Vet vis­its the fam­ily of Army buddy

Eustis na­tive Derek Gib­son was killed in Iraq 12 years ago

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Jerry Fall­strom

EUSTIS — 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 the Lake County city 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 ser­vice­man’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 Puc-

cini, 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 Lake County 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 schoole­quiv­a­lency 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 half­cocked 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 rearview [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 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.” jfall­[email protected]­lan­dosen­tinel.com or 407-420-5444

JERRY FALL­STROM/OR­LANDO

An an­gel fig­urine sits next to a photo of the late Army Pfc. Derek Gib­son on the man­tle at his par­ents’ Eustis home.

Janet and Jerry Gib­son are the par­ents of Gib­son, who was killed at age 20 when an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice struck the ve­hi­cle he was rid­ing in April 4, 2007.

PHO­TOS BY JERRY FALL­STROM/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Michael and Kaitlin Puc­cini visit the Eustis home of the late Army Pfc. Derek Gib­son’s par­ents on Jan. 26. Michael Puc­cini served in the Army with Gib­son, who was killed in 2007.

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