New York.- What should have been a day of joy for Vasiliki Vahaviolos, instead was one of anguish as she grieved over the death of her son, a Marine who drowned in Iraq, May 11.
“I want everybody to know that my son didn’t die in vain,” she said, her voice trembling.
As she talked about her son, 21-year-old Cpl. Steven Vahaviolos, she clutched a framed photograph of the young man in his Marine dress uniform. “He died for his country, and I’m proud of him.”
Vahaviolos, a member of the 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, was doing night maneuvers with three fellow Marines when he died, his family members said.
Neither Department of Defense nor Marine Corps public affairs officials could confirm that Vahaviolos had died, but in a Friday release, the military said four Marines had been killed in an accident when their tank rolled off a bridge in Iraq’s Anbar province.
The Marines, who were assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, all drowned. Their names were being withheld by the military pending notification to all of their families, a representative said yesterday.
But the Vahaviolos family knows the loss is real. The family got “the dreaded visit,” Vasiliki Vahaviolos, 46, said.
She was at work, and her husband had just returned home from running errands, one of which had been to send his son a care package that very morning.
He saw a strange sport utility vehicle parked in front of his house.
“I wasn’t sure whose it was, but then I saw. When I pulled up the driveway, I saw one Marine. And then I saw another one, and I knew. And I started to cry, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no,’ ” Gus Vahaviolos recalled, his voice thick with tears.
Steven Vahaviolos, who was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., had been almost two months into his second tour in Iraq, said his uncle, John Vahaviolos.
Being a Marine was all his nephew ever wanted.
“This is what kids want to do,” he said. “You know, when they’re young, they’re gung-ho about military, and he said, ‘I want to be a Marine — I don’t want to be Navy, I don’t want to be Army — I want to be a Marine.’ ”
Steven Vahaviolos’ youthful fascination with drawing tanks led a kindergarten teacher to predict he would be an artist, his mother said.
He had not settled on any specific career but planned to attend college upon his return from the service.
The young man, a 2003 graduate of Suffern High School, was like any other person his age, his uncle said.
He was quiet, “not much into sports,” laid back, and an avid video gamer.
“He loved his videos,” John Vahaviolos said. “He couldn’t wait to get home when he was on leave and play his videos, computer games.”
Steven Vahaviolos and his sister, Penny, shared a great love of reading, particularly of science fiction.
“He kind of got me into reading more, kind of, I guess more action-oriented type stuff. And I got him kind of more into reading more plot-oriented-type things, and we kind of cross-pollinated,” the 23-year-old Penny Vahaviolos said, resting her head on her father’s shoulder.
Neil Murphy, who lives a few doors away from the Vahaviolos family, said he sometimes would see their only son in the street.
“As best I knew him, he was a pleasant, nice young man” from “a wonderful family,” Murphy said.
“It’s a horrible thing, absolutely horrible,” he said. “It’s not only here, it’s all over the United States.”
John Vahaviolos still can’t believe the family is planning to bury the young man he called “the kindest kid anybody would ever want to know, the most gentle kid.”
“I could not believe it,” said the Jupiter, Fla., resident. “I could not believe it. We thought, you know, in the tank, he’s safe. … You know, we never imagined that would happen this way.”
To Gus Vahaviolos, 48, his son is a hero.
“That’s all I can say,” the heartbroken man sighed. “He was a hero. He’s my hero. He paid the ultimate sacrifice, you know.”
Vasiliki Vahaviolos last spoke with her son during the first week of April. Her husband chatted with him May 1.
“We talked about his car and he wanted some books and stuff, to send to him, and we did — we sent him books, magazines, other stuff, cookies,” his father said.
“All the Greek stuff he liked,” his wife added.
Vasiliki Vahaviolos dreads the return of that care package.
Thursday morning, the family members gathered on their front steps, bowed by their sorrow. Behind them, an American flag fluttered, stirred by a slight breeze. Directly below it flew the Greek flag, a symbol of pride for Gus and Vasiliki Vahaviolos, who came to America from their native Greece.
As she recalled her son, Vasiliki Vahaviolos struggled describing his qualities, especially his bravery, respect and loving nature.
“I can’t find my words,” she said. “I know my son very well. He would not want us to be crying around. He never liked that. Never. I know how tough he was because he took after his mom.”
Despite her son’s untimely death, Vasiliki Vahaviolos was steadfast in her faith.
“We are confident that he is in Jesus’ hands and one day we will see him. And we pray, and everybody in our church, and our friends and family, prays that we can overcome,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll see him one day. That gives us hope.”
Until then, the family will endure.
“I guess, everybody has their own pain,” she said. “This time it’s ours.”