Remembering Mat Fazzari

Family offers a personal look at Walla Walla's first casualty in the war in Afghanistan.

Army 1st Lt. Mathew "Mat" Fazzari, a 2005 graduate of DeSales Catholic High School, died Wednesday after his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.

Army 1st Lt. Mathew "Mat" Fazzari, a 2005 graduate of DeSales Catholic High School, died Wednesday after his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. Courtesy photo

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WALLA WALLA - There are no words.

In the stacks of greeting cards that arrive daily at the home of Greg and Susan Fazzari since their son was killed in Afghanistan on June 6 that has been one of the most commonly penned sentiments.

On the ninth day after it happened -- that's how Susan Fazzari has been keeping track of time in the overwhelming fog -- the veracity of that simple statement continued to ring in the solemn silence around a table on the deck of the family's back yard.

"There are no words," Greg Fazzari said as his son's boxer Felix lazed near his chair. "I can't tell you how many times I've read that, but it's true."

On Tuesday the remains of 1st Lt. Mathew -- "Mat" as he was known mostly to those during his college years and beyond -- Fazzari will be returned to Walla Walla. The week will end with a funeral Mass in the church where he married his wife, Tovah, and a community celebration of life Saturday at Cordiner Hall.

In the absence of words that will make sense of anything that has happened in the last week and a half, his family offered an inside peek into the soldier born with the loudest set of lungs of any child at his day care and who died at 25 as Walla Walla's first casualty in the war in Afghanistan.

Fazzari was, in every way, his family said, a typical kid. So much so that they first bristled at the notion of him as a fallen "hero."

His siblings, Danielle, 22, Luke, about to enter his senior year at DeSales Catholic High School, and Shawn, who will be an eighth-grader at Assumption Grade School this fall, regarded him lovingly as the classic older brother -- one part obnoxious jokester, the other part a charming leader. He smiled sweetly in family photos while he secretly goosed Luke to get a funny face out of him.

At DeSales, where he graduated in 2005, he was steeped in activities but was never particularly the best at any one, his parents said. He traveled to state for baseball all four years, landed there two of the years he played basketball, acted in plays and played percussion in the school band.

He took advantage of opportunities. He played the drums in a Christian rock band that practiced at staggering decibels in his family's garage through high school, inspiring Shawn to play, too.

After a blind date in high school with Tovah Kingman, his family saw him in a new light. Their first date his junior year was a spring dance at DeSales, where as chaperones his parents got to glimpse the start of an enduring love.

"We saw our son dancing with this girl with a smile on his face we'd never seen before," Susan Fazzari said, her son's dog tags hanging from her neck.

The two married in the summer of 2009 just before Fazzari's senior year at Gonzaga University in what his mom described as "the wedding of the century." They have two boys, Dominic, 2, and Samuel, 8 months.

The Army was not even close to a lifelong dream of Fazzari's who had been studying math at Gonzaga University. But in the eyes of his family, he shined there as in nothing he had ever done before.

Fazzari got involved with ROTC after seeing the cadets running together at 6 a.m. It made him long for the sense of community he experienced at DeSales. He asked if he could run with the group. Weeks later he was offered an ROTC scholarship.

He was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army after being a four-year cadet in the nationally ranked ROTC unit.

He went on to flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., and graduated last April at the top of his class.

Based out of Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., he'd been in Afghanistan for only about three weeks when he and his commander and co-pilot Scott Pace of Brawley, Calif., were killed in a helicopter crash in the Ghazni province. Their OH-58 Kiowa Warrior had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, for which the Taliban took credit, according to an Associated Press report.

However, it is not yet clear whether their helicopter went down as a result of the shot, or whether it was hit afterward. That is just one of the details expected to be determined in the official investigation.

Incidentally, Fazzari had wanted to pilot the Kiowa because it's known as a "helper" helicopter, serving as the eyes and ears for the boots on the ground.

A military chaplain and a uniformed officer from Kennewick and Hermiston personally delivered the news first to Fazzari's wife. She accompanied them on the trip to the Fazzari family home, where everyone but Luke, who was at a Summer Leaders Seminar at West Point in a move to follow in his brother's footsteps, was told of the crash.

The walk up the driveway to the front door seemed an endless journey through the perspective of those watching from inside. From the somber trip, they knew what they were about to be told.

The visitors read a statement of what happened. They stayed for a long time that night.

In a whirlwind, Greg, Susan and miraculously Luke were able to make the trip to Dover, Del., with Tovah for the "dignified transfer," a ceremonious movement for fallen military members returning from their theater of operations from the incoming aircraft to a vehicle enroute to the mortuary.

While they were gone, Danielle and Shawn were astounded by the response at home. The knocking at their door with deliveries of flowers and food was ceaseless. At one point Danielle counted 32 people at their property, weeding, mowing and otherwise taking care of the land. Strangers were assembling ribbons and streamers intended for vehicle antennas to be distributed at local businesses.

Around them and without knowing them, the community was reeling with pride and disbelief, too. What seemed an odd flood of emotion initially now makes perfect sense to Fazzari's parents.

"It's everyone's worst nightmare," Greg Fazzari said.

Across from the kitchen in his home are framed photographs, floral displays, awards and news stories serving as a memorial to Fazzari. Oddly he wasn't expected to be home again until October, further enabling the deniability of it all to those who are left behind.

Every text message from his son has been locked into the cellphones -- even the last one to his mother requesting specific kinds of socks in his next care package. From trivial requests to more serious exchanges about the sadness Fazzari felt for the Afghan people or the endless inquiries about what his siblings had been up to and how much he missed being part of it are all treasured exchanges.

Through Facebook, the family is building a database of local soldiers whose names they hope to run during the celebration of life.

"In honoring Mathew we're honoring all those guys out there," Greg Fazzari said.

He said he's in awe of how attentive the military has been. The family members, too, are leaning on their faith.

"It still doesn't feel real," said sister Danielle Fazzari in the back yard of the home adorned in yellow ribbons and an American flag.

"No," her mother added. "We're just counting in days after June 6."

A Rosary will take place 7 p.m. Thursday at Assumption Catholic Church, 2098 E. Alder St.

The funeral Mass will be 11 a.m. Friday at the church with a graveside service afterward and reception at Assumption.

A community celebration of life will be 11 a.m. Saturday at Cordiner Hall on the Whitman College campus.

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