By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
WOONSOCKET – Marcel Daignault lost a city school chum, Robert N. Lebrun, to the Vietnam War on March 22, 1971, but he hasn’t forgotten him to this day.
In fact whenever Daignault, 71, an Army veteran of Vietnam, comes to New England as a self-described “car nut” looking for parts for his hobby, as he frequently does, he makes a point of stopping by Lebrun’s gravesite at the St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Cemetery on Wrentham Road, in Bellingham.
It can be a frustrating stop for the veteran and retired automotive businessman, given New England’s ever changing seasons and the impact on its cemeteries.
Lebrun’s grave has a stone foot marker identifying his resting place next to his father Normand Lebrun, a World War II veteran who died on March 3, 1993, but it was often obscured with soil and vegetation growing over it due to its uneven installation in the ground.
It’s a recurring problem that always seems to overcome Daignault’s prior efforts to set things right and more recently prompted him to actively seek a longer term solution.
His former schoolmate from the St. Joseph Catholic School is listed on the city’s Vietnam Memorial on Worrall Street dedicated to the 17 Woonsocket service members who died in the war as SP/4 Robert N. Lebrun.
Lebrun stands out for Daignault due to their shared time growing up as kids in the city and their time spent at St. Joseph until the eighth grade.
Daignault lived on LaFrancois Boulevard in those days and would see Lebrun around Chipman’s Corner from time to time in later years.
“He had a Chevy convertible and was always riding around with his real cool girlfriend, Monique,” Daignault remembers.
Monique had been from Montreal, he believes, and it is likely the couple had plans for the future when Lebrun headed off to the service, Daignault said.
Daignault, himself, actually left for Vietnam first.
He had gone on to the Woonsocket Junior High School but didn’t graduate high school and went into the Army as a 17-year-old instead.
“Vietnam was my high school,” Daignault said while recalling how he celebrated his 18th birthday just 3 weeks before arriving in Vietnam, and credits the Army with doing a good job “turning me around.”
Anyone would grow up fast in a war-zone if they survived, of course, and Daignault said he set about getting a college education when his one-year tour in country between April 3, 1968, and April 2, 1969 ended and he finished out his service at Fort Riley, in Kansas, working as an E-5 tank mechanic and instructor.
He went onto marry his first wife, Brenda Lechman, and kept a home in Woonsocket for many years before heading out west.
Lebrun graduated Woonsocket High School as a member of the Class of 1968, according to what Daignault remembers, and he joined the Army after that,
He served in Vietnam as a Specialist 4th Class with Company C of the 77th Infantry Battalion, Armor, and was only in country a few months when he was killed in a rocket attack somewhere outside Saigon, according to Daignault.
Daignault had already returned to Woonsocket when he read a story about Lebrun death in the newspaper.
“It blew me away,” Daignault remembers.
Lebrun had a nice family, his dad, Normand, mother, Theresa, and younger brother, Alfred, Daignault.
Sadly today, they are all now gone and Daignault only knows of a cousin of Lebrun’s, Deb Dufault Marceau, who he found on Facebook and who has sent him photos of Lebrun and information on his military service.
His own memories of Lebrun are of a “fun loving guy,” who wasn’t a class clown but someone who was happy and enjoyed life.
“He liked to laugh and he was a good friend,” Daignault said.
The loss of his promise to Vietnam was just one of many sad footnotes Daignault carries with him about the war.
“I saw a lot of bad ‘expletive’ but I made it and I didn’t get shot,” Daignault said. His own unit was a “jungle cutter” crew and used large bulldozers to clear vegetation from around forward fire bases and encampments out near the Cambodian border.
Daignault is hoping to make a trip next year to the Bien Hoa area of Vietnam he had served in during the war to see what is there today.
The fill covering Lebrun’s stone is annoying to Daignault because it is a reminder of how quickly things like the Vietnam War can be put aside when time marches on.
He planned to take care of it for good when he scheduled his latest trip to the city, he said at the cemetery on Wednesday.
“It’s so we can remember our vets,” Daignault said of his personal project to restore Lebrun’s gravesite.
“We can’t bury their names under dirt, you can’t bury the past.
“They should be remembered and when the veterans come to post flags, they should be to find their graves when they walk through,” Daignault said.
After an initial clean up, Daignault said he would be calling the cemetery’s office to see what could be done about resetting Lebrun’s foot stone and his father’s properly.
Not far away, Daignault pointed out another foot stone, that for World War II veteran Alphonse J. Boisvert, which was almost completely covered over and unreadable.
Returning to city with his second wife, Karin, after his parts excursion trip up north on Thursday, Daignault was very happy to find that the St. Jean staff had carried out their promise to get to fixing Lebrun’s stone right away.
“Oh, it looks nice. They leveled it and they placed new grass seed around it,” Daignault said.
“It’s pretty cool and they were nice about it, too,” Daignault said.
Daignault said he might even reach out to local veterans groups to see if there is a way they could check for others that need care like Boisvert’s.
“I think more people should do this,” he said.
Karin credited her husband with sticking to his mission.
“This has been something that he’s wanted to do for years,” Karin said.
“You know the song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” well Marcel left his heart in Woonsocket and he has a real soft spot for Woonsocket and its veterans,” Karin said.
As they worked at the cemetery at a nearby location, caretakers Paul Tucker and Robert Tessier, said the foot stone problems noted by Daignault are not uncommon, given the ever changing seasonal impacts at the large cemetery.
“Sometimes we have to fix them two and three times and then after a while they don’t settle anymore,” Tessier explained.
St. Jean Baptiste, operated by the Precious Blood and St. Agatha’s parishes, has a large number of veterans throughout its grounds and many such projects to complete every year, he added.
“We’ve been working here 30 years and we’ve done thousands of them during that time,” he said as he and Tucker went to work putting Boisvert’s foot marker right.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75