Published March 19. 2008 4:00AM Updated September 14. 2009 3:37PM
Three days past the death of their firstborn son, Raymond and Leesa Philippon had a visitor.
A rose-breasted grosbeak, no common bird to the yards of West Hartford, stayed for a day at their feeder.
"They have a saying that when someone passes away they will come back and visit you in the form of a bird," said Raymond Philippon as he takes the photograph down from the shelf. "He's got the exact same colors as Larry's dress blue uniform."
There's more. Larry and his father had shared a love of bird-watching. Now, here was a bird uniquely marked, a blood-red stain on its white breast in the shape of a cross and a heart.
Their son, Lance Cpl. Lawrence R. Philippon, died on May 8, 2005, Mother's Day, his parents' 24th wedding anniversary.
A big, gawky 22-year-old Marine known for his smile, he was killed in a hail of machine-gun fire while kicking in the door of an insurgent stronghold in the city of Qa'im in Anbar Province, Iraq.
"Larry had been appointed team leader," said Leesa. "He really didn't want the position because he knew that he would have to appoint someone to go first ... and he didn't do that. He took that point himself."
"Which is the most dangerous, the tip of the spear, as they say," adds Raymond. "And Larry, he would not have been able to live with himself if one of his men was killed. So he took the brunt of the firepower, and three guys are alive today because of it. ... But that's just who he was."
The Marines who fought alongside him, said Raymond, "were telling us that ... as they were going into the battle, with a big smile on his face he said, 'I live for this.' And 10 minutes later he was gone."
They sit side by side on the sofa, surrounded by mementos and photos of their son. Their home is a shrine to Larry.
His combat boots, paired with his baby shoes, stand to one side of the room. His red hockey jersey — number 33 — is framed in front of the fireplace. An unfinished portrait, limned by his sister, leans against one wall.
Every wall, every shelf, every table is crowded with pictures: the soldier in desert fatigues crouched under a Humvee, grinning under mortar fire; the rail-straight Marine carrying the flag for the color guard; the 6-foot-4 goalie of his high school hockey team guarding the net; the wild and skinny boy, all knees and elbows, they used to send outside to run around in circles.
In middle school, Leesa said, 33 became Larry's number.
"When he started playing sports, around middle school, he had chosen the number 33, and we told him with our faith that that was a good number, because that was the age of Christ when he died for us, and he took that, and he had that forever on," she said.
"The night that he left for Iraq he went to have his weapon issued to him, his M16 rifle ... and he was so excited because they had issued — he had not asked — they had issued him rifle number 33.
"At that moment," she said, "I was convinced that everything would be OK."
He had always been a fearless boy, his father remembers.
"If you're a hockey goalie with pucks flying at your face a hundred miles an hour, you can't be afraid, and he didn't have that fear," Ray Philippon said.
"They called him 'Goat.' Larry was very thin but tall, and in his freshman year of high school, he had curly hair on the top and he had some facial hair coming off the bottom and a very thin face, so he looked like a goat. All the kids on the hockey team received names. His was 'Goat,' and that stuck."
Most of all, they both recall, Larry made people laugh. He recited lines from "Forrest Gump" or "The Big Lebowski" with dead-on accuracy. Even as a Marine, he would make his superiors laugh with a crisp salute and a "What up, sir!"
He had not always wanted to be a Marine.
"It was after 9/11," said Leesa. "I remember coming home, and he was just sitting in front of the TV. 'Mom, I can't believe this. Mom. Mom.' And after that, he started watching 'Saving Private Ryan' and all those old war movies, and then he just came to us one day and said, 'I'm going.' "
"The seed was planted on 9/11," Ray agrees. "You could see it. And we've heard from a lot of families where their children have joined the service, 9/11 had a major impact on them. They just felt like they didn't want our country to be attacked again. They'd rather be over there trying to defend us."
Which was why, they say, he was so unhappy with his first assignment: to serve with the color guard in Washington.
"He didn't like it because he didn't feel like he was a real Marine," said Ray. "He was trained to put the camouflage on and to fight, and he said it just wasn't him, he wasn't a pretty boy."
While serving with the color guard — he carried the flag at Ronald Reagan's funeral — Larry was in constant contact with his buddies in Iraq. He knew how bad it was there. He even was assigned to a two-week stint of retrieving the bodies coming back into Dover, Del. None of that dissuaded him. He begged to be sent to Iraq.
Besides his father and mother, he left behind his brother, Bryan, now 18, and sister, Emilee, now 21, who, even three years on, still struggle to cope with his death.
"He was their hero," said Leesa. "They loved hearing all of his stories. ... Larry's part of their identity. He was there all their lives, and all of a sudden he's gone."
And now Bryan wants to join the Marines.
"He, like many other siblings" of soldiers killed in Iraq, "wants to go in," Ray said. "They feel like they have some unfinished business."
Both parents say they often feel Larry's presence.
"At various times when I'm thinking about him a bird will come flying up wherever I am and just sit there looking at me. Is it coincidence? Perhaps, but I don't believe so," said Ray.
"It didn't turn out the way that we had hoped," he said. "But it was God's will, and we're firm believers that we all have a destiny. And when Larry and I were sitting at the dining room table talking about this — that conversation that no one wants to have — he told me flat out, 'Dad, if I'm ever gonna go, that's the way I want to go, in the heat of battle, fighting for my country.'
"So ... to me it was a win-win situation for him. If he had served and came back, then that would be the first win. And if he didn't make it back, and he went home to God, that was the second win. So either way, it was a win-win situation. And he got his wish."
Leesa Philippon said, "He was very sensitive, even though he was tough and aggressive and fearless. ... He loved the sunrises and the sunsets. He had taken pictures of those. And he taught the guys he was on lookouts with about the stars. ... He would point out all the constellations to them."
Larry told his mother to look up at the belt of the constellation Orion.
"He said that he would be looking at the middle star and that she would be looking at it and so they would keep in touch that way," Ray said.
"Orion's belt." He turns to his wife. "That's coming up now, right?"
"Yeah," she said softly. "It's out there."