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Saluting his hero, his son

Gregg Garvey isn't going to wait to honor the memory of those who died in Iraq, and is working to ensure no one does.

Published November 11, 2004

Garvey family
Above) Army Sgt. Justin "Hobie" Garvey, here with his dad, Gregg, was killed in an ambush in July 2003.
Left) This is a rendering of the memorial Gregg Garvey has designed.

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Not long after he had buried his son, Gregg Garvey returned to his North Florida home down a bumpy, dirt road in rural Clay County.

He sat outside on the back deck, under the live oaks, crying and staring out over nearby Spring Lake. In his hand he cradled a picture of his son, Army Sgt. Justin "Hobie" Garvey, taken during a fishing trip more than a decade earlier.

Somewhere between the anger and heartache, an idea crept into the grieving father's head.

"I made a promise to Justin," said Garvey, a consultant for an RV dealership. "People have a tendency to forget. I wasn't going to wait 50 years to honor my son."

He decided to raise money for memorials in the hometowns of every soldier killed during the war in Iraq. He planned to design a flag and sell it on a Web site that kept a list of the dead.

"I didn't even know how to turn a computer on," Garvey said.

That was more than a year and 800 soldier deaths ago. But Garvey's venture presses on, and the man himself remains as determined and stiff-jawed as ever.

This will be his life's mission, he says, his steely blue eyes stern and serious. "I'm a hot-blooded son of a gun. If it takes me 50 years, we'll get this project done."

* * *

After his parents divorced in 1991, Justin Garvey spent his middle and high school years in Proctor, Vt. He was an honor roll student and never missed a day of school between kindergarten and sixth grade.

He helped lead his Vermont high school soccer team to a state championship and was named MVP. In his yearbook, beneath a picture of him in a flannel shirt, is this quote: "Respect is not just given; it needs to be earned."

Perhaps that's what he was thinking when he enrolled in the Vermont National Guard in his junior year of high school. A year after graduation, he joined the Army and headed to Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 101st Airborne.

But the soldier had more than a serious side.

His favorite movie was Happy Gilmore, starring Adam Sandler. His favorite song, by country singer Travis Tritt, was It's a Great Day to Be Alive. He loved to hunt and fish, to ride dirt bikes and come home covered in mud.

All of that felt a long way off in the middle of July 2003, when Garvey headed out on a night mission with a group of fellow soldiers in northern Iraq. Just after midnight on July 20, according to reports, Garvey and another soldier were killed when the vehicle they were in was ambushed outside the town of Tal Afar, near the borders of Syria and Turkey.

He was 23.

Back in Florida, Gregg Garvey, 50, was in Daytona Beach for business. He awoke at 2:15 a.m., flipped on the television and heard that two soldiers from the 101st had died in an ambush.

"I knew something had happened," said Garvey. "I just felt it."

By that night, Army officials were driving down the dirt road toward his home.

* * *

From that tearful day on his back porch, Gregg Garvey began turning his idea into reality.

He turned on a computer and enlisted the help of people who knew about the Internet.

He contacted a bronze company in Sanford about making the small memorials - estimated to cost about $7,500 each - that he wanted placed in towns across America.

He designed a flag - white background, yellow outline, with the silhouette of a field cross and the label "Lest They Be Forgotten" - and had a company in Pennsylvania produce it.

For months, he worked 80 hours a week.

The result is the site where supporters can make donations or purchase what Garvey calls the Flag for the Fallen. The site details plans for the memorials, which include a flag pole and a plaque to honor each soldier killed. It also features a running list of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Garvey estimates he has sold 500 flags since May and that, including donations and pledges, the site has raised $50,000 so far.

A father to six children and a supporter of the war, Garvey was a Republican but recently changed his affiliation to the Veterans Party. He has taken to the road often to promote the site. He has appeared on Sean Hannity's radio show. And he mentioned the flag to President Bush when he met him in March at Fort Campbell.

The flag already flies over homes and government buildings from Florida to Iowa. Garvey is determined to see it fly over the White House one day. He wants it to become as recognizable as the POW/MIA flag.

"It's truly a grass roots effort," he said. "(But) I believe once this gets rolling . . ."

The first memorial is scheduled for installation in January in Elba, Ala. It will honor Sgt. Jason Jordan, 24, who died in the same ambush that killed Justin Garvey.

The elder Garvey hopes that is the first of hundreds to come.

"This is not about me," he said. "(It's) about my son and all his fallen brothers and sisters. I have adopted each and every one of them."

* * *

It's a cool, clear fall afternoon, and Gregg Garvey is spending it the way he spends many afternoons these days. He's on his back porch, the one overlooking the lake, where this whole idea began. But today he isn't crying.

He's stuffing envelopes with flags and addressing them to places in New York and Virginia, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. One flag heads for Northridge, Ohio, the next to Austin, Texas.

Country music pours from the stereo nearby, and Garvey's Jack Russell terrier, Duke, chases squirrels into the oak trees. Garvey stops every now and again to light a Salem cigarette and rest.

From his pocket, he pulls the shiny M-16 shell that he carries everywhere to remind him of the 21-gun salute at his son's funeral. From his money clip, he unfolds a worn piece of paper. On it are words he wrote one melancholy night in a hotel room.

He no longer needs the paper. He knows his poem by heart:

I carry this shell in my pocket

As a reminder daily to me

Of the fact that I'm his father

No matter where I may be.

It isn't meant to protect me

And it's not for everyone to see.

It's more of a confirmation

Between my son and me.

This shell is here as evidence

Of the price he paid for me.


To learn more about Gregg Garvey's mission or how to purchase a Flag for the Fallen, visit

[Last modified November 11, 2004, 06:41:37]

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