SAUNDERSTOWN, R.I. — The loss of a child at any age is horrific for parents, bringing grief that ripples through their lives as years pass. Time never removes the loss or erases memories that resurrect that child for short moments that parents want to be an eternity.
For Richard and Donna August of North Kingstown, these searing memories came Sunday about their son, Matthew. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy West Point and U.S. Army captain, he was killed 15 years ago in Iraq while protecting his troops from roadside bombs and hostile firefights.
Officials of the United States government, which brought them the devastating news years ago, gathered this day at a small white post office in Saunderstown to offer praise for Capt. August and his heroic service. They dedicated that Ferry Road building to him – one of 11 post offices in R.I. specifically honoring an individual or military veterans.
“The emptiness we still feel can never be filled,” said Richard August in an interview. “Obviously they can never compensate for everything that was lost when your child dies, but this is a recognition of his bravery and that he made the ultimate sacrifice.”
It is this intersection between painful loss and joyful pride that makes a dedication like this one in Saunderstown on a cloudy Sunday afternoon so bittersweet.
On a make-shift stage in front of the tiny building sat U.S. senators, U.S. congressmen, U.S. Postal Service officials, the state’s lieutenant governor, the superintendent of West Point and North Kingstown town officials.
Many mentioned “the debt” that the U.S. government owes to the August family for the loss in January 2004 of 28-year-old Capt. August in a war he didn’t start and a skirmish he didn’t seek.
“He sacrificed for our freedom,” said David Mastroianni, Jr., district manager of the U.S. Postal Service.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who sought the re-naming of the post office in Capt. August’s honor, said, “It is a tribute to a man who made his family and community proud…We owe his family a debt that we can never repay.”
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse added, “I don’t think I have ever seen an example of fatherly devotion as I’ve seen in Richard August” for his work helping with veterans’ causes following his son’s death.
U.S. Rep. James Langevin, capturing the essence of the moment, said, “Today, in a small way, we honor this ultimate sacrifice. You have the love of a grateful nation for a debt that can never be repaid.”
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, looked to the crowd, then pointed to the building, “It is our hope that everyone who comes to this place is inspired by his bravery.”
But Richard August said the loss is not about repaying a debt. It is, however, about recognition for all of those who gave their lives in service of duty to their country, he added.
And it was their son’s duty and bravery, which is part of the story of Richard and Donna August’s loss, that shined brightly on this cloudy afternoon thousands of miles from where explosion happened that changed their lives.
“It could have been me,” remembered Tom Oyster, a sergeant and friend who served with Capt. August, choking back some emotion to continue the story about the U.S. Army soldier’s last moments.
Oyster was leading a convoy of vehicles on a mission to find and destroy a cache of munitions used by insurgents opposing the United States’ involvement in Iraq. He said that the captain stopped him, saying something didn’t look right and then drove around him and took the lead.
It was then that the captain’s vehicle hit two improvised explosive devices and small arms fire broke out, his buddy recalled. Capt. August and three others died.
Richard August said he wasn’t surprised that his son jumped into the lead of the convoy.
“That’s the way he was. He was a very giving person, obviously very, very concerned about his troops because one of the last things he said to me was ‘I want to bring ‘em all home.’”
August pondered that irony in the situation, and added flatly, “That’s what happens in war time.” Capt. August left behind a wife, Maureen, also a West Point graduate, an older brother, Mark, now a U.S. Air Force brigadier general and a younger sister, Melanie.
“I don’t even know what closure means...It’s never going to go away. The hole is still in your heart,” August said, recalling his young boy who contemplated becoming a Roman Catholic priest.
“At one point when he was very young he said he wanted to teach people about Jesus and so forth, and he may have had a little inclination, but he chose service of a different kind,” August said about his son entering West Point.
“His brother had preceded him at the Air Force Academy… He thought about it and he didn’t want to follow in his brother’s footsteps. He said, ‘I really want to lead troops.’”
By accounts of friends and family, the captain during his youth and teen years was a competitive sports player, including racket ball and skiing, enjoyed family and friends, and liked to help people.
Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, superintendent of West Point, said during Sunday’s dedication, visited Capt. August’s grave on West Point grounds before heading to Rhode Island. He recited the exact marker number and location where he reflected on the young man.
“He had a calm demeanor, contagious smile. He was always taking care of people, helping and listening to them. His true legacy lies with those who knew him and the countless lives he touched whether they knew him or not.”
Richard August, reflecting on his son’s character, echoed the same sentiments. “So many people have come forward to talk about what an impact he had on their lives.”
“From Tom Oyster who said he saved his life to classmates at West Point who said there were times they were getting ready to throw in the towel or quit, Matt would help them with a problem or whatever,” he said.
A cadet saber, given to him when his son graduated in 1997 from West Point, reminds August of his son’s commitment to the military academy, its motto “Duty, Honor, Country” and its ideals of loyalty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
However, these values that guided Capt. August into combat offered up yet another irony for his grieving father. That combat now evokes strong feelings about whether U.S. forces should be engaging in armed conflict in the regions such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ve been at this war since 9/11,” he said. “We are sending now the sons and daughters of those who fought…back to the same places that their mothers and fathers fought.”
“Think about that. Are the American people ready to send troops for another 40 years? Everybody has ponder that,” he said.