Joe Skumurski’s Thanksgiving gathering began Wednesday.
There were tears and smiles at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Niskayuna, as family members and new friends remembered Joe’s brother David.
David L. Skumurski was 21 and a U.S. Army solider serving with the 3rd Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade when he was killed in Vietnam on April 3, 1968. He was fatally injured by shrapnel from a booby-trapped explosive.
An American flag was flown in David’s honor over the Capitol in Washington, D.C. in 2009. And the flag was the reason for Wednesday’s remembrance.
Bruce Flaherty, a Long Island veteran who served in Vietnam and was a member of Skumurski’s unit, has made it a personal mission to see that 289 flags are flown over the Capitol — one for every 3rd Infantry man killed in Vietnam.
Flaherty found Joe Skumurski through an online search and phone calls and, instead of just mailing the flag to Joe’s Schenectady home, asked the Patriot Guard Riders to deliver the neatly-folded Stars and Stripes to David’s grave site.
Seventeen motorcycles, a few with flags attached to back seats, rolled into Most Holy Redeemer just before 3:30 p.m. Other Patriot Riders in three vehicles trailed the main procession.
The visitors made a loop around the St. Joseph’s Shrine section of the cemetery where David is buried and, once off and out of their rides, approached the family as a group. Twenty-two men and women, wearing black leather jackets decorated with military pins and patches and most holding flags, formed a semi-circle around the grave.
Former Army Sgt. Bill Ryan of Latham, who also served in the 3rd Infantry, presented the flag. A bugler played “Taps.”
Joe Skumurski, a teacher at Arongen Elementary School in Clifton Park, was grateful for the Patriot Guard’s “mission” to help remember his brother. He was only 11 when news of David’s death reached the family home on Windsor Terrace in Schenectady.
“My father owned a small grocery store, Lenny’s; we lived in a Polish neighborhood,” Joe Skumurski said. “Our house was connected to the store and I just remember my father walking around the store saying, ‘They killed my son, they killed my son.’ And two soldiers coming up to me and asking if I wanted to go somewhere and get ice cream or go to the movies. The Mass at church at St. Mary’s in Schenectady was gigantic.”
The 58-year-old Skumurski said David, a 1965 graduate of Linton High School, had a yellow MG automobile. “I can remember him stuffing me in the back, but there really wasn’t a back seat,” Skumurski said. “Somehow I got stuffed in the back when he would drive around with his girlfriend or somebody.”
The Riders’ involvement, Skumurski said, eased a burden he has carried for years.
“There was something in my head that always bothered me, what were his last moments like, was he alone, and how did he feel?” Skumurski said. “Their gestures today and the lengths to which they went to honor him with the flag, this makes me feel he was never alone and he hasn’t been alone the last 40 or 50 years, because they’ve always carried him in their hearts and in their minds and in the things they do.”
John Skumurski, 60, who also lives in Schenectady, echoed his brother’s sentiments.
“I’m very grateful to this outfit for bringing us all together,” he said. “I’ve been to the wall several times and it’s pretty emotional down there.”
Bill Schaaf of Troy, assistant state captain for the Riders and senior ride captain for the Capital District group, was glad to answer Flaherty’s call for assistance.
“It kind of fulfills what our mission is,” he said. “Our primary mission is to attend the funerals of our killed in actions, and although our organization wasn’t around 47 years ago when David was killed, this is kind of a way in which our guys can pay tribute to him and his family.
“We’re in a demographic where a lot of our members are Vietnam vets or Vietnam-era vets. This is kind of up close and personal for them. Motorcycles, good weather or not, we would have had a good turnout here. It wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.