Veteran bonds with family of Army buddy who was killed in Iraq 12 years ago
By JERRY FALLSTROM | Orlando Sentinel | Published: February 8, 2019
EUSTIS, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Veteran Michael Puccini gets a gleam in his eye when he thinks about his Army buddy Derek Gibson.
“What I always remember about Derek is he always had that sarcastic smile,” Puccini said. “He was a jokester. Derek was always doing something to get a rise out of somebody.”
He snickered while recalling the mischievous Eustis native bringing a stray dog to their barracks — which he knew couldn’t stay there — or teasing Puccini for being from Kentucky and not chewing tobacco like he did. Gibson died in Iraq on April 4, 2007, when the armored vehicle he was riding in was blasted by an improvised explosive device. Puccini was the truck commander in the Humvee right in front of Gibson’s.
Saying it was something he’s wanted to do — had to do — for a long time, Puccini, 34, traveled to Florida late last month from Germantown, Ky., to meet Gibson’s family and pay tribute to the infantryman who was killed at 20 along with another soldier during combat operations.
His wife, Kaitlin, 31, and their 8-year-old twin boys came, too. But there was no consideration of a Disney side trip. This was about sharing memories of Derek Gibson and getting to know the fallen servicemember’s family better since connecting with them several years ago on Facebook.
“It’s been tough, as I’m sure it is for everybody, getting over the things that happened,” said Puccini, who was medically retired as a sergeant with two Purple Hearts after seven years in the Army. “I’ve regretted what happened with Derek, and have for years.
“I thought it was important for me to come down here to hopefully move on, work on some things, spend time with [Gibson’s parents] Jerry and Janet and the rest of the family. I think it’s gonna help everybody.”
Family members were grateful, just as they were the previous week when local commissioners voted to bestow recognition on Derek Gibson by designating a 2-mile portion of County Road 44 the “PFC Derek Arthur Gibson Memorial Highway.”
Janet Gibson, 61, said three others who served with their son have stopped by to see them and their four-legged family members — a wire fox-haired terrier named Eddie and a Chihuahua-corgi mix named Princess.
She also received a Christmas card from another former soldier who has a young son named Gibson, after her son.
The get-togethers, she said, “bring back stories that we hadn’t heard, and it just brings him back to life.
“It’s really neat to hear them tell how he was funny and how he was always doing pranks and stuff, because that was how he was here,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “so he didn’t change a whole lot.”
The visit with the Puccinis included laughter over photos of Derek Gibson flipping the bird in photos, memories of his imitation of Chris Farley on “Saturday Night Live” and tales of him fishing on the Euphrates River, which regularly had bodies floating in it.
He was a superb fisherman, said his sister Shannon Race, 27, who cherishes a photo of Gibson hoisting an 8-pound bass. Though she’s not big into fishing, she was proud that she pulled in an equally large bass a year after her brother’s death. The two photos are in a frame together.
Race said he would say, “You want to catch a fish, you gotta think like a fish.”
He liked fishing more than school. He dropped out of Eustis High School at 16 to go to work for his dad’s construction company, later earning a high school-equivalency diploma. He joined the Army in 2006 — the first in his family to serve in the military.
“He didn’t want to follow a traditional route,” his sister said.
Stories told by his family gave Puccini insight into the good-natured smart aleck he knew in the Army. He said Race has the same half-cocked smile as her late brother.
But Puccini, now a deputy jailer, didn’t just reminisce about funny moments.
He also provided the Gibsons, Race and Derek’s brother Dustin Gibson, 37, with a firsthand account of what life was like for their unit at combat outpost Gator outside the Green Zone — the safest area of Baghdad — where Gibson relished the unit’s perilous duty of sweeping suspected hideouts of enemy fighters.
They didn’t have running water initially.
“We finally got one shower stall per 100 people,” Puccini said, shaking his head at the recollection.
They ate food purchased from local vendors, drank iodine-treated water and slept on old-style Army cots in an environment where temperatures can soar into the 100s.
“We eventually got some Iraqi air-conditioners, and that was wonderful.”
But the soldiers faced immense danger. Puccini said his unit lost six men in 15 months “and 70 percent of us had Purple Hearts.”
Seated on the couch in the Gibsons’ living room, he quietly recounted the spring day that changed the lives of his hosts.
Puccini said he was in the lead vehicle and Derek Gibson was in the second one, seated behind the driver. They came to a T-intersection and proceeded cautiously.
“Something about that area didn’t seem right. Something didn’t feel right,” he said. “Everything was real still. There was nobody out moving — no cars, no nothing.”
Then it happened.
“I heard a big thud,” he said. “I looked in the rear-view [mirror] and could see the truck on its top.”
Other soldiers wanted to rush to help, but Puccini said he had to warn them to wait to make sure everything was OK, so that others wouldn’t be needlessly hurt.
When they got to the damaged Humvee, Gibson and Pfc. Walter Freeman Jr., 20, of Lancaster, Calif., who was pinned against the steering wheel, had fatal injuries.
“I was enraged,” said Puccini, who along with others searched nearby houses for the person responsible for the explosion.
They caught a man with residue on his hands believed to have detonated the bomb and turned him over to the Iraqi army, he said. He said he’s not sure what happened to the suspect.
“They let us say goodbye to Derek and Walter,” he said. Then the bodies were loaded onto a C-130 plane for an “angel flight” and their eventual return to the U.S.
“I’d have much rather died than any of my guys,” Puccini said. “I spend a lot of time thinking what I could have done different.”
About 700 people turned out for Derek Gibson’s funeral at Eustis’ Greenwood Cemetery, which is only about a half-mile from the Gibsons’ home. Jerry Gibson, 66, visits the grave regularly and is sure there was a purpose for what happened.
“Coming from a not real religious person,” he said, fighting back tears, “I know there’s a higher power.”
For her part, Janet Gibson likes to remember how the son she lost to war could lift her spirits if she was having a bad day.
He would say, “Oh, mom, turn the frown upside down.”
That also describes her attitude toward Puccini and other military buddies of her son who stay in touch.
“People that loved our kid,” she said, “of course, we’re gonna love them.”
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