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Communities honor fallen heroes

In preparation for Memorial Day, volunteer Al Bertocci gathers flags to adorn veterans’ graves at Calvary Cemetery in Brockton.

Photos by Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In preparation for Memorial Day, volunteer Al Bertocci gathers flags to adorn veterans’ graves at Calvary Cemetery in Brockton.

On a website created by his family, Army Staff Sergeant Matthew A. Pucino is shown in a picture gallery posing with family; holding his nephew in a playful headlock; wearing combat gear atop a tank in the desert; and grinning wide with a cigar hanging from his mouth while posing with actor Chuck Norris during a tour of duty in Iraq.

This is his family’s way of keeping Pucino’s memory alive, four years after the 34-year-old Green Beret was killed in Afghanistan when a roadside explosive detonated near his all-terrain vehicle.

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“You wouldn’t think somebody at that age would have that much time to leave so much impact, because it was such a short life,” said his sister Melissa Pucino. “But he left a great impact for those who knew him and people who didn’t know him.”

She hopes to introduce others to Pucino’s legacy when she speaks at Plymouth’s Memorial Day parade Monday, when the town will honor the memory of her brother and five other local servicemen killed in action since 2001, with the unveiling of an exhibit of their uniforms at Memorial Hall.

The display, which will be accompanied by the men’s photos, is a deliberate move by the town’s veterans’ community to remind people that Memorial Day is not just a holiday marking the start of summer.

“It’s so important to remember the sacrifices of our veterans,” said Roxanne L. Whitbeck, Plymouth’s veterans agent. “We want them to put themselves in a veteran’s shoes, or a kid out there fighting that war. Think of what that soldier is going through and how they would like to be home on Memorial Day for a cookout.”

Ten years after the start of the Iraq War and in the 12th year of conflict in Afghanistan, veterans agents in the region say the holiday has taken on more immediacy than in years prior to 9/11.

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“The conflicts, they’ve been going on for 10 and 12 years, and everybody knows somebody who’s served,” said David Farrell, veterans service officer in Brockton. “As far as the parades go, I have seen more increase in younger veterans showing up to participate and volunteer.”

Dedham’s veterans agent, Bill Aitken, said attendance at that Memorial Day parade has increased in the past couple of years, and he expects the same on Monday.

Matthew A. Pucino, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.

Pucino family

Matthew A. Pucino, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.

“Everybody uses it as a stepping stone into summer,” he said of the holiday. “But when you see the turnout at the Memorial Day event . . . people understand what Memorial Day is now.”

Charlie Seelig, Halifax town administrator, said he also has seen an increase in the number of people participating and attending the town’s Memorial Day ceremony: “Because of Afghanistan and Iraq during the last 10 years, more people are connected to a veteran. It’s become a little bit more important in people’s lives.”

One person who has made it his mission to educate young people about the sacrifices made by veterans is Plymouth resident Bob Davidson, a retired teacher and a Navy veteran. He came up with the idea of displaying the uniforms of the fallen local servicemen after taking over volunteer duties at the American Legion’s museum at Memorial Hall.

With the help of public works employees, Davidson spruced up some unused display cases, and, after receiving a donation of six mannequins valued at $3,000 from Macy’s in Braintree, he began collecting uniforms, medals, patches, and anything he could to ensure every uniform was authentic and accurately reflected the achievements of each man.

“I hope it shows the respect to the families who gave their sons for our country,” Davidson said. “This is why I don’t want these people forgotten.”

On display will be the uniforms of Pucino; Marine Lance Corporal Jeffrey C. Burgess; Army Sergeant 1st Class Robert E. Rooney; Army Specialist Steven E. Gutowski; Army Private 1st Class Kevin J. King; and Army Sergeant Benjamin W. Sherman.

Also on display will be the uniform of Alba Thompson, a World War II and Korean War veteran, who served under General Douglas MacArthur. Thompson, 94, passed away in January. Hers is a uniform most residents will recognize because the former selectwoman wore it to every Memorial Day and Veterans Day parade, Davidson said.

The exhibit will be permanent and Davidson hopes to expand it with the uniforms of those killed in action in conflicts before 2001.

Melissa Pucino said she hopes the exhibit will make the sacrifices made by those who served become more tangible for people.

“I hope that they feel that sense of patriotism that Matthew felt,” she said. “I hope they realize that there are brave people out there that are fighting for them every day, [and] they shouldn’t forget about them.”

Matthew Pucino joined the Army in response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His father, a retired state trooper, taught him to “help others and stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves,” Melissa Pucino, 36, said.

Matthew served two tours in Iraq, then returned a third time with a private contractor, Melissa Pucino said. He returned to duty as a National Guard soldier in Afghanistan, where he was killed in 2009. He was the recipient of many awards, including a Purple Heart and the Army Commendation Medal for heroism.

Army Sgt. First Class Daniel Fahey (left) and Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Curtis are helped with the display.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Army Sgt. First Class Daniel Fahey (left) and Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Curtis are helped with the display.

Since his death, his family created the Matthew A. Pucino Memorial Foundation, raising funds through events, including a popular motorcycle ride, for various wounded veterans’ organizations.

“We’ve chosen to make every day Memorial Day by creating a foundation to keep Matthew’s memory alive, and every soldier’s,” Pucino said. “I’ve seen a bigger change in the community. They’re starting to come to realize, with the current wars going on, that we’re losing more and more good people every single day.

“I think the community is starting to feel that and really realize what Memorial Day is all about,” she added. “It’s not about cookouts or opening your summer home.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

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