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Brentwood mother of fallen soldier bonds with son's platoon

Dawn Esposito, Gold Star Mother, who lost her

Dawn Esposito, Gold Star Mother, who lost her son, Army Sgt. Michael J. Esposito Jr., in Afghanistan 2004, stands in Hauppauge on Sept. 28, 2014 with veterans of the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry who served under her son. From left to right, Heriberto Baez, 30, of Yonkers, Jess Castro, 31, of Los Angeles, Calif., Dawn Esposito, and Adam Deciccio, 30, of R.I. Credit: Heather Walsh

Amid the laughter and the camaraderie shared among the thick-shouldered former soldiers and the diminutive woman who gathered Sunday at a hotel in Hauppauge, one could imagine Sgt. Michael Esposito was there with his mother and his guys.

Everyone had a story, a memory to relate, a moment to relive about the 1999 Brentwood High graduate who enlisted in the Army two weeks before he turned 18, and had made sergeant by the time he was 22.

On Gold Star Mother's Day, which honors mothers of fallen troops on the last Sunday of every September, his mother, Dawn Esposito, found solace among soldiers who were with her son in his last hours.

The shared moments were like an elixir that seemed to spread warmth across her face.

"I'm lucky," said Esposito, moments before hoisting the two-year-old daughter of Jackie Williams, who had served in Afghanistan with her son and traveled from his home in Arizona to be there. "I'm lucky to have them here with me."

The men came from as far away as Los Angeles to be with Esposito for a ceremony Monday where a bridge not far from where Michael Esposito grew up is to be dedicated in his name. The ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Long Island Expressway and Washington Avenue in Brentwood.

Over the years, Dawn Esposito has learned the details of her son's final moments from those he served with -- moments that earned him and fellow soldier Sgt. Anthony S. Lagman, 26, of Yonkers, the military's Bronze Star medal for valor.

On March 18, 2004, Esposito and Lagman, members of the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, were searching a house in Miam Do, 250 miles southwest of Kabul, when shooting started.

Esposito had helped several women and children flee to a rescue helicopter on the roof. He went downstairs to search for fighters hiding in the warren of rooms, not long after Lagman was killed. As Esposito approached a closed door they had not seen before, bullets from the other side killed him.

In the years since then, Dawn Esposito has sought meaning in her son's death by becoming somewhat of a platoon mother to his fellow soldiers.

Within weeks of her son's death, she was sending "care packages" to the members of her son's unit still in Afghanistan. That Memorial Day weekend, she hosted a barbecue for soldiers in his unit, drawing more than 100 of them to her Brentwood backyard.

She has been at it ever since.

In 2012, Esposito traveled to the Pentagon with a colonel who had commanded her son, on behalf of another "Triple Deuce" soldier who sought -- successfully -- to have his general discharge upgraded to an honorable discharge.

"For the last 10 years, this woman has been there for us," said the soldier, Adam Deciccio, 30, of Cranston, Rhode Island, who met Esposito at her son's funeral.

Esposito said she was initially reluctant to allow a public place to be renamed in honor of her son. She said she was uncomfortable having her son lauded individually when so many of his fellow soldiers also paid a price the day he died.

"You can't claim it as your own grief, because he had brothers in arms who were also grieving for him and Anthony," Esposito said, referring to the soldier killed with her son. "You can't put him on a pedestal and say it only happened to him."

She said she finds meaning in helping her son's former colleagues do what she wanted her son to be able to do -- to come home from war, find jobs, start families, and look out for each other.

"I want them to be the old veterans someday, older veterans taking care of the younger ones," she said, as Williams gathered his daughter to him a short distance away. "Because they are Michael's truest legacy, the truest legacy of someone who was lost."

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