STARS SHINE FOR THOSE WHO DIED, AND THOSE STILL SERVING IN IRAQ

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PELHAM — When Denise Gionet bought a box of 30 star ornaments several months ago, she cried.

At the time, 26 soldiers from New Hampshire had been killed in Iraq. The ornaments would represent each of the fallen soldiers on a tribute tree she planned to decorate in front of the Pelham Historical Society.

One star would bare the name Daniel Gionet for her son who was killed in Iraq last June when an improvised explosive device blew up near his tank.

She feared the remaining stars would soon have names, too. When the tree finally was done on Dec. 9, 28 names dangled from the branches.

To show support for troops overseas and to remember those that made the ultimate sacrifice, Gionet decorated the tree with gold and red stars, lights, and tiny yellow ribbons for a holiday tribute held on Dec. 16.

The gold stars have holes in the center to represent the broken hearts of family members. The red stars symbolize the injured and the yellow ribbons stand for hope that all troops overseas will return unharmed.

Gionet gathered with a large group of family, friends and supporters in front of the tree for pictures. She will send the photos to as many soldiers as possible.

“I just wanted them to know that they are being thought of when they are so far from home over the holidays,” she said. “This photo could reach thousands of soldiers.”

A steady stream of tears rolled down her cheeks as she watched her labor of love unfold. For the Gionet family, the tribute is a way to stay close to Daniel.

“This project has helped Denise to cope with her grief,” said Becky Trepanier, Gionet’s sister-in-law. “She’s taken her pain and channeled to something positive.”

The family wore matching sweatshirts with Daniel’s photograph on the front as they stood behind a booth while visitors filled out holiday cards for troops.

“The cards will be sent to names on the Web site, anysoldier.com,” said Ashley Gelinas, one of Daniel’s childhood friends.

Gionet invited other Gold Star families to attend the vigil as guests of honor.

Mark Burzynski, whose stepson Douglas Dicenzo of Plymouth was killed in Iraq in May, attended with his wife and Dicenzo’s mother.

Jeff Barry and Anne Kress traveled from their home in Acton, Mass., to support Gionet after reading about her cause on the Internet. Their son, Dickon Barry, just returned from a tour in Iraq.

“He’ll be coming home for Christmas in a couple of days, but it was very difficult for us when he was overseas,” said Barry.

Members of the American Legion Color Guard marched through the service and Chief Edward Mitchell of the United States Navy asked those in attendance to remember and appreciate those who have sacrificed for the safety of the American way of life.

“Never forget the freedom we have and the sacrifice that people have made for it,” he said.

Have a story idea? Contact Heidi Smith at 978-970-4653 or e-mail at hsmith@thevalleydispatch.com.