Drew Hodges, 10, of Thornton stands in line on the side of Route 49 in Waterville Valley as the family of fallen soldier Marc Decoteau brings his body home yesterday.
Officer Greg Bavis set the tribute in motion. “They’re getting off Exit 28,” the Waterville Valley cop announced. That meant the Decoteau family would drive past in 10, maybe 15, minutes. That meant it was time for everyone in town – everyone – to file out of the recreation department building, little flags in their hands, lots of pain in their hearts.
They moved through the parking lot and onto Route 49, near downtown Waterville Valley, the place that trumps Cheers when it comes to knowing your name. They stretched out for 200 yards, waiting in the cold for Mark and Nancy Decoteau, the parents of Pfc. Marc Decoteau, and Marc’s siblings, Andrew and Maddie. They flew in from Dover, Del., where a ceremony was held to honor their son as his body was returned.
Marc Decoteau, who joined the Army the summer after graduating from Plymouth Regional High in 2008, was killed Friday in Afghanistan. He was 19.
An anonymous NATO official told a news outlet last weekend that two U.S. soldiers were killed Friday at a combat post in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, by an Afghan interpreter. The Army has not confirmed that report, nor has it stated how Decoteau died.
People in his hometown of 300, though, had enough information yesterday. They knew one of their own, the kid they used to watch play football in high school, had died while serving his country. They knew one of their own had died doing what he always wanted to do. And they knew their sorrow would linger, for a very long time.
Decoteau, who was deployed less than four weeks ago, had that kind of impact.
“It’s a sad thing, and it hurts,” Chris Hodges, the town’s director of public safety, said shortly before the tribute. “He was a kid who was so far and above regular humanity. Anyone you talk to will tell you that. An amazing kid.”
They honored this amazing kid, and they watched as Nancy and Maddie moved past in a police cruiser, and Mark and Andrew followed in a government vehicle.
It was quick, quiet and cold, like a blast of air through the entrance of the Waterville Valley Recreation Department.
Rachel Gasowski has been the director there for three years. She sat in the multipurpose room before the tribute, laughing and crying, crying and laughing.
Mark Decoteau, the town manager, is her boss. Marc Decoteau worked for her summers, in the day camps, in the after-school programs, at the bingo games.
“You could be having a bad day, and as soon as he walked through the door, the goofy side of him would come through,” Gasowski said. “And if it was driving you crazy, before long it was making you laugh and you were jumping on board with him. He found ways of making everyone smile. He found the fun in everything.”
That’s what was said. Over and over. Hodges stressed that praise for this fallen soldier wasn’t just, well, talk.
It was truth. It was real.
“Every time you saw him, he cast a ray of light with anyone he encountered,” Hodges said. “That big smile on his face. That was him.”
Decoteau baby-sat for Hodges’s two young boys. He made snacks for 5-year-old Drew. Ants on a log – celery with peanut butter and raisins – was Drew’s favorite.
Decoteau also videotaped Drew’s T-ball games. “You never see him, but you hear his commentary of the game and how he’s cheering Drew on,” Hodges said. “This is a 15-year-old kid at the time. He took an interest. He’s cheering him on.”
Soon, Gail Hannigan, the principal at Decoteau’s grade school, came into Hodges’s office. She fought tears, but there was no way those tears would stop her. Not when it came to speaking about Decoteau.
“I just feel like I lost one of my kids,” Hannigan said. “We all get very close because we’re such a small community.”
The police and the firefighters and the highway department workers and Mark the town manager all work in the same building.
And the nearby recreation department building is yards away from the elementary school, with its 35 to 40 students for all eight grades. That says a lot. As Hodges said, “When you go through that school, you’re part of a family for life.”
The high school kids go back to Waterville Valley Elementary School each December, for the holiday concerts. The college kids come back during breaks.
Decoteau, of course, came back last December, too. He was on leave, done with his training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Mark played Santa Claus at the Christmas concert, and his three children were there to poke fun at their dad.
“He hugged me just before he left for Afghanistan,” Hannigan said. “He hugged everyone. He would never think of going to Afghanistan without coming here and talking about it.”
Then he left. He had wanted to serve since he was a kid. His dad is a West Point graduate, so it only made sense.
“Early in high school, (the military) was his focus,” Hodges said. “He didn’t vary from that at all. Ever.”
He spent more than 1