Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Phaneuf II of Eastford died Dec. 15, 2006 when the armored vehicle he was driving struck a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was 38 years old, and left a wife and three children.
Joe Phaneuf's wife, Michele, and his siblings are standing on the front porch Monday telling great stories about him, laughing and teasing one another in that take-no-prisoners Phaneuf way. The kids are in school as they would be any other day. No one is moping, and the only sign of tears comes when the subject turns to his sense of mission, as a soldier and a human being.
"He had to, to protect our country. He had to find those terrorists," Holly Grube of Eastford said of her brother's decision at the time.
Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Phaneuf II died Friday when the armored vehicle he was driving struck a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Two other soldiers who were in the vehicle survived.
On Monday, Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered U.S. and Connecticut flags to be lowered to half-staff until Phaneuf's burial.
"Joseph Phaneuf was a volunteer citizen-soldier who served his state and country in the truest sense," Rell said. "His example of service and sacrifice is as inspirational as his death is tragic. We need to always remember that fine men and women like Joseph Phaneuf step forward to protect us, regardless of the risk and danger to themselves."
The Phaneufs are full of such examples.
All four brothers have been in the service. Rob Phaneuf of Putnam, and Dennis Phaneuf of Medford, Mass., were Marines, like their father, Peter Phaneuf of Killingly, who did two stints in Vietnam. Tony Phaneuf of Danielson, served in the Army, notably in Bosnia and Somalia. Joe's birthday was even military: He turned 38 on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day.
The brothers are tight. They traveled in a pack at parties, bandying their brand of humor and putting girlfriends and wives through the ropes (although Joe was always more sensitive, and an uncontested heartthrob, Rob's wife, Kim, recalls). All four of them eloped when they married. They even have crossed paths in the service - Joe and Tony at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and again when both were stationed in Germany; Rob and Dennis at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
But it's that orneriness that hangs in the air, the memory of their brother present on the porch of the rambling white farmhouse Monday.
Joe photographed a desert sunset in Ghazni, Afghanistan, and created a postcard. After he was moved to a less attractive spot, he wrote on the card to Rob, "This is where I was staying. But if you want to see where I'm staying now, just pop the lid on your septic tank and take a peek inside."
His 13 nieces and nephews were nuts about him. He sent them desert hats and gifts, issuing all of them ranks, but never higher than his own. He loved to give the kids in Afghanistan coveted ballpoint pens and candy.
He'd slip in a few Fireballs, "just to see their little faces," Michele said. "He wasn't perfect."
And there was the time Joe and some other fathers built the playscape at Eastford Elementary. They embedded a dime in the pavement, imagining the future generations of kids trying to pick it up. That was Joe.
Besides his military service, he was an emergency medical technician and firefighter. He and Michele, also an EMT, took turns answering calls when the kids were small. They met in high school but started dating when they met again while Michele was getting EMT training.
As the porch conversation lulls, the family members look at their feet. "It's all so wrong," Rob says. "Surreal," Michele finishes. "Yeah, surreal," Tony agrees.
"You drive down the road and it's all the same," Michele said. "Santa is coming. If I didn't have three kids, I'd be a ball in that bed right now."
Ryan is 15, and the girls, Danielle and Jordan, are 11 and 9.
They hadn't seen their dad since August, when he was home for a break. He left for Afghanistan in April with the 102nd Infantry Battalion of New Haven, due back in spring 2007.
He served in Iraq from February 2004 to 2005.
"Here we are waiting for him to come home," Rob said.
Funeral arrangements won't be made for a few days, as the family awaits the return of Phaneuf's body in a week or 10 days, Michele said. Her husband was clear that he wished to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
"I told him I love him," Rob told the family about his last phone conversation with his brother in October.
"The first time he went to Iraq, I told him. He got awkward and kind of said, `Love you, too.' But the second time, you could see stuff heating back up in Afghanistan. He didn't hesitate: `I love you, too,'" he told Rob.
Contact Stephanie Summers at email@example.com.