Soldier from Pelham remembered for self-sacrifice
PELHAM - Ask those who love him to tell you about Dan Gionet, and it's his smile they mention first.
"He always had the biggest heart, the biggest smile, and would give you the shirt off his back whether he knew you or not," recalls longtime friend Gregg Gelinas of New Boston.
Gionet, a 23-year-old Army medic from Pelham, died in Iraq on June 4, 2006, after a roadside bomb went off near his tank. Even as he lay dying, Sgt. Gionet directed those around him to care for others who were wounded instead of him.
Next Sunday, his adopted hometown will dedicate a Main Street bridge over Beaver Brook in Gionet's honor.
As it has with other fallen heroes before him, this is how New Hampshire will ensure that Gionet's name is remembered through the ages.
And that's a comfort to his family, including his Gold Star mom, Denise Gionet. "It's another way to know that he won't be forgotten," she said. "And it means that his daughter's going to find out how special he was."
Before he left for his second tour of duty, Dan Gionet married his sweetheart, Katrina, the woman he called the love of his life.
He - and his family - never knew he had a child, a daughter born to a former girlfriend.
He had met the child's mother, Misty Young, when he was stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York after his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, but they split up when he transferred to Fort Hood in Texas. She never told him she was expecting his child.
It was only last year that Denise Gionet learned about her granddaughter. Meeting Ella Mae for the first time, Gionet said, "was like a hug from heaven."
Ella Gionet, who has her daddy's eyes and smile, will be in Pelham for the 1 p.m. ceremony next Sunday. It's her 8th birthday.
"She'll get to meet a lot of people that he knew," Gionet said. "She'll hear stories, I'm sure."
Among those who can't wait to meet Ella is Ashley Gelinas, Dan's lifelong friend. The kids grew up together when their families lived in Lowell, Mass., before Dan and his mother moved to Pelham.
"We did everything together," Gelinas said. "Playing baseball when we were younger, fishing, camping, getting in trouble...."
Over the years, Gelinas and her husband, Gregg, stayed close with Dan. Both of them were firefighters, and Gionet talked about maybe joining the fire service when he got out of the military. After he re-enlisted, he trained as a medic.
Because of the danger inherent in their respective jobs, Gelinas and Gionet promised they would take care of each other's families if anything happened, Ashley Gelinas said. "I never thought I'd have to hold up to that promise, but I've tried."
Her 5-year-old daughter, Megan, knows all about her "Uncle Danny." Gelinas remembers the first time they visited Denise Gionet's house with Megan and were looking at family photos. "And she pointed to Uncle Danny and said, 'That's who visited me at nighttime.' She pointed right to his face."
Dan Gionet's squad leader, former Army medic Daniel Sethre, is making the trip from Washington state for the bridge dedication. "It's a healing point for me in my life," he said in a telephone interview.
Dan Gionet was "probably the most generous person I've ever met," Sethre said. "He would do anything to help out any of the other squad members, whether it was just helping them restock their aid bag or being there to listen to them while they were going through a tough time."
And, he said, "He was just plain-out fun to be around."
Sethre was with Gionet when the IED went off on June 4, 2006. Their lieutenant was killed and Gionet was critically wounded.
But, Sethre recalled, "He was already outside the tank with his aid bag and he was trying to help other soldiers that were injured."
Another man, Sgt. Eric Haines, was badly injured and stuck in the crumpled turret of the tank, so Sethre ran to help him. When they finally got Haines out, Sethre went back to Dan Gionet. "He was comforting us and saying, 'You guys are doing great.'"
"We were getting ready for the med-evac choppers and I remember sitting there and I remember just holding Dan's hand and telling him, 'It's going to be all right.'"
"He looked up at me and my other medic and he said, '...I'm so happy you're here.' He just had the biggest smile on his face.
"I've never forgotten that moment. That was the last thing he said to me."
The years since Dan's death have been rough, Sethre admitted, but he's doing better now. "That's why this trip is a big positive step forward for me."
Haines is making the trip as well, so it'll be a reunion of sorts. Sethre said he's looking forward to spending time with Dan's mother, and to meeting his daughter. From the photos he's seen, he said, "She looks just like him." Gregg Gelinas said the word "hero'' is overused today, but their friend Dan Gionet earned that title: "He gave his life to save three others."
"He knew he was bleeding out. He knew his time on this earth wasn't very long. But he continued doing what he needed to for those three other guys."
"He made the ultimate sacrifice."
For Ashley Gelinas, losing her childhood friend in war has made Memorial Day more meaningful. "A lot of people think it's just an extra day off. It's not," she said. "It's that day off to reflect on who is not here."
Next Sunday, she hopes to say a few words about the handsome young man with the dazzling smile who always thought about others before himself, and who died that way.
And, she said, "I can't wait to have my daughter and his daughter be able to play together like we did.
"It's going to be crazy, it's going to be emotional - but it's going to be awesome."