Friday, April 25, 2008

Paying respects to a fallen hero

Opicka remembered by family, friends, veterans

LUXEMBURG - From the line of visitors that stretched outside Luxemburg-Casco High School, the many gifted flower arrangements and the tears that were shed and the smiles shared, it was evident Lance Cpl. Dean Opicka touched many lives as family and friends remmebered his life during Wednesday's visitation.

That is the beginning of the story that I wrote for Thursday's edition of the Freeman. On Wednesday, I drove to Luxemburg (north of Green Bay) to attend the visitation for Opicka. It was a very difficult story to do, but one that I was also honored to do.

Unsure of how the family would react to my presence during the visitation, I waited in the line that stretched outside of the high school. It took me about 45 to 50 minutes to get to the end of the line where the Opicka family was standing. Along the way, I was able to look at many memory boards and mementos on display. Dozens of flower arrangements had been given to the family, along with benches, memorial garden plaques and trees. Opicka's guitars and keyboard were on display next to a scrapbook that his fiancee had created of one of their trips.

As I approached the family, I wondered what to say. More often than not when I am doing an obit story, I forgo the hollow words like I am sorry for your loss or please accept my condolences. I know that whatever I say as a reporter will sound insincere.

On Wednesday, I said that I had written the story last week for the Freeman and that I had come to pay my respects. I then asked if I could interview people and take some photos. The family was as receptive as could be possible under the circumstances.

I was surprised at the emotional and physical toll attending the visitation took on me. The whole time, I felt very self conscious and very self aware. I had to keep building up my nerve to go to talk to people and take photos of them. It was hard not to let myself feel like an intruder in this very personal, emotional time.

The hardest part was talking to Opicka's future in-laws, Debby and Jim Bonkoski. Debby told me how their daughter had a wedding countdown calendar in her room and how the couple were planning the wedding even while Dean was stationed in Iraq. While I talked to them, the Bonkoskis fought back tears and I did as well.
"It's hard to think about what they could have had and what an awesome life they could have had together," she told me.
Jim agreed.
"It was like a match made in heaven - truly," he said.
Jim Bonkoski saw a lot of potential in Dean.
"(There was) so much going for him and he touched so many lives," he said. "He did more in his 29 years than a lot of people do in their entire lives. We were just thrilled to have him as a future son-in-law."

What amazed me was that even though I was asking them such difficult questions, the Bonkoskis thanked me for the stories we had published about Dean and thanked me for doing so much. I only wish that I could do more!

Throughout the process of writing the stories about Dean, and previously about Staff Sgt. Chrisopher Frost who died in Iraq about a month ago, I try to emotionally distance myself from the soldiers and their families. I think that if I didn't, I couldn't write the stories.

I really hope that I don't have to write any more stories about soldiers who have died fighting overseas. It's nor for selfish reasons because doing these stories keep getting easier, but because I truly do care about them and their families. Throughout it all, I worry about my friends who are serving in the Army and all the other young soldiers with so much potential who risk their lives everyday.



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