Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Army Sgt. Russell M. Durgin

Remember Our Heroes

Army Sgt. Russell M. Durgin, 23, of Henniker, N.H.

Sgt. Durgin was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.; killed June 13 when his unit took small arms fire in Korengel, Afghanistan.

By Rona Marech
Sun reporter

HENNIKER, N.H. // Sean Durgin wasn't ready to reminisce about his brother. It was too hard to say, "We used to ... ." And he couldn't look at the body; he found it hard to even say that word.

It wasn't a body. It was Russell, the Army sergeant. Russell, the jokester, the goofball, the 23-year-old guy who loved to drink beer and planned on proposing to his girlfriend when he returned from Afghanistan.

But Russell Durgin died June 13 in an enemy ambush in the mountains. His twin brother Sean - himself a military man, an Air Force staff sergeant, now a member of the Maryland Air National Guard - had been here in his hometown to celebrate his recent graduation from the Community College of Baltimore County when the Army casualty officer brought the news of Russell's death.

The funeral is today. On Thursday, Sean couldn't even bring himself to go to the private family viewing. "I can't do it," he told his mother.

Instead, he took a long drive through the hills in this verdant corner of New Hampshire. It was a muggy day with barely a breeze. As he and his girlfriend rode down familiar roads, they talked about the past and about the future.

Sean had been planning to go to Qatar in July on a two-month assignment and then to attend the University of Maryland in the fall. But after Russell died, another member of his unit offered to take Sean's place overseas. He'll still go back to school, but now the summer is stretching out before him, confusingly empty. "I don't know what I'm going to do this summer. I don't want to say, 'Get over it,' but just grieve. Take time off. Try to think about him," he said.

The twins had sturdy good looks and earnest smiles, but the Durgin boys had always been different. It's apparent, even in photographs from their childhood. Sean, his hair a shade lighter, often looked more serious. He'd be standing at attention, gazing out soberly, while Russell would stick up a thumb and grin impishly.

Sean would always think before acting while Russell was more spontaneous, more emotional. Sean worried about his brother sometimes, yet he seemed invincible - as though the good times would carry him through.

"He knew how to live life," Sean said. "He wasn't cocky or overconfident. ... He knew how to handle his men."

Henniker, a town of about 4,500, boasts a covered bridge near the sole traffic light downtown and a pharmacy with an old-fashioned fountain service and swivel seats. Everyone knows everyone here, and the news of Russell's death rolled through like a quake.

When Russell's body came home, police officers stood and saluted at every intersection. A high school friend organized a candlelight vigil, and an officer directed traffic into the church parking lot at the wake. Signs about the viewing, the funeral and the gathering downtown for a final good-bye salute were posted everywhere.

Some family friends knew out-of-town visitors would be coming and thought the highway overpass looked empty. As the sun began to set Thursday, they went out to the bridge with a stepstool and stuck little American flags along the top of the mesh fence.

Russell's mother, Jean Tully Durgin, had also planted American flags along the edge of her front lawn. Behind them was a picture of Russell as everyone seems to remember him - smiling, carefree. "You left us too soon but you will always be with us," a sign read. Another sign simply said "Welcome Home Russ."

Someone brought an extra refrigerator to the Durgins to hold all the food from friends. And all week, young people moved in and out. They smiled ruefully and talked in hushed tones.

Lester Durgin, the twins' father, is no longer married to their mother, but he was at the house all week too, eyes red-rimmed. The boys' four siblings were dazed. Jean Durgin moved around slowly, as if every part of her body ached. She cried when James O'Leary, Russell's friend from Iraq, arrived.

"I needed to see you," she said, hugging him and burying her face on his big shoulder. Her muffled sobs filled the kitchen with its gingham curtains. "He loved you guys. You know that."

O'Leary lifted his shirt. He had a new tattoo - a flag, an eagle and dog tags marked with Russell's initials.

In the living room, the family had set up two giant posterboards with photographs. Russell and Sean as babies, Russell kissing his girlfriend, Russell and Sean upright in their military uniforms.

Lester Durgin had served in the Marine Corps in the 1960s, and both boys always expected to join the military. When they were 17, despite their mother's apprehension, Sean joined the Air Force and Russell, the Army Reserve.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Russell was released to active duty and served in Korea, and then for a year in Iraq. He returned, retrained as a sniper and left for Afghanistan in March.

Sean, meanwhile, became an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. He briefly served in Qatar while Russell was in Iraq. Last summer, in order to be with his girlfriend, he moved from an Air Force base in Arkansas to White Marsh and joined the Maryland Air National Guard.

The family thought the worst was over for Russell when he returned from Iraq.

"Afghanistan was supposed to be a piece of cake, and he was supposed to be a lot safer," said his girlfriend, Michele Dougherty. The couple had known each other since high school and had picked out names for future children.

By chance, Dougherty was at the Durgin household the day they the news came. Sean was there for a rare visit before his July 6 deployment. In honor of his associate's degree, he and Dougherty had gone out to dinner with his mother and other relatives.

Sean was standing in the driveway when he saw the soldiers drive by, turn around and park in front of the house. He dropped his soda and started screaming.

Russell was shot staving off the enemy while about five of his fellow soldiers found cover, Sean said. His actions earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Sean never would have asked to get out of his Qatar assignment. He doesn't agree with his mother, who campaigned vigorously for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race and has been against the war in Iraq from the beginning. Sean believes that it's his duty to serve.

But a few days after his brother's death, he found out his deployment was canceled. Peter Ramsey, a fellow member of his unit, had agreed to go in his stead. "We take care of each other," said Ramsey, 26.

Sean's girlfriend, Melissa Sellers, had planted a garden so she could watch something grow while he was gone. She wept in relief when she found out he wouldn't be sent to Qatar. It's not a war zone, she said, but in the Middle East, "everything is volatile."

He could wind up there. Sean says that when his obligation to the Maryland Air National Guard ends in 2009, he may re-enlist.

"I'm probably less scared now," he said. "If something does happen to me, I know he'll be there waiting for me."

In a way, he is ready for the hoopla to end: the funeral, the throngs, the attention that none of them ever wanted.

When it quiets down, he said, he's going to go to his brother's grave by himself. He'll crack open a beer, and they'll have one last drink together.

Army Sgt. Russell M. Durgin was killed in action on 06/13/06.


art said...

I was driving through Kennebunk today and I was behind a pickup truck that said Sgt. Durgin's name on it, his KIA date and an American Flag. Something compelled me to look him, find out who he was, what happened to him. I am not sorry I did, he sounds like a wonderful man. I am sorry for the loss.

Anonymous said...

I have a memory bracelet with his name on it. I wear it everyday. I didn't know him, but I found it in Iraq in 2008.
Spc. Goetz 10th Mountain division.