Honor never dies, as Granite Staters recognize those that sacrificed year round

New Hampshire Sunday News
May 24. 2014 9:13PM

Len Ouellette places a golf tee at his son's grave in New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery. He organizes an annual golf tournament in his son's memory, New Hampshire Freedom Cup, that provides emergency help, such as gas cards and grocery cards, to veterans receiving services through the V.A. Medical Center. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)

Lance Cpl. Michael Geary (for Shawne memorial day story)

New Hampshire remembers them - and not only on Memorial Day.

Those who have given what President Abraham Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion" are honored throughout the year at special events, including motorcycle rides, charity golf tournaments and bridge dedications.
The annual Ride for the Fallen is held in honor of Army Spc. Justin Rollins of Newport, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, the day after he rescued this puppy. The Rollins family had the dog brought to New Hampshire and named her Hero. 

On Monday at 2 p.m., Gov. Maggie Hassan will sign into law a measure naming a small bridge over Beaver Brook in Derry after native son Lance Cpl. Michael E. Geary, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

The dedication ceremony will take place on the bridge on Route 102 after Derry's Memorial Day parade.

Bill Geary of Londonderry is Michael Geary's uncle. He said having a bridge named for Michael will make this Memorial Day an especially emotional one for the entire family.

"Michael was a very dedicated young man who knew from a very early age that he wanted to be a Marine," Geary said. "He started training on his own when he was 14 years old."

And by the time he was 16, Michael had a black belt in karate and was running 10 miles a day, his uncle said. "He wanted to be the best he could be from the day he arrived at boot camp."

Just a few weeks before he died, Michael had called his uncle from Afghanistan, telling him things were "really bad" there. "If something happens, I just want to have a chance to say goodbye because I don't know if I'm coming home," he told him.

Geary was devastated by Michael's death. "It was like losing one of my own kids."

Some of Michael's comrades are coming to New Hampshire to attend Monday's bridge dedication, and on Aug. 10, Bill Geary will lead the third annual "Ride to Boscawen," from the Derry VFW to the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery. The ride raises money for the Wounded Warrior Project, the charity Michael had designated to receive contributions in the event of his death in combat.

Cpl. Michael Ouellette

Last week, Len Ouellette of Londonderry was at the Boscawen cemetery to decorate the grave of his son, Cpl. Michael Ouellette. The 28-year-old Marine served two tours in Iraq and was killed in Afghanistan on March 22, 2009.

Ouellette placed a white golf ball on a yellow tee in front of his son's granite marker. "This is my flag, my rose, my respect and my prayer," he said.

After Michael's death, Ouellette started a charity golf tournament, calling it the New Hampshire Freedom Cup. "Michael was all about 'live free or die,'" he said. "He used to brag about New Hampshire."

The event raises money for veterans who are receiving care from the VA Medical Center but who need a little extra help, such as grocery or gas cards, an oil delivery or emergency cash.

"It was my idea that he continue helping his comrades," said Ouellette, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War.

This year's tournament will be on June 20 at Candia Woods Golf Course.

About two years ago, a stranger approached Ouellette, showing him a black wristband bearing Michael's dates of birth and death. The man, an Iraq war veteran, told him he had been so depressed that he was contemplating suicide and had gone to the VA in desperation.

A VA case manager was able to give him immediate help, thanks to the Freedom Cup. "I came out of there with money, food cards and gas cards," the younger veteran told Ouellette. "Instead of committing suicide, I went shopping. For that reason, I wear your son's information on my wrist at all times."

"I used to worry about Michael being remembered, but I don't worry about that anymore," Ouellette said.

Two of his fellow Marines named children after Michael. And in Helmand province, Afghanistan, United Nations forces are serving at Base Ouellette.

Army Spc. Justin Rollins

Rhonda and Skip Rollins of Newport started the Ride for the Fallen in honor of their son, Army Spc. Justin Rollins, one of seven paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division killed in Iraq on March 5, 2007.

This year's ride will be on Aug. 23. Proceeds go toward scholarships at Newport High School for the sons and daughters of veterans.

Participation in the event has grown every year, Rhonda Rollins said. "Just to see all those bikes and all the people riding on that day just makes you feel so good that they're all there for us and for him and all the other fallen soldiers.

"The biggest thing is that we never wanted Justin to be forgotten - who he was and what he stood for," she said.

Her son was supposed to be a recruiter, but chose to join his men when they deployed to Iraq. "He knew that the chances are that he could not come back, and he was willing to take that chance," she said. "Which I think just makes these guys amazing."

The night before Justin was killed, he and his comrades had rescued a litter of puppies, posing for photos with the tiny pups.

After their son's death, the Rollinses arranged to have the puppy Justin was holding in that last photo shipped home to New Hampshire.

The dog, Hero, is now 7 years old. But the family nearly lost her when their house caught fire last October.

Emerging from the burning home with the unresponsive dog in his arms, firefighter and family friend Dan Brunt asked for permission to take Hero in an ambulance to a veterinary clinic, Rollins said.

The local firefighters knew what the dog means to the family, she said: "She's our last connection to Justin."

Hero was resuscitated in the ambulance. Also saved from the fire were Justin's medals and the flag that draped his casket.

The Rollinses are in Washington, D.C., this Memorial Day weekend for the Rolling Thunder motorcycle run. On Monday, they plan to visit their son's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. It's always difficult, Rhonda Rollins said.

"The hardest thing is when I first get there and you see the name you picked out for your baby on that headstone ... it takes my breath away."

For families such as these, Memorial Day now is laced with both pride and pain.

"It used to be you'd think of cookouts and fun things," Rollins said. "And now it's sad. When I hear the 'Star Spangled Banner' ... the 'bombs bursting in air' line gets me every single time. The tears start flowing."

And that's why these memorial events are so important, she said.

"We all go along our little everyday lives and forget that these men and women are still putting their lives on the line every day," she said. "I think we need to be reminded."

Until his beloved nephew died, Bill Geary said, he didn't think much about the reason behind this patriotic holiday.

"I always knew what Memorial Day meant, but I never really understood the depth of it all, going back to the Civil War, and everybody that died . so we could have the freedoms that we have.

"Freedom isn't free," he said.

Whenever his squad went out on patrol, Michael Geary insisted on walking point, his uncle said.

"He was the only one in his squad that wasn't married and had children. He said, 'If anybody's got to go, let it be me. You've got a wife and kids to go home to.'"

On Dec. 8, 2010, their patrol was ambushed and Geary was killed. He was 20 years old.

The rest of his squad survived.

. For more on the N.H. Freedom Cup golf tournament honoring Michael Ouellette, go to: www.nhfreedomcup.org. . For more on the Rollins Ride for the Fallen, go to: rollinsride.com.

. For more on the Ride to Boscawen: www.lcplmichaelgearymemorialride.org.

. A Memorial Day ceremony will be held at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery on Route 3 in Boscawen on Friday, May 30, at 11 a.m.

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