Here in New England | The Man Who Listens to Soldiers
On July 1, 2010, eight days after I met Colonel Coffin, Ryan Grady, a 25-year-old Guardsman from West Burke, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was the first from the January deployment to die. On August 22, the news came again. Steven DeLuzio, age 25, a Connecticut native who had attended Norwich University in Vermont and wanted to serve with a Vermont unit, and Tristan Southworth, age 21, both members of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, had died together in a firefight in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Southworth, who only three years earlier had been the starting pitcher in the state championship baseball game, came home to the Northeast Kingdom in a convoy that wound its way east from Burlington through the village of Walden, where he’d grown up, before halting just northwest of there, in Hardwick, where he’d attended high school. Its sidewalks were lined with people clutching flags. Our Hero You Will Never Be Forgetten read a banner across the front of the small inn in the town center.
He was buried on a blue-sky morning. Helicopters bearing officers in their dress uniforms landed on the green lawn of Hazen Union High School, whirling dust into the air. The gym overflowed with mourners, and all was stillness and heat and solemn military ritual.
His high-school teammates, dressed in their baseball jerseys, sat together; his family sat in front, their faces set hard in determination to make it through the morning. An officer knelt and handed them their son’s medals, including the Bronze Star. After the service, everyone walked silently out into the searing sun, where volunteers offered chilled bottles of water, and then the long, slow procession bore them away to the cemetery.
After the gym had emptied, Colonel Coffin lingered behind, his face weary and drawn. He stood beside a memorial to Tristan Southworth: boyhood photos, his basketball jersey signed by teammates, a story he wrote honoring his cousin, who had received the Medal of Honor after giving his life by falling on a grenade in Vietnam.
Coffin wants to be the last one to leave a service, the last to leave the cemetery. “I’m looking to see if somebody is hanging back,” he said. “Most likely they’re hanging back for a reason.” Lately he has suffered headaches, at times he has been unable to read or to sit at a computer. A pain specialist told him it was because his eyes never stopped looking, as if he were afraid he’d miss something–so vigilant, so tense, he was a cord ready to snap.
He remembered one summer funeral when he was waiting at the cemetery: “I saw two young guys, country boys dressed up, a tie and zippered jacket. ‘How you boys doing?’ I said.
“‘Not quite done yet?’
“‘No, no, want to just say goodbye.’