STAMFORD – When the name of his brother, a fallen World War II soldier, was spoken from the podium, Frank DeMasi caught his breath and covered his eyes with his hand.
DeMasi, 92, sat in a wheelchair with a photograph of his big brother, Angelo, pinned to his chest. DeMasi was there to watch the unveiling of a monument in the newly reconstructed Veterans Memorial Park downtown.
But it is not a marker for veterans. It’s for their loved ones.
“Gold Star families memorial monument,” it reads. “The grateful citizens of Stamford thank the families of our men and women who died in service to this country.”
It was clear during the ceremony that the losses of Gold Star families, no matter how long ago, spring to life at the sound of a name.
“You can’t believe how much it means to hear it,” said DeMasi, who was a boy in the spring of 1944, when his family got word that Angelo had been killed fighting in Italy.
“You just wouldn’t believe how much it means,” DeMasi said.
Before the unveiling, the national anthem was sung by Leslie Manselle, whose eldest brother, Eugene Manselle, was killed in an ambush near Saigon in 1968.
Eugene Manselle, who used to sing for his siblings, is memorialized on a pillar along with other Stamford residents who died in Vietnam. It’s an honor, now, for the Manselle family to be recognized, Leslie said.
“He got just a little slice of life, and then he went on to serve his country,” Manselle said of her brother, who quit Stamford High School early to join the Army and was killed a month after his 21st birthday.
Gold Star families speak of their lost loved ones “as if they are still with us, because they are very much in our hearts and minds,” Leslie Manselle said. “We have so many stories to tell.”
That’s why the new monument is integral to Veterans Memorial Park, said Patricia Parry, who helped drive the renovation that began a decade ago. Parry’s son, Navy SEAL Brian Bill, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.
Families of service members sacrifice even while their loved ones are alive, Parry said.
“No one serves alone,” she said. “The family serves with them. They are not home for birthdays and holidays and other important things. The families are missing them all the time.”
After their deaths, families fall apart, she said.
She recounted the story of U.S. Marine James Branson, whose parents had just finished building a new home in Stamford in 1966 when they got word that he had been killed in Vietnam.
“They never moved in,” Parry said. “They couldn’t do it.”
Parry sat on a park bench fixed with a plaque honoring her son. She is a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit Stamford Veterans Park Partnership, which raised millions of dollars for the park renovation from city funding, state grants, corporate and individual donations, and from selling engraved pavers installed at the edges of the footpaths and plaques placed on flagpoles, benches and lampposts.
“These families are hungry for someone to remember their loved one,” Parry said. “Say their name. Say it over and over.”
Parry says people die twice – first physically and again when their name is spoken for the last time.
“It’s so true,” said Tony Pavia who, with his son, Matt Pavia, has written two books about Stamford residents who served in the nation’s wars. The Pavias are the park historians. “Many cultures have a version of that saying.”
Pavia said the new monument supports Gold Star families who ache for that remembrance.
“The fallen sacrificed everything, but so did their mothers, fathers, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, cousins,” Tony Pavia said. “The families are often overlooked.”
Bob Horan traveled from Boston to attend the unveiling. He was 4 when his oldest brother, Vincent Horan, was killed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Vincent Horan, 20, and William O’Neill Jr., 27, were the first Stamford residents killed in World War II. Their deaths sent shockwaves through the city, Pavia said.
It devastated his family, said Horan, now in his 80s. He still cannot talk about it without composing himself first.
He remembers a newspaper reporter interviewing his family a few days after his brother was killed, Horan said. His two older sisters, who adored their big brother, were in tears.
“After he was killed we got a letter in the mail that he wrote nine days before Pearl Harbor was attacked,” Horan said. “He said that if he ever got back home he was going to take mom and dad out for a nice dinner.”
Pavia said he’s learned from interviewing Gold Star families that they very quickly return to the moment they heard the news, as if no time has passed.
Horan said he felt it was important to witness the unveiling in his family’s native city, the only home Vincent knew.
“I’m the only one left – all my brothers and sisters are gone,” Horan said. “So I feel like I am here for him.”
During the ceremony, Vietnam veteran and longtime veterans’ advocate Jimmy Sparrow of Stamford read a poem he wrote about the need among buddies to remember their comrades. Sparrow wrote the poem after attending another unveiling – the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Known as “The Wall,” it is two intersecting stretches of reflective black granite engraved with the names of some 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam.
In his poem, “Names,” Sparrow recounts how he was one of more than 100 people chosen to read about 500 names each from the altar of the National Cathedral:
I read aloud
The first was Kosakowski, Gerald A.
The last was Lahna, Gary W.
I read a name and receive a reaction
From soft murmurs
To hysterical pain …
I read 2 Lafayettes, 3 Kowalskis, 7 Laceys
7 Krafts, 10 Kruegers
And 12 Kramers –
Arthur, Dennis, Douglas, Howard, James, John,
Joseph, Kevin, Leon, Raymond, Robert and Stephen
Each name opening wide
The mind’s eye of memory
Of who they were
And who they could have been …”