Surprise gift: Fallen soldier's child at 7
Denise Gionet of Pelham recently learned that her son Daniel, an Army medic who was killed in Iraq in 2006, had fathered a child while he was stationed at Fort Drum in New York in 2004. The little girl, Ella Mae, is seven years old and lives in upstate New York with her mom and three brothers, but will spend Thanksgiving here in New Hampshire with her newfound extended family. Ella Mae Matteson, left, was born June 2, 2005; her father is Daniel Gionet (pictured at right at the same age), a Pelham soldier who died in Iraq in 2006, never knowing he had a daughter. (Shawne Wickham/Union Leader)
That's the day her firstborn son, Daniel, died in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded near his tank; critically wounded, the 23-year-old Army medic directed rescuers to help others instead of him.
Gionet recently learned that Daniel - unbeknownst to him - had fathered a child with a former girlfriend. His daughter, Ella Mae, was born one year and two days before his death.
The little girl, now 7 years old, has her daddy's dark eyes and dazzling grin. And Gionet said, "Now I have joy - and her name is Ella."
Gionet met her granddaughter for the first time on Columbus Day weekend when she and her parents visited Ella and her mother at their home in upstate New York.
Ella came running to meet Gionet, calling out, "Grandma," as she threw her little arms around her. "It was like a hug from heaven," Gionet said.
She sees her lost son in his little girl.
"It's like having him back," she said. "She is so much like him. She's got his 'don't worry, be happy' attitude. That zest for life - she's full of it.
"She laughs for no reason," she said. "I think it's him tickling her from heaven."
In late August, Ella's mother, Misty Young, had sent Gionet a Facebook message: "I think my daughter is your granddaughter."
After a few panicked days when Gionet couldn't contact Young, she finally tracked her down, sending this reply: "This is the greatest gift a mother of a fallen soldier could ever want."
And on Sept. 25, the results of DNA testing confirmed what family photos, her own eyes and her heart had already told Gionet. "She looks just like her daddy," she said.
Indeed, when she holds childhood photos of Dan and Ella side by side, "they look like brother and sister."
Gionet said her son never knew that his relationship with Young - after his return to Fort Drum from Afghanistan - had resulted in her pregnancy. They had broken up because he was moving to Fort Hood in Texas and Young didn't want to leave her family in New York.
► Click here to view a list of soldiers with NH ties who died during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Dan married his sweetheart, Katrina, just before he deployed to Iraq in late 2005.
Ella's mother also married someone else and has three other children, all boys. After Dan died, she got in touch with Gionet, telling her she was a friend of her son, and they stayed in touch occasionally through social media.
But it was only recently that Young decided that Gionet deserved the truth.
"I debated for a long time. A very long time," Young said in a telephone interview.
She knew Dan had gotten married and she worried about how his mother would react to the news. "I expected her to be angry and upset, but she wasn't," she said. "She was lovely."
Young said she had tried to reach Dan after she found out she was pregnant, but couldn't find him. She tried again about a year after Ella was born. "I just Googled his name and New Hampshire because I knew that's where he was from."
And that's how she learned he had been killed in Iraq. "I debated trying to find his family. I didn't know how they would react or what they would think. I debated on that for a long time and then finally I couldn't take it anymore."
It was her husband who persuaded Young to contact Denise Gionet, asking her: "Misty, if this was your son, wouldn't you want to know if he left a child behind?"
Young said the Gionets have embraced her whole family; even her other children call Denise "Grandma."
"I wasn't expecting to walk into greatness, and that's what we walked into," she said. "The perfect family."
For Gionet, meeting Ella was love at first sight. "She's just a little love bug. I just love her so much," she said. "She brings me so much joy. She calls me every day when she gets off the school bus."
Counselors from Fort Drum who work at Ella's school had advised the family to tell the little girl what had happened to her father. "Don't give her a chance to hope she can see her Daddy," Gionet said they explained. "Tell her right up front, and they did."
During that first visit, she brought Ella to a monument to fallen soldiers, including Dan, in Clayton, N.Y. "There's a stone there with his name on it," she said. "We brought roses. It was a real special day."
She tells her granddaughter "that she is an angel sent to me from heaven," Gionet said. "I tell her how much I loved her daddy and how much she looks just like him."
Gionet is president of New Hampshire Gold Star Mothers, whose members have shared her joy about Ella.
"When she told me, I had goose bumps all over," said Jean Durgin of Henniker, whose son Russell was killed in Afghanistan nine days after Dan Gionet died in Iraq.
"That's my fantasy, that someone's going to knock on the door and say, 'This is Russell's child,'" Durgin confided.
"To see her face when she talks about this grandchild, it's just so uplifting," she said. "Maybe God sends us gifts to lift our spirits so that we go on. We need to go on because we need to help others."
Ella and her mother will spend Thanksgiving with Gionet in Pelham; she'll get to meet Dan's brother Darren, but she'll have to wait to meet her Aunt Alycia, who is away serving in the Navy.
Gionet wants to take her granddaughter to the VA Medical Center in Manchester, where she works, and show her Dan's photo on a memorial wall there.
She'll also take her to Gibson Cemetery, where her father's granite headstone has an inscription from a James Taylor song: "Tho' the body sleeps, the heart will never rest."
Young said she has filed legal papers to change Ella's last name to Gionet. And Denise Gionet is helping her apply for the military benefits Ella is entitled to as the child of a fallen hero, such as a college education.
Gionet, too, has had time to think about what might have been had Dan known he was a father. "Maybe he'd have stayed in New York. Maybe he wouldn't have deployed. Maybe he'd still be here."
But, she said, "we can't go back and change it. It's a matter of picking up the pieces and moving on.''
"And,'' she said with a smile, "what a piece to pick up!"
She's come to believe that some kind of "divine intervention" has brought this unexpected blessing into her life.
"It feels like a miracle - and I'm the recipient," she said.
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Shawne Wickham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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