Darren James Cunningham
Staff Sergeant, United States Army
October 1, 2004
Media Contact: (703)697-5131
Public/Industry Contact: (703)428-0711
DoD Identifies Army Casualty
The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Staff Sergeant Darren J. Cunningham, 40, of Groton, Massachusetts, died September 30, 2004, in Baghdad, Iraq, when his unit came under mortar attack. Cunningham was assigned to the 89th Military Police Brigade, Fort Hood, Texas.
For further information related to this release Army Public Affairs at (703) 692-2000.
Groton native killed in Iraq
By Don Eriksson
The reality of war struck close to home last week when 40-year-old Groton native and 28-year veteran soldier, Army Staff Sergeant Darren J. Cunningham was killed in his sleep during a mortar attack in Baghdad, Iraq on September 30, 2004.
The shell struck the trailer in which he was housed as part of the 545th Military Police Company of the First Cavalry Division, according to Cunningham's sister, Tracey Cunningham-Hammons of Pepperell. The company is part of the 89th Military Police Brigade of Fort Hood, Texas and is currently assigned to III Corps in Iraq.
Cunningham grew up in Groton and joined the Army at age 18 after his graduation from Groton High School. Except for a short time away when his father, Glen Cunningham, died in 1986, he had been a full-time soldier. He lived in Fort Hood for much of his career with his wife and 12 year-old daughter, Kaitlyn Marie.
The Army notified Cunningham's mother, Christine Kaminski of Chelmsford, of her son's death at about 1:30 p.m. September 30, 2004, and sent officers to both Chelmsford and Pepperell. A Captain was sent to Pepperell to help the family through the initial stages of the bad news.
"Fortunately, he was sleeping," Cunningham-Hammond said when contacted October 1, 2004. "I'm kind of up and down. We're waiting for bodies and positive identification."
The only picture Cunningham-Hammond has of her brother is a high school graduation picture and she would not release it. Army sources at Fort Hood and Cunningham's unit did not have a photograph to release.
A cryptic three-sentence Department of Defense news release announced Cunningham's death.
That is insufficient for Houston, Texas police officer Carl Smith, whose brother-in-law, Brian Holland, serves in Cunningham's unit and has been a close friend for 20 years. Smith, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, has known Cunningham for seven years.
"The thing is you hear on the news that soldiers have been killed but they never put a name and a face to those soldiers. That's what frustrates me," Smith said. "In Darren's case, I don't want him to be forgotten. Here in Texas, we won't.
"In previous e-mail's, he told us of receiving artillery at a distance," Smith continued. "He had sent Brian an e-mail before he went to bed that night. He was a man dedicated to his job. I heard seven other men had been wounded by the mortar round.
"The hard part is he has a little 12-year-old daughter Katie. We went on vacation together last year," Smith said. "With him being a soldier he knows the rules, but the hardest for me is his daughter."
Brian Holland and Cunningham were going to retire in January of 2005. Smith said Darren's retirement was rejected and he was sent to Iraq. Cunningham took it in stride.
"He told us it was no big deal, just part of his job. He called his parents the day before [he died] and told his parents he would be home November 3, 2004" Smith said. "It never gets any easier."
Smith encountered Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee when he was working a parade and told her about Cunningham. Lee said she'd look into a Congressional Merit Award to be sent to Cunningham's family. A memorial service was held at 11 a.m. Monday, October 4, 2004 at Fort Hood.
"It takes knowing someone, knowing what they went through to get to that point," Smith said. "The military is never easy. No matter if you are a clerk or on the front line when artillery starts dropping no one is excluded. Darren put himself in harm's way so the American people didn't have to."
Another of Cunningham's sisters, Kelly Cunningham-Sumpter, lives in Groton. He has two brothers, Michael, of Maine, and Glenn, of Wisconsin.
Cunningham-Hammond described her brother as a well-liked, fun-loving jokester who was always concerned about others, a great dad, and a great friend. He had befriended his first wife's new husband, who was serving with him in Iraq.
She said Cunningham's ex-wife had called her mother to report that fellow soldiers were "completely devastated" when they learned of Cunningham's death.
Cunningham had served as a platoon sergeant in Iraq as part of the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Previously, he had been deployed to Korea. In both countries he learned the language and customs so he could work more efficiently. Part of his job in Iraq was training Iraqi police officers.
Cunningham-Hammond said Kaitlyn Cunningham hopes her father will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery because Groton would be too far from the family home in Texas.
As of press time, there were no plans for local services.
Services for soldier killed in Iraq to held in Groton, Washington
GROTON, Massachusetts - Services for Groton
native Darren Cunningham, who was killed in Iraq last week, will be held
later this month in Groton and Washington, D.C.
The family will also hold local services for Cunningham on October 29, 2004, at the South Middle School Performing Arts Center in Groton.
Anyone who wants to send memory letters, notes or stories about Cunningham to the family may send them to email@example.com . They will be used during the services in Groton.
A scholarship fund has been established in
Cunningham's name. Donations can be sent to the SSG Darren J. Cunningham
Scholarship Fund, Middlesex Savings Bank, P.O. Box 1188, Groton, Massachusetts
A father, a joker, an athlete, a soldier but above all, a friend
Serviceman killed in Iraq never forgot his Groton roots
By DAVID PERRY
Bill Bauch still remembers a smiling kid in his eighth-grade science class, 26 years ago.
"Even then," said the veteran teacher at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School, "I remember him talking about wanting to go into the military one day, to serve his country."
And when Bauch heard the news yesterday that Darren Cunningham, a career soldier and Groton native serving in Baghdad, had been killed in his sleep at age 40 by a mortar shell, "my heart just sank," said Bauch. "But when I thought about him I could see his smile."
It was 22 summers ago that Cunningham left the high school with a diploma, and signed up for the Army when so many others headed to college.
Cunningham, a staff sergeant with the 545th
Military Police Company of the Army's 1st Cavalry, died Thursday when his
unit came under mortar fire. He also served in Operation Desert Storm.
He was assigned to the Army's 89th Military Police Brigade, Fort Hood,
The flag at the high school in Groton, Massachusetts, was at half-staff yesterday in honor of Sergeant Cunningham.
"He hadn't been here for a while, but was still a part of the Groton-Dunstable family," said Principal Joe Dillon, who announced the news to the student body yesterday morning and asked for a moment of silence.
College "wasn't his choice," said Dean Beresford. "The military offered a job, discipline, an education, and a chance to travel."
Everyone knew he wanted that. It was right next to his picture in the high school yearbook.
"My ambition is to enjoy life to the fullest," he wrote, "see the world."
"He was a great guy," said Beresford, his best friend. "Everybody loved him. Boisterous is a word that comes to mind. Lively. A lot of fun, a good friend to everybody."
Beresford met Cunningham in elementary school, and they bonded during recess.
By high school, their bond was cemented, and in 1981-82, they were named co-captains of the Crusaders varsity basketball squad.
"He was a good player," said Beresford, now 40, living in Marshfield and working for an investment management firm in Boston. "But when he was named co-captain, that was one of the happiest moments of his life."
He played small forward, applying his stocky, 6-foot frame to opponents when needed. Maybe even sometimes when not.
"He was a good athlete, always had a smile on his face, very upbeat," said Peter O'Sullivan, who taught physical education at the high school until the year Darren graduated. O'Sullivan's son was on the basketball team with Cunningham.
"Very funny, big guy," Jeff O'Sullivan said from his home in Connecticut. "And very strong. Two years ago at the 20th class reunion, he was definitely still physically fit."
Dean Beresford was a point guard and small forward. He and Cunningham got their letters as juniors and seniors and played in a few tournaments, "made a little bit of noise," said Beresford.
"He was a bruiser," he adds with a laugh. Cunningham played soccer, too.
"He was a good athlete, rough. One of those players, I guess Cam Neely is the prototype. It was great if he was on your team, but if he wasn't, it could be your worst nightmare. Perfect for a military police officer."
(Some of this may explain another yearbook passage: "I dislike delicate guys, people who back-stab, and gymnastics.")
"He probably should have had skates on, but he never got into hockey. Too much of a farm boy." The small farm out near the Westford-Groton line had some pigs.
"It was very rural," said Beresford. "But after all that time, it's different now."
But the friendship never changed.
They continued to hang out. There was summer league basketball. Phone calls, visits, e-mails.
When the class of '82 gathered for its 20th reunion, Cunningham was there.
Beresford's daughter Nicole, 11, and Cunningham's, Kate, 12, became close friends.
And Cunningham last called Beresford last weekend.
"I'd just gotten home from a business trip to Japan. He was in touch right up to the end."
"He was a soldier. The discipline did well by him."
He specialized in traffic accidents, said Beresford.
"He had to know a lot of math he never paid attention to in class in high school. Trigonometry, geometry. But he knew it all cold. At Fort Hood, he was the guy they'd call."
Beresford said Cunningham was "a little apprehensive" about leaving the military, which he planned to do next spring, according to his family.
"He was doing very well," said Beresford. "He had a great reputation at the base. But he knew he wanted to stay in Texas to be near (his daughter) Katie."
He was thinking about "some sort of Texas Safety Division job, essentially a police thing doing what he did in the military. He wanted to stay in law enforcement, I'm sure."
In July, Cunningham had a couple weeks' leave.
"He spent a week of it with my family here. Darren brought up his daughter, Kate, from Texas. He saw his mom, which was great. We did the cookout thing, had a few beers, hit the beach. Went to Boston for a day. It was perfect."
On a previous visit, said Beresford, Cunningham pretty much displayed his personality.
"He was up here with my family, and I was at work. They were playing charades. The clue came up 'dancing bear.'
"I guess Darren was going through all kinds of gesticulations, but the kids weren't getting it. And then, right before the hourglass ran out, he whipped off his shirt. He was just about bald, and this was the hairiest human being ever. And almost immediately, both kids yelled, 'a bear!'
"That was typical of him. He went the extra mile for entertainment value."
Before he left for Iraq, Cunningham called Beresford and told him, "I'm volunteering, it's what I want to do"
So Beresford got on a plane and spent three days in Texas.
"At one point, he gave me his will and said, 'just in case.'"
"Among the things Cunningham also wrote about liking in his yearbook brief were "true friends."
"He was very committed to being there and thought it was the right thing to do. He said it was a small pocket of Iraqis who were making the trouble there. He was a bit nervous about them, and rightfully so."
"But he volunteered to go," said Beresford. "He was there to train Iraqi police and help them develop an infrastructure."
Cunningham was twice divorced, said Beresford. But he remained on good terms with his second wife, and was friendly with his second wife's husband, also serving in Iraq.
"It turns out, he was one of the guys who found Darren's body," said Beresford.
Cunningham called his mother Wednesday to say he would be heading home on November 3, 2004, a month earlier than expected.
He had been in the Army for a long time, doing what he apparently knew he wanted to do a long time ago. He went far, but never forgot his true friends.
"I didn't realize he had been in (the Army) that long," said Bauch, the science teacher. "It was along time ago, but I haven't forgotten him. I just feel awful. I guess it sort of feels like when a student dies in a car crash. But you know, I'm very proud of what he's done."
A scholarship fund has been established in
Cunningham's name. To donate, write to: Staff Sergeant Darren J. Cunningham
Scholarship Fund, c/o Middlesex Savings Band, PO Box 1188, Groton, Massachusetts
October 18, 2004:
Groton soldier to rest with military honors
Staff Sergeant Darren Cunningham, the career soldier from Groton killed in Iraq late last month will be laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on Wednesday.
Cunningham, 40, was in his trailer in Baghdad when it was struck by a mortar shell in the early-morning hours of September 30, 2004. He was serving with the 545th Military Police Company of the Army's First Cavalry. Also a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he volunteered to return to Iraq. He was based in Fort Hood, Texas.
Cunningham will be buried following a mid-morning memorial service in an Arlington chapel. A wake is scheduled for Tuesday evening at a Virginia funeral home.
His family asked that he be remembered as an American patriot, who died doing what he wanted to do.
Cunningham, a 1982 graduate of Groton-Dunstable Regional High School, was recalled warmly by staff and classmates. They remembered him as an athlete who played basketball and soccer, a good student and an outgoing man who loved a good joke. He was, they said, always smiling.
A local ceremony honoring Cunningham is scheduled
for Friday, October 29, 2004, at 7 p.m., at the South Middle School Performing
Arts Center in Groton.
Staff Sergeant Darren J. Cunningham, a 22-year Army veteran who was described by friends and family as gregarious and fun-loving, was buried yesterday under gray skies at Arlington National Cemetery.
Cunningham, 40, of Groton, Massachusetts, was killed September 30, 2004, by a mortar shell in Baghdad when his unit came under attack. He was assigned to the 89th Military Police Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) attended the graveside service, speaking to Cunningham's family and placing a yellow bouquet on the grave.
According to newspaper accounts, Cunningham joined the Army immediately after graduating from Groton-Dunstable Regional High School. One of Cunningham's teachers, Bill Bauch, told the Lowell Sun newspaper: "I remember him talking about wanting to go into the military one day, to serve his country." Although Cunningham was in his class 26 years ago, Bauch said he still "could see his smile."
One of Cunningham's best friends, Dean Beresford, told the newspaper that Cunningham was a strong athlete. They met in elementary school and played varsity basketball as high school juniors and seniors. They graduated in 1982.
College was not for Cunningham, his friend said. Instead, he wanted the discipline, education and travel that the military offered.
"He was a great guy," Beresford told the Sun. "Everybody loved him. 'Boisterous' is a word that comes to mind. Lively. A lot of fun, a good friend to everybody."
Cunningham spent much of his career at Fort Hood, his sister told the Groton Landmark. In 1991, he served as a platoon sergeant in Iraq as part of the Persian Gulf War. He also had been deployed to South Korea. This year, part of his job in Iraq was training Iraqi police officers, the newspaper said.
His family heard from him a day before his death, when Cunningham said he would be coming home a month early, according to the Sun. The family, ecstatic over his news, was devastated upon hearing that he died when a mortar round apparently hit the barracks where he was sleeping about 4 a.m., newspaper accounts said.
"Darren died doing what he wanted to do," his sister Kelly Sumpter told the Sun. "This was his choice."
In addition to his two sisters, Cunningham
is survived by his wife; his son, Dean, 15, and daughter, Kaitlyn, 12;
his mother; and two brothers.
Groton hero laid to rest
Army sergeant killed in Iraq buried at Arlington
Sometimes, the deepest respect comes in waves, slowly, deliberately and solemnly, and so it was when Groton native Darren Cunningham was laid to rest yesterday morning in America's most hallowed turf.
On a chilly, drizzly late morning, Cunningham's casket was interred in the wet Arlington National Cemetery sod in a brief, symbol-laden military funeral.
A volley of rifle shots. A folded American flag. A bugler. A nation's gratitude.
He sleeps now, a hero, surrounded by other heroes, in section 60 of the more than 620 acres of Arlington. The cemetery averages 25 funerals each day. Cunningham became the 88th casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom to be interred there.
Cunningham died at age 40 on September 30, 2004, after a mortar shell struck the trailer where he lived in Baghdad. A day earlier, he had called his mother to tell her he was coming home on November 3, 2004, a month earlier than he'd thought.
He was a military police officer with the 545th Military Police Company of the Army's 1st Cavalry. A soldier always, he volunteered for duty in Iraq. He also served in Operation Desert Storm. He received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart posthumously.
About 50 family members and close friends gathered under a portable awning aside the grave along a tree-lined street yesterday for a final goodbye.
Cunningham's children from two marriages, Dean, 15, of Milwaukie, Oregon, and Kaitlyn, 12, of Copperas Cove, Texas, sat in the front row, Cunningham's mother, Christine Kaminski of Chelmsford, between them. She was joined by her husband, Anthony Kaminski. Cunningham's sisters, Tracey Cunningham-Hammond, 41, of Pepperell, and Kelly Cunningham-Sumpter, 38, of Groton, were joined by his brothers, Glenn, 42, of Minnesota, and Michael, 48, of Maine.
Major General Donald Ryder, provost of all of the Army's military police, participated in the ceremony. Mourners included Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy and his wife, Victoria.
The Rev. Arnold De Porter, a Catholic priest, performed a brief Mass at a chapel at adjacent Fort Myer, and presided over the prayers at the burial.
There is nothing so at once sadly moving and starkly beautiful as a military funeral, its awful purpose laced everywhere with precision and solemnity. It is the honor the military bestows on its lost brothers and sisters.
Everything is pressed, laced, straight, precise, in order.
Arlington is a quilt of sacrifice, stitched together by more than 260,000 graves, a field of white headstones with black lettering. Next to Cunningham's plot are seven recently filled graves awaiting headstones.
Off to his right a headstone marks the remains of a helicopter crew who perished in Vietnam in 1969. Nearby lies a Jewish soldier, Army Captain Michael Tarlavsky, killed in Iraq on August 12, 2004, at age 30. Walk a little farther, and you'll see the grave of the Pakistani-born Muslim, Army Captain Humayun S.M. Khan, who died in Iraq on June 8, 2004, at age 27.
Back two rows, four Buddhist monks performed a religious ceremony for another soldier.
Six soldiers removed Cunningham's flag-draped casket slowly from the black hearse, shuffling five steps to the right in perfect lockstep, marching it 20 feet to the grave site. Mourners were seated as the casket team held the flag-like canopy over the casket, as De Porter said a prayer and blessed the casket.
The firing squad of seven shot three rounds in perfect unison, slicing the silence.
Staff Sergeant Andrew M. Allphin stood among the rows of headstones in the background and softly blew "Taps" on a spit-shined bugle.
It took 26 seconds to play, but it will take a lifetime to forget.
Darren Cunningham had been a soldier since shortly after graduating from Groton-Dunstable Regional High School in 1982. His longtime friends have said they were blessed to know him, to have seen his trademark ferocity on the basketball court and soccer field, as well as the flashes of his humor everywhere else.
The casket party folded the flag above the casket, six pairs of white gloves snapping corners to attention, until it was a blue triangular bundle of stars. Passing it down the line (one soldier clutched the bundle to his heart along the way), it finally got to Ryder, who knelt and gently presented a folded flag to each of Cunningham's children. June Todd, one of the volunteer Arlington Ladies, presented the family a card of condolence from the Army's chief of staff.
The Kennedys shook hands with each family member in the first row, then both placed a bundle of yellow roses at the foot of the casket.
Senator Kennedy, dressed in a black overcoat, told Cunningham's family they need to remember Darren as the person he was, the hero he was. He said that the soldier gave everything for his country and they should be proud of him.
Kennedy also talked privately with Cunningham's family at the chapel. Kennedy knows the turf at Arlington well. His two brothers are buried here.
"It was just a very dignified ceremony all the way around," Cunningham's sister, Tracey, said later. "It paid tribute to Darren as a brother, a father, a soldier. "And he was being viewed by the military as hero. Which he was."
There was a memorial service for Cunningham in Baghdad on October 2, 2004, and another at his home base, Fort Hood, Texas, a week ago. Another will follow in Groton on October 29, 2004.
"This one was the hardest," Tracey said. "I'm just overwhelmed."
A lone sentry will stand guard over the casket
until it is buried in the ground, one final honor for a soldier fallen
on a dreary day in Arlington.
Last night, in his hometown, they remembered the hero in full brother, friend, leader, relentless competitor, lifter of spirits, patriot. A hero long before his death 30 days earlier.
Cunningham, a Staff Sergeant and military policeman serving in Baghdad in his last days of more than 20 years of active-duty Army service, was killed when a mortar shell struck the trailer in which he lived in the early-morning hours of September 30, 2004. He was 40 and the father of two.
Eight hours earlier, his retirement papers had been signed.
He was due to leave Baghdad November 3, 2004.
In a moving, 80-minute memorial service at the South Middle School Performing Arts Center, more than 100 people, including family and friends, remembered Cunningham. The fallen soldier's mother, Christine Kaminski of Chelmsford, did not attend.
"I think it would just be too much to handle," she said earlier this week.
Under a lone spotlight on the lip of auditorium's stage rested a camouflage blanket, Army boots and a helmet.
Congressman Marty Meehan called Cunningham "a true American hero," whose sacrifice "can never be repaid."
Meehan presented six neatly folded flags that had flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to family members in the front row.
State Representative Robert Hargraves read from the soldiers' and sailors' Book of Prayers and told of Cunningham's competitive spirit and dedication to service.
"He was a true patriot. He signed up for the second time at age 40. What a person, what a man," said Hargraves. "We are so proud."
Lights dimmed and a slide show of soldiers serving in the Middle East flashed across a huge screen.
A 1982 graduate of Groton-Dunstable Regional High School, Cunningham's former basketball teammates and off-court buddies showed up in dark suits. Dean Beresford, Jeffrey Guimond and Mike McCluskey read letters from those who served with Cunningham in Iraq.
The letters described a man who deeply loved his children, and his country. Respected by the men he commanded, and those Iraq policemen he trained. A pool shark who lined up the competition and commanded a crooked, Iraqi-made pool table like a new recruit.
He was the guy "you wanted to have your back," wrote one commander. "He embodied the warrior ethos."
They noted the big-hearted Cunningham was just as quick to pick up the spirits of down-spirited comrades.
He was planning for retirement near Fort Hood, Texas, where he'd been based and where his 12-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, lived.
He had boasted that his retirement party would be "legendary."
He was ordering parts for his Jeep the night before he died, instant-messaging friends on the computer. When the mortar struck, a soldier came back in tears to report who had died.
Cunningham was responsible for distributing more than $3.5 million in the coalition''s effort to rebuilt 80 police barracks and train officers to fill them.
Cunningham's siblings spoke, too. Older brother Michael Cunningham of Maine, an Air Force reservist, told of how he'd always hoped he'd cross paths with Darren in their service. When they finally did, it was when Darren visited him at his home in New Jersey. "It was a brief visit, but the kids talked about it for days, months, years afterward."
Glenn Cunningham of Minnesota said growing up near Concord and Lexington didn't so much rub off on Darren as it "burned" into him. Glenn recalled his younger brother watching Saturday war movies with his dad.
"Well, Darren, you made it to Arlington. You're our John Wayne."
An uncle told the boys that people don't go away when they die, "they become the fuel that keeps the stars lit at night."
Glenn recalled one night when he was 7 and Darren 5.
"We talked quietly, and slowly, he drifted off to sleep. I stroked his hair for a minute and said, 'Good night, Darren. I love you.'"
Cunningham's niece, 19-year-old Jennifer Cunningham, tearfully offered "An American Soldier," a poem she wrote for her uncle.
Sister Tracey Cunningham-Hammond read an e-mail of thanks Darren sent to a family who had sent Easter baskets to soldiers in Iraq.
Kelly Cunningham-Sumpter thanked the crowd on behalf of the family.
The service was bookended by bagpiper Malcolm Forbes, who opened with "Amazing Grace" and closed with "Taps."
Among a collage of pictures of Cunningham displayed in the entryway to the auditorium was one of Cunningham and his daughter snapped in August. He is wearing a Red Sox T-shirt that says, "Reverse the Curse."
"We buried him at Arlington the same day they
beat the Yankees," said sister Tracey. "He would have loved that."
Tribute to a brother
So went the poem as read by a tearful Jennifer Cunningham at a special memorial service held at the South Middle School performing arts center last Friday night.
The service was held in honor of former Groton resident Staff Sgt. Darren J. Cunningham who was killed September 30, 2004, in Baghdad, Iraq when his unit was struck by enemy mortar fire.
He was buried last month with all military honors at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington D.C.
Cunningham, 40, was killed as he slept in a trailer provided for use by his company, the 89th Military Police Brigade, which is part of the 545th Military Police Company of the First Cavalry Division based out of Fort Hood, Texas.
"We are here today to pay tribute and celebrate the life of a true American hero, Darren Cunningham," said Cong. Marty Meehan in remarks before approximately 100 family, friends and acquaintances of the Cunningham family, many of whom knew Darren personally. "Darren was a gift to our nation that can never be repaid. He gave his life for all for the noblest of reasons, to serve his country.
"Darren was the very best that our country had to offer," Meehan continued, speaking from a podium on the auditorium stage beside which rested a pair of combat boots and covered helmet. "It is clear how much he is loved and will be missed. We are profoundly gratified for his courage and sacrifice. As long as these soldiers are over there, they must be in our hearts and thoughts and prayers. We must never forget the courage of this soldier, who died on the battlefield to make this country safe."
Cunningham, a veteran of 28 years' service with the United States Army, had already served one tour of duty in Iraq and had expected to retire in January, 2005. Those plans were altered however, when he was ordered to remain on duty.
Cunningham spent his youth in Groton, attending the local high school and participating in soccer and basketball. Those who knew him remembered his sense of humor and his smile and his determination to win.
Upon graduation at age 18, Cunningham joined the army, took part in the first Persian Gulf War and was later stationed in Korea. Acquaintances in the military noted his professionalism and how he went to extraordinary lengths to complete whatever mission to which he was assigned, including learning native languages.
For Operation Iraqi Freedom, Cunningham was involved with training native police forces to take on the task of restoring order to a country that has suffered at the hands of a ruthless insurgency.
"He was a true patriot," said state Representative Robert Hargraves. "What a person, what a man."
Hargraves said that Cunningham's years of service and his uncomplaining acceptance of being ordered to remain in Iraq "spoke volumes about the character of this man."
"What a father, brother, what a son, we are so proud," Hargraves continued. "He made it possible for us to sleep safely at night. Our children can play without fear. Darren's sacrifice has captured the spirit of this town. We, the American people, will not be held captive to fear because of men like Darren."
"Darren did not die in the wrong place and at the wrong time," declared brother Glenn Cunningham. "He was dedicated to his mission" and his efforts have "made Iraq a safer place."
According to Glenn Cunningham, the idea of holding a special memorial in Groton was suggested to his mother and, acknowledging that the family still had members in the area and that there were many people in town who knew and remembered his brother, the rest of the family agreed.
After a bit of calling around, School Superintendent Mary Jennings was contacted about the availability of space in one of the schools.
"The family called and said they were looking for space to hold a public ceremony," said Jennings, who attended Friday's service. "And as Darren was a graduate of the Groton Dunstable School District, we were very excited to have the opportunity to provide the space they needed."
Friday's ceremony was a simple one, concentrating on Cunningham's life and career with the most moving moment a short slide presentation. It did not necessarily focus on Cunningham but on all of his fellow servicemen stationed in lonely parts of the world, away from family but stoically, and always with a touch of humor, fulfilling their duty protecting the nation from those who would destroy it.
"We remember all those in the armed forces for whom the trumpet has sounded," intoned Chaplain Paul Minor following the presentation of the flag and the playing of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes.
"Darren was a soldier, a leader, a father and a very good friend," read a letter from Cunningham's commander in Iraq, a Colonel Phillips. "We were all blessed to know Staff Sergeant Cunningham."
One of the people who knew Cunningham best was his brother Glenn, who shared memories of family life when the two were growing up in Groton, including evenings watching old war movies with their father and later reenacting them in the fields and woods around their home.
"My brother, John Wayne," said Glenn of Darren, remarking how it was impossible living in Groton and so close to Lexington and Concord to not be influenced by the traditions of protecting home and hearth begun by local minutemen.
Cunningham finished by telling about something his great uncle used to say about life not ending at death, but that those who die go on to provide the fuel that kept the stars burning bright. If that was right, then "Darren had enough energy to light up a very dark corner of the universe."
At one point during the service, a trio of Cunningham's favorite pop songs were played including Tequila Sunrise by the Eagles, Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven and the Steve Miller Band's Fly Like an Eagle which seemed particularly appropriate as by all evidence, Darren Cunningham does indeed fly like an eagle in the hearts and minds of those he left behind.
8 December 2004:
Dear Mr. Patterson:
First, I would like to thank you for responding. I had not anticipated any response, therfore it was such a surprise for me to receive your kind words. Secondly, It would be honor to have anything of mine associated with the site. You may certainly use anything from my letter to you. I can only offer a humble "Thank You" for such kindness.
My brother would be so proud to know that he is resting with our greatest American heroes. He would also chuckle at the thought that he has been treated with such high regard. It would be so unlike him to think of himself as much more than a Massachusetts farm boy.
We were taught as children to love this country, all that it represents, and the respect we needed to show to our countries ideals. Darren loved being a soldier as his 22 years of service clearly prove. What Darren also proved was that the principles that this country was founded on were applicable to all people, of all races and cultures. I was told that over 400 Iraqi police officers attended his service in Baghdad.
Darren was loved by so many people, because
he gave his love to all people. Darren always looked to the olive branch
first, and when there was no other option, he had no problem using his
arrows. I have attached a photograph of myself so you can attach a face
to me. It was taken the day prior to Darrens service in Massachusetts.
Behind me is the monument on Lexington green. I always went to Lexington
and Concord on April 19th. I found a great sense of peace and comfort by
going to both places that afternoon, the 28th of October. It was a private
way of saying thanks to Darren.
Thank you again Mr. Patterson. I truly do appreciate this, and may God bless you and your wife Lynne this hoilday season.
CUNNINGHAM, DARREN JAMES
SSG US ARMY
VETERAN SERVICE DATES: 09/01/2003 - 09/30/2004
DATE OF BIRTH: 07/21/1964
DATE OF DEATH: 09/30/2004
DATE OF INTERMENT: 10/20/2004
BURIED AT: SECTION 60 SITE 8005
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Posted: 5 October 2004 Updated: 18 October 2004 Updated: 21 October 2004 Updated: 23 October 2004 Updated: 3 November 2004 Updated: 4 December 2004 Updated: 8 December 2004 Updated: 27 January 2005 Updated: 21 August 2005 Updated: 13 May 2008
Photo By Michael Robert Patterson, May 2008
Photos By M. R. Patterson, 2 December 2004