At Pelham bridge dedication, it's fallen soldier's smile they'll remember
PELHAM -- THOSE WHO KNEW Dan Gionet best said he would have found the humor in Sunday afternoon's scorching temperatures.
"He probably would have thought this was really funny," his mother, Denise Gionet, told the crowd gathered in front of St. Patrick's Church for a ceremony dedicating a bridge over Beaver Brook in honor of the fallen Army medic. "It's a lot like the day he graduated from high school, where he jumped in the pool wearing all of his clothes."
During a somber remembrance for her son, the Gold Star Mother and Pelham resident reminded Sgt. Gionet's friends, comrades and fellow community members of her happy-go-lucky son's favorite words to live by — "Don't worry, be happy."
"He's not gone," said Denise Gionet, wrapping her arms around the small shoulders of the medic's 8-year-old daughter, Ella Mae. "Because he lives on in everyone who knew him."
Gionet, a 2001 Pelham High School graduate who was injured by a roadside IED that struck his tank while he was serving in Iraq, died in June 2006 at the age of 24.
Despite his severe battlefield wounds, Gionet insisted that his injured comrades be attended to first even though his own injuries ultimately resulted in death.
"He spent his final moments selflessly encouraging his fellow medics to care for others first," U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster said. "May we never forget all the sacrifices Dan made."
Overcome with emotion, former Army medic Daniel Sethre, who was Gionet's squad leader, described Gionet as "one very special man."
"Anywhere he'd walk into, he'd make people laugh," Sethre said. "His smile was the most contagious one I've ever seen or ever will."
Both Sethre and Sgt. Eric Haines were with Gionet when he was injured. Haines said Gionet put his own needs on hold to attend to him when he was unconscious, effectively saving his life.
Haines was inside the tank at the time of the explosion and suffered serious injuries. After emerging from a coma, he found himself in an American hospital, where he learned that his friend hadn't made it home.
"Dan was in a unique position where he both took care of all of us as well as those we were fighting against," said Haines, who walks with a cane and still bears the scars of that fateful day in Iraq.
"He never discriminated, and he was always so cheerful," he added. "We kept some pretty ungodly hours, and yet he'd have that smile on his face at 2 a.m."
The ceremony also marked an important milestone for Ella Mae, the daughter Gionet never had the chance to meet.
Dressed in red, white and blue, the little girl with her daddy's megawatt smile celebrated her 8th birthday on Sunday.
Meeting Ella Mae for the first time was Ashley Gelinas, a close childhood friend of Sgt. Gionet's.
"He was the best friend anyone could have ever asked for," said Gelinas, who spent the earlier part of her childhood with Gionet when they both lived in Lowell, Mass.
"When Dan was around, all we'd do is laugh," she said. "He just had this way of seeing the brighter side of things, and he hated to be sad. Dan loved to show emotions, but sadness wasn't one of them."
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