By Beth David, Editor
Marine LCpl Matthew Rodriguez, 19, was killed in Afghanistan on December 11, 2013, ten years ago. His family struggled this year to find a fitting way to mark the milestone. His mother, Lisa, said she saw an email announcing the “Remembering Our Fallen” exhibit would be at Gillette Stadium for the Army/Navy game. She wondered how she could get in to see it. She shot off an email and one thing led to another, and she managed to mobilize her crew to get the exhibit to New Bedford.
They got it together in 3–4 weeks, a monumental task.
The exhibit consists of 33 tribute towers with more than 5390 names of service members who have died since the 911 attacks. It includes those killed in action, those who died later from wounds they sustained in combat, those who died in training accidents, and those who succumbed to post traumatic stress and died from suicide.
Ms. Rodriguez said she called the people who will call anyone and ask for anything: Michael Knabbe and Hank Turgent.
“The rest is pretty much history,” she told the crowd at the ceremony on Monday, 12/11, at a hangar at the New Bedford airport, flanked by Marines, fire and police color guards, the Patriot Guard Riders, and amid the tribute towers.
“I’m pretty sure it was Matt who made sure I saw that email and gave me the courage to ask for something so amazing,” she said. “You see, Matt had pretty high standards. One of his favorite sayings was, ‘Only the Best.’ I think we were all able to deliver that for him today!”
She talked about Matthew a bit: “My Matthew was beautiful,” with his big sparkly blue eyes, infectious smile, big heart, and “a sensitive soul which he tried to hide.”
He loved baseball and hockey, history and camping, and being a goofy uncle.
She said he was wise beyond his years and a mechanical wizard.
He often argued just for the sake of arguing, which was infuriating.
“That’s when he knew he got you, and then that damn smile would make you laugh,” she said.
She told the crowd that Matthew wanted nothing more than to be a Marine and to be deployed, to be the “tip of the spear.”
“I do take comfort in knowing that Matthew gave his life doing exactly what he wanted to be doing,” said Ms. Rodriguez, adding he chose to serve with “deep thought and understanding, love of country, and a profound pride and purpose.”
She said when you lose a child, you grieve not only for them and the hole in your heart, but for the life they did not get to have. His sisters lost their oldest little brother and “the family comic relief,” his brother lost his “best friend and advisor, and also… his chief tormentor.”
“And our hearts will always break for Matt’s fiancee Julia who had every plan for her future ripped from her at far too young an age,” said Ms. Rodriguez.
The best way to honor Matt, she said, is for all to live their lives well.
“Anything less would be an insult to his love for us, and his sacrifice.”
A fellow Gold Star mother told her it does not get better, it gets different, she said.
“She was right,” said Ms. Rodriguez. “And just different is okay, because to grieve means you loved and you remember. Matthew was so very loved, by so many. He will be forever missed and he will always be remembered. He is our hero.”
Others who spoke about Matthew said he was a person of values and integrity.
Fairhaven Select Board member Bob Espindola, who coached Matthew in Little League baseball, and whose niece was engaged to him, said Matthew had values even as a 12-year-old.
Even though we appreciate the sacrifice of those who served and died, when it is someone close to you, “It takes on a whole new dimension,” said Mr. Espindola.
Whenever the National Anthem is played, he thinks of Matt. The fun fund-raisers they hold and the memorial playground at the airport also serve to remind people of Matt.
He said his parents used to take them to the airport to watch the planes take off, a simple thing. Now, children can use the playground while they do that, and someday they will understand the meaning of the words on the entrance to it.
New Bedford mayor Jon Mitchell said Matthew was the kind of kid any parent would want. He had values and he lived those values.
Matthew was not “required” to be there, said the mayor. We have an all volunteer military. He could have been doing something “far more ordinary.”
“But he knew for himself, he had to be there,” said Mayor Mitchell, adding Matthew was the kind of person “our country has needed since the founding of the republic.”
State Rep. Chris Markey also addressed the crowd, saying he was sorry that this is where the family is and sorry that they have given something that we take for granted every day: our children.
He said the photos in the exhibit show that they are mostly kids. The pictures show them with their cars and doing other fun things.
“May you reflect a lot more on the value of life, on the value of virtue, on the value of goodness, on the value of trustworthiness, on the value of courage,” said Rep. Markey. “And the need for all that every day in your life. I hope my kids do that.”
Mr. Markey credited Matthew’s family and community with helping him become who he was. He said people promoted him, gave him a chance, saw potential in him.
After the ceremony Matthew’s brother Adam, 27, said he helped set up the exhibit, taking time to grieve, as always, when he needed to.
“You get through it. You take your time to grieve, when it’s done. You say, ‘not now, in 10 minutes. I’ll cry later. Now I have to get through it,’” said Adam. “I’ve gotten good at it over the years.”
“I’m all right,” said Matthew’s niece Katelyn Webber. “These events make me nervous, but I’m always here to support my family. It’s always a little hard.”
She said walking through the exhibit was not easy.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Matthew’s sister Lauren Webber. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. But days like today remind us he’ll never be forgotten.”
His sacrifice is not in vain, she said, and the family is surrounded by “awesome people who love us and loved him.”
“It’s a reminder that freedom comes at a cost,” said Matthew’s sister Lisa Doherty, and these service members and their families paid that cost with their lives. “It’s a visual reminder of how very lucky we are to live in this country. So awesome.”
Gilly Rebello and his son, Troy, made their way through the towers, looking at the names.
Gilly said it was “fantastic. There should be more of it.”
He said all the names he had seen had been 19–24 years old.
“You see the names and the faces,” said Troy. “It creates a heck of an impact. It’s emotional.”
Sage, 19, and her mother Tracy also wandered among the towers, looking at the pictures.
They were there to “pay tribute,” said Tracy, noting her father was in Korea.
“A lot of kids my age are on there and it’s terrifying to see that,” said Sage. “It’s not right.”
“It’s very said,” said Tracy.
On the website of the exhibit, it says “A Gold Star family’s greatest fear is that their Fallen will be forgotten.”
The Rodriguez family is determined to make sure that never happens around here.
Matthew’s photos are on tower 26.
Visit www.RememberingOurFallen. org to learn more about the exhibit or to add someone. An immediate family member must contact the organization.
The ceremony will be available on Fairhaven Community Media, www. fairhaventv.com.
Visit the LCpl Matthew R. Rodriguez Memorial Foundation at https://the smilingwarrior.org
Click here to download the 12/14/23 issue: 12-14-23 MattRod_REV
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