Having a loved one come home for Christmas has been a joyous occasion for military families since the beginning of the Republic. But sometimes, especially during times of war, a Christmas homecoming can be a much sadder time.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Daniel M. Vasselian came home to the United States for the last time Christmas night, borne by six of his fellow Marines, saluted by his commanding general, and honored by his fellow countrymen.
What are believed to be Vasselian’s remains – the military does not make a positive identification until after a formal examination − arrived at approximately 6 p.m. at Dover Air Force Base, site of the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs.
The night’s dignified transfer was an operation that has been repeated hundreds of times at Dover over the past 11 years, and was the second held there within 24 hours.
Vasselian, 27, of Abington, Mass., was killed Dec. 23 while taking part in combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, according to a Department of Defense press release. His family said he was on his third tour as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The transfer of Vasselian’s body from a McGuire Air Force Base, N.J. C-17 aircraft to a waiting van took place on a nearly deserted base, most of whose personnel were at home, celebrating the holiday with their families.
But the lights were on at the Carson Center and at the adjacent Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations center at Dover, as specialists there prepared to receive Vasselian’s remains and prepare them for return to his family.
As with all such transfers, this one was carried out in complete silence. Although Vasselian’s family was not present, a blue van brought three of his close friends, fellow Marines, to the aircraft, which was brightly lit on an otherwise cold and pitch dark night. The transfer team, consisting of six Marines who would carry the case and a supervisor, marched up the ramp into the C-17 Globemaster III, while Brig. Gen. James W. Lukeman and Master Chief Petty Officer Russell W. Folley, both of Vasselian’s 2nd Marine Division, waited, standing at attention with two officers from the base.
The team brought the transfer case down the C-17’s ramp, reverently carrying it to the waiting van. The four officers, including 436th Mission Support Group commander Col. Thomas A. Reppart, and Chaplain (Maj.) Matthew Boarts, saluted as the carry team approached, holding the salute until the case was safely inside the van. The doors were ceremoniously closed, and the van drove slowly away, followed by the transfer team.
An Air Force security forces patrol car preceded the van, its emergency lights flashing as it led the way to the Carson mortuary.
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A true hero
Like all of those who have served in Afghanistan and in Iraq, Vasselian had volunteered for military service, all while knowing the risks of combat.
According to his family, he was ambushed while dismounting from a Humvee, just two days before Christmas.
A graduate of Abington (Massachusetts) High School, Vasselian enlisted in the Marines on Dec. 4, 2006, first serving in Iraq from February to August 2008, and then in Afghanistan from May to November 2009. He married his high school sweetheart, Erin, shortly after returning from that tour of duty.
Although separated by thousands of miles, the couple had observed their fourth wedding anniversary on Dec. 19.
Vasselian had been promoted to the rank of sergeant on June 1, 2013, said Lt. D. Oliver David, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Division.
At the time of his death, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
His current assignment in Afghanistan began in September, David said.
Family members said Vasselian had a fun-loving personality that was hard to miss. He always looked out for others, they said.
“He was so fun. He was hilarious. He was amazing. He just would do anything for anyone,” his sister, Jeannine, told The Enterprise newspaper in Abington. “He was the life of the party. He was the life of the town.”
Vasselian’s sacrifice was remembered throughout Abington. One sign outside a real estate office said, “Semper Fidelis Sgt. Danny Vasselian. A true hero.”
His decorations included the Combat Action Ribbon, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon and the NATO Medal-ISAF Afghanistan.
Vasselian’s death took place the same day another Massachusetts Marine was buried approximately 40 miles away. Lance Cpl. Matthew Rodriguez died Dec. 11, also in Helmand Province.
To date, there have been 2,276 American service members killed in Afghanistan.
The Enterprise newspaper in Abington, Mass., is a sister newspaper to the Dover Post, and is part of Gatehouse Media. A story by their reporter, Maria Papadopoulos, provided much of the background material for this article.