On Monday, Americans bow heads and raise flags to honor those who died while serving their country. But for the loved ones of those who died, no matter how much time has passed, Memorial Day is never just one day. It is every day. And the things those fallen soldiers carried — the medals, the letters, the dog tags — serve as a tangible way to feel their presence.
Army Spc. Christophe J. Marquis
Christopher Marquis is not quite 6.
He loves lizards and letters and flashcards and trains. To strangers, he offers garden stakes, which he pretends are hot dogs.
He graduates from kindergarten this week, and one day his mother thinks he'll become an engineer or a physics professor.
But his father will never see it.
Army Spc. Christophe J. Marquis died Sept. 4, 2010, from injuries he sustained during a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, days before his son's second birthday.
Father and son, one letter apart but a thousand worlds away.
"I wish now that I actually would have named him after his father," said Brittany Jackson-Marquis, Christophe's widow.
To this day the pain never stops, but Jackson-Marquis, 26, finds the questions to be the hardest part.
They stem from mundane things like movies. When they watched Frozen together, Christopher was intrigued by a sinking ship.
Did the passengers die like my papa?
She created this memorial room in Riverview, with three stars framing a portrait of Christophe. Her shirts don't smell like her husband anymore, but here, memories can hang in peace.
"I never imagined having a house without him, so him having a piece of my house was important," Jackson-Marquis said.
"That's me and my papa's room," Christopher likes to tell visitors. He runs after wind, but he respects the rules of this space: No eating, no playing.
Sometimes, when Christopher falls asleep, his mother sneaks into this sanctuary for quiet time. But when the pictures aren't enough, she goes upstairs.
She reaches under the bed for one of three letters from Christophe that she holds dear. For now, they are the closest thing she has to answers.
Army Spc. Justin D. Coleman
He wanted to gain an addiction then break it, so he started smoking. He wanted to learn one song on his clarinet, and a new language on his tongue.
He wanted to backpack through Europe and go back to school and rebuild his credit and buy a house someday.
He wanted to do simple things, like be a good friend, and challenging things, like find a job he loved.
He wanted to do the hardest thing and have children, one boy and one girl. And he wanted to give them everything he never had, but he never wanted to spoil them.
These are the last dreams of Army Spc. Justin D. Coleman, who died in a cornfield in Nuristan province, Afghanistan, on July 24, 2009, 38 days before his 21st birthday.
They are scrawled in a green notepad — the thoughts of a boy, the promise of a man.
"When I was sent the notebook, a lot of things were very overwhelming," said Dean Alan Coleman, his father, 53. "But it made me very proud to see what he was thinking."
Most days, the notebook is tucked inside a dark cabinet in a quiet room in a home on a cozy street.
Coleman rarely opens it. "I don't dwell on it because where he's at is a much better place," he said.
Alone with his memories, Coleman said he looks forward to the day he can join his son in heaven.
On Earth, Justin Coleman never cared for fishing, one of his father's passions. But someday, years from now, Dean Coleman believes, the father and son will meet at the pearly gates and find a good lake.
Brothers in arms
People often ask William Ward about his tattoos.
Are the tallies on his shoulder the number of people he's killed?
Why are there four blue stars on his forearm?
What do those silver bracelets on his wrists mean?
Never easy questions for the 25-year-old twice deployed to Afghanistan.
But here is what the Marine lance corporal might share while he pours your drink at Kahwa Coffee.
The red tallies depicted on a piece of wood honor the 22 men lost in his battalion, "and whenever someone I served with dies, I get another tally," Ward said.
The four blue stars commemorate the four times he stepped on improvised explosive devices.
They were hard to notice in the desert. Especially on Feb. 10, 2010.
The fourth man in a foot patrol, Ward tripped an IED near a river canal. Things started to move in slow motion, the dirt swallowed him like a dome.
"The fire was so hot," Ward recalled, "I saw red and green flames."
Next thing he knew, he was lying near the canal, his ankle up to his shoulder, a piece of shrapnel sticking from near his knee, the wound so hot he saw red mist coming off his skin. "This can't be good," Ward thought. But the Marine was strong enough to finish his deployment.
The bracelets contain the names of fallen brothers from his company and platoon.
There's Capt. Brandon Barret and Sgt. Joshua DesForges: They were his superiors.
There's Cpl. Jacob Turbett, whom Ward met on the day of his death.
There's Lance Cpl. Christopher Larry, who lightened the mood with his goofiness. And, of course, there's the glue of the crew, Lance Cpl. Tim Ryan. He had a thick Boston accent and smoked all the time.
Army Pfc. Paul O. Cuzzupe II
Sometimes, when church was too much, she would walk into this bedroom, the one she dedicated to him, and talk to Paul. Sitting on the bed, surrounded by photos of Paul in the desert and Paul at the rock show and Paul with his girlfriend, she would feel the storm in her stomach and the lump in her throat. Then, when all she wanted to do was sit there and cry, Annette Kirk would start to speak.
Why'd you have to go and leave?
Her son, Army Pfc. Paul O. Cuzzupe II, died on Aug. 8, 2010, when his convoy tripped a roadside bomb in the desert in Afghanistan. He was seated right above the blast. He was 23.
The shrine here in Valrico is a sanctuary away from God, a way to remember Paul, surrounded by his things: the dog tags on the dresser, the letters from Afghanistan, the uniform he wore, tucked and stowed in the corner trunk.
"I can think of him anytime," Kirk, 48, said, "but I can come in here and feel a sense of pride."
Some questions still go unanswered. Like how God could take the boy who bookmarked Philippians 4:6-8: the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds.
Sometimes Kirk dreams about her son. She is sitting in the room, looking at the photos, when Paul appears at her side.
To check on her, Kirk says.
Army Sgt. Cory L. Clark Sr.
She was probably the only Geico underwriter in her office to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder: Wrenita Randall, the mother who refused to move her son's trunk because she refused to believe he was dead.
It arrived on the front porch five months after Army Sgt. Cory L. Clark Sr. was killed Aug. 28, 2007, in Afghanistan. It sat there for another seven weeks while Randall, 54, dealt with her grief.
"At one point, I couldn't look at his pictures," Randall said. "My depression took me to the point of going to work, coming home and going to bed."
A year and a half ago, she opened that trunk and rifled through the medals and letters and flags and framed the items she could handle in this memorial room, on the far side of the home, away from her bedroom and kitchen.
In life, Randall said, "Cory wanted to tell me everything." Even the time his older brother took him to a gentleman's club.
Nearly eight years later, here's what the mother wishes she could tell her son:
That sometimes, she wanders into the room and paces the floor, wondering why she walked in here in the first place. "Okay, Cory," she says aloud, "I'm going back to the other side of the house now."
That sometimes, she still cannot read certain letters.
That sometimes, she catches one of her son's three children sleeping on the floor near their father's replica statue.
That sometimes, she greets arriving veterans because welcoming them back is a way to pretend Cory is back.
They always get more hugs than they wanted.
If Lou came home from World War II, Bill Verzi could end the 22-year search for his brother, a B-25 pilot and second lieutenant with the 390th Bombardment Squadron in the Pacific.
If Lou came home from World War II, Bill Verzi could forget the erector kits his brother and wife used to buy for "Baby Bill," the youngest of seven.
If Lou came home from World War II, Bill Verzi could decorate his home with more artwork instead of maps and medals and wings.
If Lou came home from World War II, Bill Verzi might not have kept the letter his brother mailed home days before his last flight to the Philippines on Feb. 26, 1945, when he disappeared.
Bill reads it aloud:
"Glad to see you had the chance to get home in a few days. Mert told me — that was his wife, Myrtle — you used the car, and that's OK by me to use it anytime. . . . There's nothing much I can say — I have 43 missions, 8 months overseas, about 218 combat hours. . . ."
If Lou came home from World War II, Bill Verzi might not scroll through Google Earth to view his brother's last known location, or stop strangers who wear B-25 jackets, or attend veterans reunions to hear more about his long-lost hero.
But Lou never came home and nothing was ever found, so Bill Verzi, 77, sometimes visits Australia, to get closer to him. And standing before the ocean, the most beautiful cemetery in the world, he asks the question that continues to take his peace: "Where the hell are you, Lou?"
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.