LIANE HANSEN, host:
Marine Captain Brian Letendre died earlier this month in an explosion in Iraq. He was 27, a husband and father, and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a few miles from where he grew up. As America observes Memorial Day, Letendre's family can say exactly how the fallen soldier felt about the holiday. This time last year, Letendre was preparing to march in a parade and explain his feelings in a speech. The events that sunny day likely will be imprinted in his family's hearts and minds forever.
NPR's Alyne Ellis has this remembrance.
ALYNE ELLIS reporting:
In Brian Letendre's hometown of Woodbridge, Virginia, there were loads of soccer games in the summer and rough and tumble snowball fights in winter. His mother made huge quantities of his favorite food, pumpkin squares. And his dad, Milt Letendre, stocked the fridge.
Mr. MILT LETENDRE (Brian Letendre's Father): Cokes in the basement. And you know, we have a boy house. If they're here, we know what they're doing kind of thing.
ELLIS: It was a place where the neighborhood boys hung out, including the twins his parents couldn't tell apart.
Mr. M. LETENDRE: Brian Ban, David Ban and my son Brian all decided around 11, 12, that they were going to be going to the Marines.
ELLIS: Their dads were in the military and they all lived near the Quantico Marine base. The boys wanted to be ready and in shape. Brian Letendre was a goalkeeper on the soccer team.
Mr. M. LETENDRE: He was fierce. He would definitely go after the ball. The other team, if they're coming in for a shot, they'd start taking it outside the box. They didn't want to go in there.
Mr. NICK LETENDRE (Brian Letendre's Brother): I tried to be a goalkeeper like my brother.
ELLIS: Nick Letendre is 18. He's sitting in the family's living room recalling how his older brother wasn't shy with advice.
Mr. N. LETENDRE: He used to tell me that when somebody comes into your box, tell them that you're going to break their leg or something to make sure that they don't come back inside of your box.
ELLIS: Did you try that?
Mr. N. LETENDRE: No, I'm not that aggressive.
ELLIS: Brian Letendre tried scuba diving at 16 and ski diving and he got a soccer scholarship to college. Soon he was married and following up on the decision he and his friends had made years ago.
Marine Captain David Ban.
Capt. DAVID BAN (Marine): He got commissioned as a lieutenant about a week before we all did. He asked to call him sir. He outranked us technically by a week, but we didn't do it.
Ms. JUNE LETENDRE (Brian Letendre's Mother): It's like they born warriors.
ELLIS: Mom, June Letendre.
Ms. J. LETENDRE: Not very many of us can accomplish our goals or our dreams and he always knew where he wanted to go and he did it.
ELLIS: Letendre went to Iraq twice. The first time, his job was to get fallen troops out of places named Suicide Alley and City from Hell. But he wrote to his soccer coach that combat was easier on his nerves than the pressure to win a soccer game. Back home, after the first tour, he found a new passion, his son Dylan.
Letendre's wife, Autumn Letendre.
Ms. AUTUMN LETENDRE (Brian Letendre's Wife): Brian always wanted a little boy, and every day Brian looked forward to coming home to play with Dylan, singing, reading, doing the dad type things with Dylan that you wouldn't ordinarily see a Marine in the field doing, and Dylan loved every minute that he was able to spend with him.
ELLIS: Letendre also had a new job with the Marines. He told his mom it was the hardest assignment he'd ever had.
Ms. J. LETENDRE: Brian was a CAKO.
ELLIS: A CAKO is the person who knocks on the door to tell a military family that their loved one has died. On Mother's Day, a year ago, Letendre made a call.
Mr. M. LETENDRE: He went to the door to tell the mom her son had passed.
Ms. J. LETENDRE: They found Brian very compassionate and he was so close to them and supported their family and he was still in touch with them when he left in, you know, Iraq.
ELLIS: Letendre volunteered to return to Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers. Three weeks after he left home, he was killed. In their living room, his parents keep a folded U.S. flag and a videotape recorded a year ago. On it, Brian Letendre, ramrod straight and full of confidence, addresses a crowd in Pennsylvania on the meaning of Memorial Day. He said for him it used to be all about ball games and picnic tables full of chicken.
(Soundbite of videotape)
Capt. BRIAN LETENDRE: I used to think of visiting family and friends or to hear all about their most recent accomplishments, new goals in life and the dreams they had for their family. Now I think about standing over a modest gravestone, a one-way conversation and the families left without a husband, wife, son, daughter, brother or sister.
ELLIS: Letendre's wife says she remembers last year as a great Memorial Day. A blue sky, a barbecue and Dylan watching his dad march in a parade.
Alyne Ellis, NPR News, Washington.
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