ABINGTON — They learned that he died just before Christmas Eve, and they came out on New Year’s Eve by the thousands, lining the streets in the bitter cold to await the body of Marine Sergeant Daniel M. Vasselian.
He was 27 and described by friends as an irrepressible spirit. He was the first from this small South Shore town to be killed in combat since the Vietnam War.
Vasselian’s casket moved from Logan Airport in a gleaming black hearse amid a caravan of almost 100 motorcycles, police cars, and limousines, passing under highway overpasses lined with firefighters and draped in flags. By Weymouth, yellow ribbons dotted the route, and marquees and flashing signs carried messages like “SEMPER FI SGT VASS.”
Then they reached Abington, the sidewalks lined with too many people to count — grandmothers and Girl Scouts, middle-age men and high school buddies, bundled up on a 20-degree morning to pay respects to Vasselian, killed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province Dec. 23.
A group from the Red Emeralds Motorcycle Club waited just over the town line, holding Marine Corps flags. “This guy gave his life. The least we can do is stand out in the cold for a little bit,” one of the Red Emeralds said, giving his name only as Skinny, a bear of a man with a ZZ Top beard and a leather vest covered in patches and metal skulls.
He was 60 and said he was thinking of all those he lost to Vietnam, killed in action or haunted afterward, including a brother who died last spring from the effects of Agent Orange. They came home to nothing, or worse. Tuesday it seemed like everyone in Abington, population 15,985, stretched out on the route behind Skinny.
“This is cool, man,” he said.
Around 11:45 a.m., the first motorcycle in the procession came into view, and Skinny snapped to attention, saluting the line of vehicles. Afterward, he had tears behind his sunglasses. “Heh,” he said, swallowing hard.
The procession followed a 3½-mile, half-hour route through town, passing under a US flag fluttering between fire department ladder trucks and pausing by the adjacent homes of Vasselian’s grandmother and mother.
A large banner hung from the second house, atop weathered shingles. Under the message “May You Rest In Peace,” it showed a stone-faced Vasselian in dress uniform; a helmeted Vasselian in the desert, with sunglasses, assault rifle, and fatigues; and the Vasselian his friends cherished, mugging for the camera in bow tie and T-shirt, colorful tattoos decorating his biceps.
“Danny [was] just the life of the party,” recalled Patrick Wall, a 28-year-old union electrician and friend since elementary school. “You feel at home when you’re with him.”
Wall, a flag tucked into a side pocket of his work pants, said he last saw Vasselian in August, when they stayed out until 3 a.m. at the grave of Jeremy Russell, a friend who died at 23. On Thursday, Vasselian will be buried near Russell at Mt. Vernon Cemetery, after a funeral Mass at St. Bridget Church in Abington.
Down the road, hundreds waited six-deep near Abington’s veterans monument, a banking granite wall engraved with the names of those who served in war. The center panel, reserved for those killed in action, awaited Vasselian’s name.
At 10:30 a.m. — nearly two hours before the procession would pass — James Whiting bent down and planted a small flag in the gravel before that monument. At 39, he did not know Vasselian, but said he broke down at the news.
“I was drinking and partying at 27. This guy was living more of a life than most of us could ever dream of, and he paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Whiting said. “God bless his soul.”
Nearby, “Marine Mom” Karen Taylor handed out flags, proud of the turnout assembled in the cold. Her four children — including a son who served in Iraq — went to school with the four Vasselian kids, and Monday night she could scarcely sleep, pacing the house in the early morning.
“My husband finally realized he had to bring me out in the cold,” said Taylor, wrapped in a Marine Corps blanket and Marine Corps hoodie, waving both the US and Marine Corps banners. “I just wanted to make sure I was at the curb raising flags and being here to support the whole family, and showing everyone how proud we are of our Marines.”
Around the corner, the throngs by the Quealy and Son Funeral Home included soldiers in uniform and veterans in satin jackets as well as motorcycle vests. The Brownies in Girl Scout Troop 85341 wore their sashes; some waved flags, some carried signs. “Thank you Sgt. Vasselian,” 7-year-old Caitlin Happel’s poster said, pink and purple hearts surrounding a flag. “I hope you have a wonderful life in heven.”
The procession arrived just before 12:15, everyone saluting or taking pictures or crying or doing all three, the limos bearing members of Vasselian’s family, including his wife, Erin, as well as some from the “Marine family” he served with. Under precision commands, six Marines in crisp uniforms and spit-shined shoes removed Vasselian’s flag-draped coffin from the hearse and carried it inside, stripes first. The crowd held for a minute, then dispersed.
Lorena Antonetti, who has cut the hair of Vasselian and his friends since they were in high school, ran across to the Quealy lawn and started hugging the guys one by one. The marquee at her salon down the road read “Semper Fi Dan Ooh Rah,” and she had opened on an off day Monday to give everyone a trim before the funeral.
“He was a real charmer,” she said, eyes tearing. She imagined Vasselian taking in the turnout, the likes of which none of them had ever seen. “Danny would’ve been like, ‘Cut it out?’ You know what I mean?”
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.