Family Marks First Memorial Day without 'A.J.'

Army Spec. Alan Bean, Jr., of Bridport, Vt., was killed a year ago this week in Iraq when his bunker was struck by mortar fire. He was 22. Family members are preparing for their first Memorial Day since the loss with much support from friends and neighbors. Nina Keck of Vermont Public Radio visits the Beans.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Twenty-two-year-old Army Specialist Alan Bean Jr. of Bridport, Vermont, was killed last May 25th when his bunker was struck by mortar fire. For Alan Bean's parents and siblings, Memorial Day is no longer just any holiday. As Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports, the Beans are joining with friends and family and neighbors this weekend to celebrate Alan Jr.'s short life and the lives of other fallen soldiers.

NINA KECK reporting:

Kim Bean opens the front door of her small, white ranch house and smiles in invitation.

(Soundbite of voices and barking dog)

KECK: People have been coming and going since Wednesday, she says. Her friends and neighbors knew it would be a difficult time for the family and have made a point to stop by.

Ms. KIM BEAN (Mother of Fallen Soldier): It's been a very tough week. It's--this was the first anniversary, so you just weren't sure how you were going to process the whole thing. I really still am not sure how I'm processing it.

KECK: Kim Bean says talking about her son--Alan Jr., AJ for short--helps. And she smiles as she pages through a photo album with her close friend Amy Farmer.

Ms. AMY FARMER (Kim Bean's Friend): That's hysterical.

Mrs. BEAN: That was taken at Ft. Dix.

Ms. FARMER: I can't believe how red his hair was--both the boys' hair.

Mrs. BEAN: Yeah.

Mr. ALAN BEAN (Father of Fallen Soldier): Oh, yeah...

Ms. FARMER: So red.

Mr. BEAN: ...they have red hair.

Ms. FARMER: Did you have red hair?

Mrs. BEAN: And my dad did, and my grandfather did.

Ms. FARMER: OK, so...

Mrs. BEAN: Yeah...

Ms. FARMER: ...lots of red hair.

Mrs. BEAN: ...so it's in the family.

Mr. BEAN: He had the temper to go with it, probably.

KECK: In addition to all the photos, the Beans put together a special cabinet in the living room to display their son's medals and personal mementos.

Mrs. BEAN: His Purple Heart, his Bronze Star, his flag, his Army ring, this bear he gave me when he was in basic training. It's very special. This little guy here he gave me when he was in kindergarten.

KECK: Kim Bean looks at her son's medals and says her heart breaks every time she hears about another death in Iraq. She thinks about all the other families going through what she has--the pain, denial and emptiness.

Mrs. BEAN: For the longest time thought that they were wrong and thought when the guys came back from Iraq he would come home with him. I went to the ceremony. That was a really, really tough day because I just expected him to walk through that door. And I think that was when reality really set in, that--of what really happened.

KECK: She closes her eyes briefly...

(Soundbite of small child and a television)

Mrs. BEAN ...but then smiles as she points to four toddlers playing on her living room floor, one of whom is her 14-month-old grandson, Gabriel. Gabriel Alan was born the day his father landed in Kuwait, and she says her son never got a chance to meet him. Mr. and Mrs. Bean say keeping AJ's memory alive for little Gabriel, as well as for their other two children, is important. And they say Memorial Day has taken on new meaning for all of them.

Mr. BEAN: Memorial Day used to be just a holiday to me. I never--you know, I knew what it meant, but I--until it really hits close to you, I don't think you actually can grasp the real meaning of Memorial Day. It's a special day for us. Gives us a chance to remember all that--gave his life so that we could still be here.

Mrs. BEAN: This is a time that our whole family will now always be together, just to remember--I know we will have people here all weekend long, just to be together and celebrate Alan's life, I guess, is the best way to put it.

KECK: Alan Bean says his son always loved a good party. He pauses and his eyes tear up. The last few years, he says, he and his son had more of a buddy relationship than a father-son relationship, and he misses the teasing, the wrestling and the wisecracks. Then he smiles and reaches into his shirt.

Mr. BEAN: I wear his dog tag every day.

KECK: Does it help?

Mr. BEAN: Yeah. Feels like it's--he's--a little part of him is still with me because there's such a big hole in my heart.

KECK: The Beans say without the support of their friends, family and neighbors, dealing with the loss of their son this week would have been much harder.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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