CHICOPEE - Gary Lefebvre was 10 when his uncle Butch joined the U.S. Marine Corps and shipped off to Vietnam. He never returned home.
Pfc. Edward J. Downey Jr., died April 11, 1968. He was 21 and had been overseas for four months.
On the eve of Memorial Day, family members and friends joined with city officials to remember the 15 men from Chicopee who were killed in war between April 1968 and 1970.
During the candlelight ceremony, held by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 111, veterans also remembered the prisoners of war and those still missing in action.
When the names of the 15 men killed in Vietnam were read, family members or friends came to a memorial set up for each man and illuminated an electronic candle in memory of the fallen soldier or Marine.
Lefebvre attends the ceremony every year. This year he came with a page of photographs of Downey, who he knew as Butch, and memories of his uncle teaching him how to lift weights and how to box.
“I adored him…He was my second hero, just after my dad,” Lefebvre said. He said his father, now 86, was the older brother and fought in the Korean War.
Lefebvre said he has written to military officials asking for his uncle to posthumously receive a medal of valor to recognize the bravery that killed him.
“He was a fire team leader and he entered enemy barracks underground first and was killed,” he said.
The other 14 men killed in Vietnam are: Army Sgt. Carl L. Glasscock, Army Cpl. Edward P. Stefanik, Army Pfc. Roger J. Dumont, Marine Sgt. Harold J. Gilbert, Army Sgt. Robert R. Litwin, Army Lt. Robert O. Gagne, Army Pfc. Zygmunt P. Jablonski Jr., Navy Chief Petty Officer Donald E. Kulacz, Marine Cpl. Robert R. Tolpa, Army Spc. John J. Laskowski, Army Spc. Thomas J. Wilk, Army Pfc. Robert R. Dowds, Army Spc. Michael P. Bouchard and Army 1st Lt. Mark H. Rivest.
During the event chapter member Larry White read a poem he wrote called “A Soldier’s Last Request” and Susan Zajchowski, who was an Army nurse read “Hello David” a poem about a dying soldier being treated by a nurse in a military hospital. Air Force Jr. ROTC students from Springfield’s Central High School provided the honor guard with the chapter members.
Traditionally the commemoration is held in the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Park, which is bordered by 15 brick pillars, each of which contains a bronze plaque in memory of each of the men. This year the event was moved inside to the neighboring Church of New Covenant.
The move was a last-minute decision. The chapter, which has borrowed chairs from the church for the ceremony for several years, was debating if it should cancel the ceremony because of the pouring rain when Rev. Vasily Tokarev invited them to hold it in the church hall, said Jim Healey, who served as master of ceremonies.
“When there is war everyone loses,” Tokarev said. “My goal is to bring peace everywhere.”
State Sen. Donald Humason thanked Tokarev and said it shows people can work together. When he was a child Tokarev’s native Russia was in a cold war with the United States.
“How are we supposed to get anything done if we don’t talk to each other,” he said.
Every year veterans visit the schools across the city to teach children a little about Memorial Day and Mayor Richard J. Kos said his message to children is the holiday is not the unofficial start of summer, instead it is to remember those killed in war, those who came back hurt and are still suffering and the families who continue to mourn their loved ones.
He also thanked the veterans for putting on the event, which Kos admitted is probably his favorite Memorial Day commemoration, and all the work they do during the year.
This is the 26th year the candlelight memorial has been held and Healey said it continues to be important to remind families their loved ones are remembered.
“Someone has to remember all of those who gave all they had to give,” he said.
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