleboro. The bridge was named after the local Army private killed in Iraq in 2003. The participants then stopped by Prospect Hill Cemetery to honor fallen soldiers of the Civil War. The services for these two ceremonies were provided by the Brattleboro VFW. The tributes then continued at St. Michael's Cemetery (held by the Marine Corps League), the Vermont Veterans Memorial Bridge on Putney Road (held by Ladies Auxilliary Units), and the Locust Ridge Cemetery on Black Mountain Road (held by the American Legion).
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.
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