March 31, 2008 – New Britain, CT — Capt. Brian Letendre’s presence on Pendleton Road was short-lived but memorable.
The Marine sold his house in 2005, kissed his wife and son goodbye and headed to Iraq, where he would die in combat on May 3, 2006.
What remained of the Letendres’ life on Pendleton Road were memories of the conversations and the brief but frequent interactions they had shared with their neighbors.
On March 8, members of the community commemorated the Letendres’ 18 months on the quiet street by renaming a small patch of land Captain Brian S. Letendre USMC Memorial Park.
Letendre’s then 4-year-old son, Dillon, left his handprints at the foot of a granite monument honoring his father and listened as his mother addressed a community that embraced Letendre, an avid outdoorsman from Virginia, as one of its own.
“To me, it’s just amazing,” Autumn Letendre said. “Some of these people, they hardly knew us — they maybe waved to us as they walked around the block … but to do something like this when you don’t know somebody is exactly what Brian was doing and he had a passion. That’s why he volunteered to go back on this second mission.”
Communities across the country have created similar ways to honor veterans killed in the Iraq war. Unlike the large, symbolic monuments that paid tribute to the war dead after the Civil War and world wars, these have become more personalized.
The pattern, which began after the Vietnam War, allows communities to remember individual soldiers and Marines rather than a faceless, nameless group.
In contrast to World War II, which claimed the lives of 405,000 fighters, the fighting in Iraq has taken the lives of about 4,000 American troops. With fewer casualties, communities have been able to create memorials to individual service members.
Much of the momentum for modern-day memorials comes from Vietnam veterans, said Linda Schwartz, the state commissioner for veterans’ affairs and a Vietnam veteran.
“The war there was not popular, but at the same time, people, I think, want to make up for what happened in the past,” she said. “It’s kind of a legacy of the war that we will not turn our backs on the people that go to war.”
Her department has created a multimedia memorial that is temporarily in Waterford, one of the first Connecticut towns to mourn the loss of a Marine killed in Iraq. The memorial combines pictures of dead soldiers and Marines with “American Anthem,” sung by Norah Jones. The approach takes the reams of names inscribed onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall to a more vivid level.
“You can look at names, but when you see the faces, then you know how much [more] those people had to live and how much their sacrifices really mean because the war is different,” Schwartz said. “These are citizen soldiers and they come from every town and city in our state.”
In West Hartford, town leaders and residents have honored Lance Cpl. Lawrence R. Philippon through memorials at his old high school, the town center and the ice-skating rink where he worked and played hockey and along a stretch of Route 4 renamed in his honor.
In Suffield, the name of Cpl. Stephen R. Bixler will be affixed to a postal office near his childhood home on Mountain Road. Bixler’s father, Richard, a letter carrier, passes the building on his way to work each day.
In Milford, officials dedicated a park in honor of Cpl. Jordan Pierson, a Marine who died in Iraq on Aug. 25, 2006. Pierson’s mother, Beverley Pierson, looks out at the park from her window each night to make sure the flag is lit.
A Comfort To Families
The memorials have given the grieving families a sense of comfort in knowing that their loved ones have not been forgotten.
“We have this huge void,” said Leesa Philippon, the mother of Lance Cpl. Philippon. “These ceremonies and the fact that people remember — they can’t fill the void, but they certainly help to bandage it.”
The decision to name roads after Philippon and Bixler seems impersonal at first, but a closer look reveals just how intertwined those stretches of asphalt were with their lives.
Philippon used to drive along Route 4 to have doctors at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington treat his sports injuries. He took the same road to have his wisdom teeth pulled, to run and bike along West Hartford’s reservoir and to fill his gas tank.
After Philippon died, the road became another way for the Philippon family to remember him. It was the only road that was available to be named after Philippon, but it was also the most fitting, Leesa Philippon said.
“We drive by that stretch of highway all the time,” she said.
Suffield residents have honored Bixler in many ways, including a Memorial Day picnic that drew 200 people last year, a bench on the town green and a piece of Route 190 East that bears his name.
Like many Suffield residents, Bixler often drove along Route 190 East, one of two ways to reach the closest shopping areas in the neighboring town of Enfield.
The Bixlers, like the Philippons, take the road even when using another one would be more convenient.
“It just brings back another memory of Steve,” Richard Bixler said. “We just remember everything about him.”
A Lasting Presence
Daily reminders, such as the plaque honoring Bixler that adorns the post office where his father works and the plaque at his old high school, help reassure his family that his sacrifice and the sacrifices of others haven’t been forgotten.
When Philippon’s son died on May 8, 2005, it was Capt. Brian Letendre who notified the family.
The family was among dozens who ignored a persistent, bone-chilling rain to attend Letendre’s dedication service in New Britain.
“He was a wonderful individual and treated us like family,” Leesa Philippon said. “Even though he is not a Connecticut citizen, he is being held as one and we are very happy about that.”
Captain Brian S. Letendre USMC Memorial Park is across the street from the Letendres’ former home. The young family lived on Pendleton Road for less than two years, but it was where they established a family routine.
Those memories are now cemented in the handprints that Dillon left behind at the monument, the same spot where he would often toss baseballs during family games.
The family left the neighborhood in 2005, after Brian Letendre volunteered to return to Iraq. Autumn and Dillon Letendre moved to Indiana to be close to relatives.
Shortly after Brian Letendre died on May 3, 2006, one of his neighbors on Pendleton Road petitioned the city to rename the neighborhood park after Letendre.
A granite stone, donated by a local business owner, was installed in the park, with a bench inscribed with Letendre’s favorite quote.
It was the first time in at least 24 years that the city dedicated a park to someone.
Autumn Letendre, who was reminded of a time when her son blazed a trail on a Kawasaki Big Wheel and her husband climbed the tree in front of their house and sat his son on his knee, plans to visit Pendleton Road again.
“Dillon’s only a child,” Autumn Letendre said, “but when he’s an adult, I think this will be another location to place the puzzles of his life together, cause I’m sure there will be many.”