Parents of soldier killed in Iraq try to celebrate son's life

He hated to see his mother cry so she tries not to, not too much in public when she honors the son who died fighting in Iraq, a casualty of a roadside bomb.

Gaye and Stan Lapinski lost their only son, Army Cpl. Stanley James Lapinski, a 35-year-old turret gunner on a Humvee, on June 11.

Stanley Lapinski lifts his eyes up next to his wife, Gaye, during the national anthem sung by the St. John Neumann's Chorus at the Veterans Day Celebration at St. John Neumann on Thursday. The Lapinskis' son, Stanley James, an alumnus of St. John Neumann, died earlier this year while fighting in Baghdad. VFW Post 7369 announced a scholarship fund in Stanley James' honor.

Photo by Garrett Hubbard, Daily News // Buy this photo

Stanley Lapinski lifts his eyes up next to his wife, Gaye, during the national anthem sung by the St. John Neumann's Chorus at the Veterans Day Celebration at St. John Neumann on Thursday. The Lapinskis' son, Stanley James, an alumnus of St. John Neumann, died earlier this year while fighting in Baghdad. VFW Post 7369 announced a scholarship fund in Stanley James' honor.

That day, around 4 p.m., a pair of men in uniform showed up at the couple's doorstep. Stan had run to Publix supermarket to pick up something for Gaye. She was fixing dinner.

"Mrs. Lapinski, are you alone?" the chaplain asked.

And she knew right away. Stan soon pulled the car into the driveway and she screamed for him. They grabbed each other and asked God — Why?

"We've spent the last five months trying to answer that question," said Stan, 76.

"Now we're trying to celebrate his life and not dwell on the past," said Gaye, 61.

On Thursday, the pair spoke at a prayer service for veterans honoring their son at St. John Neumann High School in Golden Gate in Collier County.

The football star his parents call "Stash" graduated from the school in 1987.

Gaye and Stan dabbed their eyes during the service but didn't break. This was the 11th service honoring their son. They'll attend No. 12, today, Veterans Day, at Cambier Park in downtown Naples.

"We made the decision that it was one of two things — either go into the bedroom and hide and cry, which he would not have liked because he could not stand to see me cry," Gaye said. "We decided we have to do what he would've wanted."

Remember his life, remember the soldiers and treat others like he would have.

"Out of respect to all his fellow soldiers, please don't forget them," his mother said.

Lapinski was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

- - -

Lapinski was working three jobs in Las Vegas, one as a Circuit City salesman, another as a disc jockey and a part-time hotel gig just before his life would drastically change. He hoped to save for graduate school and eventually be a history professor. He had a psychology degree.

But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, his focus shifted. He wanted to fight. He decided to enlist. When the Army offered him a desk job, he declined.

He wanted to be on the ground and fighting.

"He had this fixation. He was so upset people could come here and do that," Stan said, referring to the attacks Thursday over breakfast before the ceremony.

The couple drove Wednesday to stay at a Golden Gate golf resort they've been visiting for three decades. The couple and their son lived in Naples from 1981 to 1988 and have visited since the 1970s. Gaye worked as a secretary at St. John Neumann. They now live in Citrus County in Central Florida.

"I figured, oh, this would pass. No it didn't," Gaye said, of their son's drive to enlist.

"There was no changing his mind," Stan said.

"Oh, stubborn," said his mother, chuckling.

He joined the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment based in Fort Stewart, Ga. He was deployed to Iraq in January 2005.

Gaye Lapinski, mother of solider killed in Iraq

Stan Lapinski, father of a soldier killed in Iraq

Lapinski badgered his superiors to get on the ground. He was a personnel driver.

E-mails to his parents would arrive: 52 days til I'm on the ground, 45 days til I'm on the ground ... until, he was, in April.

But he never told his parents what he did.

"We go out for field duty, that's all," he told Gaye over the phone.

Not until a month or so after he died did his parents find out he was in one of the most vulnerable spots as a gunner on a Humvee.

His mother thinks he was thrown or hit by shrapnel because he died from severe head trauma. She asked the Army if they could have a viewing. No, they said.

"Look," said Gaye, reaching into a black leather bag on Thursday and pulling out a framed photo of her son on top of a Humvee.

"He reached his peak. It's on his face. Look at that determination on the face," said his father, a Marine veteran from World War II, admiring the picture.

"We thought his dying was a culmination of life. It was meant to be," he said.

A waitress passed their table and paused to glance at the photo.

"Is that your son?" she asked.

"He died in Iraq," Gaye said.

"I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head in sympathy.

Stanley Lapinski says goodbye to Sgt. Charles Rodriguez after sharing the story of how his son was killed in Baghdad earlier this year after the St. John Neumann memorial service on Thursday.

Photo by Garrett Hubbard, Daily News // Buy this photo

Stanley Lapinski says goodbye to Sgt. Charles Rodriguez after sharing the story of how his son was killed in Baghdad earlier this year after the St. John Neumann memorial service on Thursday.

Gaye thinks her son partly enlisted because of his respect for his father, who joined the Marines at 15 in 1945. The elder Stan wanted to fight after Pearl Harbor. He used lemon juice to doctor his baptismal certificate from a 1929 to a 1927.

His mother signed permission and he fought two years.

"As far as me having an influence on him taking a course of disaster, I don't feel like I want to live with that kind of guilt," he said. "He was going to do what needed to be done and by God, that's the way it ended."

After their son's death, the Army casualty officer assigned to the pair became like family. Calls flooded their Citrus County home from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. and the letters of condolence that arrived stuffed two scrapbooks.

The first three months were the worst.

"I was like a robot. We just led each other along," Gaye said.

The waitress on Thursday morning admired Gaye's bracelet — a silver one with Stash's photo given to her supporters in her son's battalion.

"This is like part of my body. When I die, this goes with me," she said.

On her left wrist is a yellow bracelet that droops loosely from wear: Until They All Come Home, it says.

They lent a stranger their 2004 Grand Marquis on Thursday morning so he could get his van tire fixed. Because that's what their son would do.

They've spent the past five months trying to follow his lead.

"He tells us things constantly. He wants us to give back," Gaye said.

The couple has found comfort in their faith, supporting other soldiers and helping people. They've donated $1,000 each to three libraries. Their son loved to read.

When he died, the Army sent about 450 pounds of his books from philosophers to Shakespeare to "Hollywood Babylon."

The couple is grateful for other veterans on the first Veterans Day without their son.

Stan and Gaye Lapinski are collecting donations for their son's Army 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry "Honor Our Heroes" military ball on April 13, 2006. The ball will honor 900 soldiers in the battalion who have returned from Iraq. The Lapinskis and other families are trying to raise enough to pay for the dinners of the soldiers at $35 each or $350 for a table of 10. Checks can be made out to 3/7 Inf. Family Readiness Group and mailed to the Stan and Gaye Lapinski, 87 W. Hollyfern Place, Beverly Hills, FL 34465. Call (352) 746-6387 for more information.

"If you can't do it yourself, by God, thank the people who are doing it for you," Gaye said.

School ended an hour early at St. John Neumann High School for the 300 students Thursday afternoon for an outdoor prayer service to honor veterans and announce the formation of a scholarship fund from the Naples Memorial VFW Post 7369 in Lapinski's name.

The couple arrived shortly before the service and greeted old friends and current employees at the school.

Gaye traded handshakes for hugs with the servicemen in uniform who attended.

VFW Post 7369 will raise money from spaghetti dinners and the like to dole out $500 scholarships to Collier graduating seniors this year who have veterans in their families and qualify.

"It inspired us at the VFW. He didn't have to go. It just hit us. He's a true patriot," said Dick Miller, the scholarship chairman, on why they named it for Lapinski.

The couple stood before the students and reminded them how they got their freedom.

"Guys, they bring you your freedom," Gaye said.

"Support these troops. They are you. They were sitting here not too long ago," Stan said.

The couple blotted tears throughout the service. A bag pipe played "Amazing Grace" while the crowd followed them out to the flagpole where they dedicated 14 bricks to St. John Neumann graduates in the military.

Only Stash has died.

The parents thought they saw a dove flying above the ceremony. They've seen a bird at each of their son's 11 memorials.

"He's watching," Gaye said.

Stan agreed. His father appreciates the time he did have with his son.

"Instead of looking up and saying, 'God why did you take him from us?' we now think, 'Thanks God for letting us have him 35 years,'" Stan said.

Out of nowhere came this child into manhood. He was not a great athlete, musician or artist but a simple life loving human being. He was a young man striving to find his reason for being here and he came to this realization 35 years after birth ... In passing we will only be remembered by the light we shine or the shadow we cast. Our pain will endure, eased only by the comfort of knowing that he did what he knew needed to be done

— wrote the elder Stan Lapinski in an essay on his son.

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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