San Pao hates tributes, but about a month ago he realized he had to organize one. It’s not that he felt obligated to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of his friend and fellow soldier, Spc. Christopher Gelineau, who was killed in Iraq on April 20, 2004.
It was the way people were talking about him that prompted Pao to act.
“I noticed people were bottling it up,” he said, noting the stutters and quivering voices that accompanied the mention of Gelineau’s name.
On Friday, members of the 133rd Engineer Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard, their friends and family, and students and faculty from the University of Southern Maine came together in a room in the Wishcamper Center on USM’s Portland campus for what Pao had billed as a tribute and community gathering – and what became a much-needed support group.
Gelineau, 23, grew up in Vermont and was a semester away from graduating from USM when he was deployed. He was one of the first soldiers with Maine ties killed in Iraq, and his death hit the community hard.
Now, after a decade of deployments, more than 60 soldiers with Maine ties have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pao said.
Most of the 40-some people at Friday’s gathering knew Gelineau as a soldier or a student. Several of them stood up and spoke, sharing their memories of Gelineau, their experiences at war and the challenges they faced in the past decade, as they’ve tried – or avoided – coping with grief that is still not far below the surface.
Pao recalled the day that Gelineau died. He was driving the truck behind Gelineau when a roadside bomb hit their convoy – “the explosion that rocked us all,” he called it.
“I can see him right now, pulling him out of the mud,” Pao recalled.
It wasn’t until he asked about Gelineau from his hospital bed that he found out what happened.
“Why wasn’t it me?” Pao said.
Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, the company commander, wasn’t in the convoy, but heard about what happened moments afterward. He got to the field hospital just as the helicopter was landing with Gelineau inside. Gelineau was treated there before doctors decided to transfer him to Baghdad. As he was taken back to the helicopter, Steinbuchel said he got a few moments to touch him and talk to him.
“I know in my heart that he heard me,” said Steinbuchel, who doesn’t remember what he said.
Gelineau died before he got to the next hospital.
Alicia Wilkinson doesn’t even remember who told her, just that nobody wanted to be the one.
Wilkinson, the company’s operations sergeant, worked with Gelineau out of the armory on Stevens Avenue before they both went to Iraq. They were located in two different bases, across the city of Mosul, but stayed in close contact over the phone.
They had spoken a couple of days before he died.
“He said, ‘Sgt. Wilkinson, I don’t want to go out on the road. You promised me I wouldn’t have to,’ ” she said between sobs. “The guilt that goes with that is just so hard.”
She and Todd Crawford, the company’s executive officer, were responsible for going through his belongings to send back to his wife, Lavinia, with whom Crawford talked about Gelineau.
The exercise was cathartic, Crawford said, a “bitter, wonderful duty.”
“Of course, I gained this great relationship with Lavi, and then we lost her,” he said.
Lavinia Gelineau spoke openly about her heartbreak and anguish after her husband’s death. A year to the month after Gelineau died, his wife was beaten and strangled to death by her father at her home in Westbrook. It was a second tragic blow to their families and to the university community.
The couple had met at USM in 2001 and got married the next year.
Jeanne Munger, an associate professor of marketing, got to know Gelineau through his wife, a student and friend whom she described Friday as “one of the liveliest, spunkiest women you’d ever meet.”
Along with the couple, several soldiers from Maine who died in combat were recognized and remembered Friday with pictures and songs.
Some members of the 133rd Engineer Battalion also talked about their memories from the suicide bombing in their dining facility that killed 22 people, including two members of their battalion, in December 2004.
Others talked about the need to talk.
Crawford said he gave that advice to every soldier he knew – except himself.
“I hid my pain,” he said, until about a year ago. That was the last time he held a gun to his head before getting help, he said.
Crawford credited Pao for taking his pain head-on. As much as he misses Gelineau, he said, he’s just as thankful that other soliders, like Pao, came home.
“This is really a celebration of the living,” he said. “This is really about us moving on.”