Anita Coullard-Dziedzic of East Hartford was home alone when the van pulled up in front of her house. She thought it was her sister, coming to show off a new puppy. When two Marines emerged, she immediately thought of her son, Marine Sgt. David J. Coullard, who was in Iraq. She yelled to the visitors that her son wasn't home.
"I tried to joke it off,'' she said, recalling that day in August 2005. "I looked and saw the folder with the Marine logo on it and I knew. I said, 'Oh, no.' I might even have said, 'Oh, David, no.' ''
Her only son, whom she always thought of as a quiet child and maybe a bit lonely, had surprised her when he joined the Marines in 1994. He served in Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines. In 2004, during Christmas dinner at his aunt's house, he said he had volunteered to ship out to Iraq.
"I guess he told the whole family because he knew I wouldn't yell at him in front of everyone,'' Coullard-Dziedzic said during a telephone interview. "I told him I didn't want him to go. He said, 'Mom, it's what I've trained all these years for.' "
Anita Coullard was a single mom. When David was in the Marines, she married Greg Dziedzic. Her son gave her away via telephone.
"In our wedding picture, David is there on speaker phone,'' she said.
Coullard died after being hit by enemy small-arms fire while on patrol outside Haditha, Iraq, on Aug. 1, 2005. As news of his death circulated, hundreds of people sent cards and letters, and even more logged on to a Web site established by The Washington Post for people to post condolences for soldiers killed in the war. There are 42 pages of comments. The most recent posting was this past February: "Happy V Day. Love and miss you every day, D.''
"He was strong. He had to be strong to be a Marine. I just never realized how strong he was for others,'' his mother said. "He had a caring heart that went beyond anything I ever imagined.''
She said she received a note from a young man from the Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., who said Sgt. Coullard "saved my life.''
She also heard from a young woman who told her that her son helped her out of an abusive relationship.
"He was there for her,'' the woman wrote in a note.
Coullard-Dziedzic met with President George W. Bush last year when Bush was in the state to speak at the Coast Guard Academy graduation. She was among seven Connecticut families of soldiers killed in the line of duty who met Bush for about 20 minutes at the Groton-New London Airport.
She said the president came into the room looking for "the mamas."
"He hugged me. I cried. He listened and he was cordial and he was gentle,'' she said, adding that she brought a book of pictures of her son and showed him.
"He had tears in his eyes,'' she said.
There is a plaque and a tree planted in Coullard's memory at his elementary school in Glastonbury. He graduated from Glastonbury High School, where there is a scholarship in his name. The Plumbing and Heating Union, Local 777, to which he belonged, named a building after him. The third annual Sgt. David Coullard Valor and Discipline Memorial Golf Outing will be held Aug. 1 at Simsbury Farms Golf Course. Proceeds fund the scholarships.
"He wasn't a golfer,'' Coullard-Dziedzic said. "But I wanted David's name to remain in Glastonbury. I don't want this town to forget David.''
Every December, she hosts a "We Know David Party.'' A group gets together to share their stories about their lost friend.
It's coming up on three years since her son was killed, but Coullard-Dziedzic said it doesn't really get any easier.
"It softens a bit,'' she said of the hurt.
It also helps to keep in touch with the families of four other Marines from Ohio who were killed with her son. Last year she went on vacation with some of them.
"I go through my ups and downs,'' she said. "I'm in awe. I'm very sad."
She chose to bury her son in East Glastonbury rather than at Arlington National Cemetery. She said he didn't like crowds and Arlington seemed crowded. His grave is near where he used to hunt deer, and his mother finds comfort that he is close.
"When I see deer there, I take it as a sign,'' she said.