BOSCAWEN — Bob Coutu had been trying to find the family of his fallen comrade for years. And it seemed fitting somehow that when he finally did, it was in a place of eternal rest and remembrance, the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery.
Coutu was serving with the Army's 2-17 Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, in Korea in 2004. That's where he met Sgt. Angelo Lozada Jr., a family man with a great sense of humor.
Lozada was a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. "We used to do that whole Red Sox/Yankees thing," Coutu remembered.
About the time the soldiers of the 2-17 F.A. were set to go home, they were deployed instead to Ramadi, Iraq. And that's where 36-year-old Lozada and two other soldiers died when their Paladin field artillery vehicle took a direct hit from a rocket on April 16, 2005.
Coutu was in a guard tower when the attack came; he and the other soldiers were helpless to rescue their comrades from the fiery explosion. "We had to just sit there watching the vehicle burn," he said.
One soldier survived the explosion, but suffered burns over more than 90 percent of his body, Coutu said.
The incident haunted Coutu after he was released from active duty in 2006 and moved back to Pelham. He joined the Massachusetts National Guard, but he needed to do something more to recapture the camaraderie of his Army days. So he joined the Nam Knights motorcycle club, made up of veterans from all the recent conflicts.And on his first trip to the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in 2009, he found the white marble grave of his friend and comrade, Sgt. Angelo Lozada Jr., who had moved to Nashua after high school, unbeknownst to Coutu. "All this time I'd been home, I had no idea he was this close."
From that time on, whenever Coutu visited the cemetery, he left a flower for his comrade. "Every Christmas, he gets his wreath. We always give him a salute."
And he kept trying to find Lozada's family, the kids his friend had spoken of so proudly over there. He posted messages on Facebook and reached out to others who had served with Lozada.
And finally, earlier this month, he got a message back from Lozada's daughter, Crystal, who was 15 when her father was killed.
"They had no idea I was looking for him," he said. "But I never gave up on finding them."
On the December Saturday when the Blue Star Mothers group organizes volunteers to lay wreaths at the veterans' cemetery, they all found each other at Lozada's grave. Coutu, who now lives in Lunenburg, Mass., met his comrade's sisters, brother and three kids, who are grown now.
Lozada's sister, Angela Jimenez of Nashua, said the meeting with Coutu was very emotional. "It was so wonderful."
"I felt like I knew him," she said. "I feel like he was part of my family already."
It was the first time she'd been at the cemetery for the wreath-laying, Jimenez said, although she had always wondered who was leaving the fresh green wreaths with the red bows at her brother's grave each December.
They hugged and took photos, Jimenez said. And she found out that Coutu has a tattoo with her brother's name on his forearm.
"To know that someone we didn't even know carried my brother's name tattooed on his arm ... ."
"The moment I met him and talked to him, I felt like I knew this guy," she said. "I just wanted to hug him."
Coutu, who is married and has two stepchildren, said the meeting "made my Christmas."
"I honestly don't even know how to put it into words."
Coutu said he wanted Lozada's children to know what a "real stand-up guy" their dad was. "He loved his family, he loved his kids. That was the only thing that was keeping him going out there."
Coutu put them in touch with other soldiers from their unit, who shared photos and stories about their father. And Coutu told them if they ever need anything, he'll be there.
"To me, they're extended family," he said.