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'A Light in the Darkness' 6,000 Miles Away

Peabody native and U.S. Army Capt. Steven Patten returned home recently to present a special flag in honor of fellow native Christine Barbuto. A memorial garden in her name was dedicated at PVMHS last week.

The transformation of one school courtyard into a serene and contemplative garden was, in a way, symbolic of the larger shift to move past tragedy to joyful memories of a vibrant, friendly and committed young woman, one of Peabody’s own.

“This garden represents a community coming together and turning a tragedy into something good. Christine's life was cut short, but her memory will live on here and she will not be forgotten,” said Eric Buckley last week.

Buckley, the assistant principal at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School, was speaking before a large crowd of local officials, teachers, friends and others who turned out Thursday afternoon to dedicate the new memorial garden at PVMHS in honor of Christine Barbuto.

Barbuto, a Peabody native who graduated from PVMHS in 1986, was killed when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

She would have turned 44 this year. Barbuto’s birthday just a few days later on Oct. 28 was part of the reason for having the dedication that Thursday.

Her story was also one that brought light into the depression and dreariness of a battlefield more than 6,000 miles away in Afghanistan.

PVMHS grad and U.S. Army Capt. Steven Patten returned home with his own contribution to Barbuto’s memorial – an American flag that was flown in her memory at his unit’s base in Zharay, Afghanistan – otherwise known as the “birthplace of the Taliban.”

Patten said last March his unit was stationed in Afghanistan and sent to Zharay for several months. He said the first casualty came the first night; within a month, a half dozen soldiers were killed and a number others lost arms, legs or both to battle wounds. Every day soldiers faced the unknown.

Patten said in April, he read a story online from a local paper back home about Barbuto and the project underway and it “brought back the tears.”

“You see, [at the time] I read the article it was pretty tough,” Patten said Thursday. “I tend to get emotional just like my parents. By like the fifth time [reading it] I realized why – because she is a Peabody Tanner. She went to my high school.”

“As I read about Christine and her mother, who taught at Peabody while I was there, and Christine died the day this war started, and here I am on the Taliban's home turf with my unit, taking the fight to them, I never felt more connected to Peabody,” he said. “It was like connecting the dots to what started the tragedy eleven years earlier.”

He said morale was really low at one point after a vicious attack from insurgents. So Patten pulled out a copy of that article he kept in his desk drawer and shared Barbuto’s story with his team and his plan to fly a flag in her memory. “I wanted something positive to come out of what was happening,” he said.

That prompted his fellow soldiers to share similar stories of loved ones lost on 9/11.

Patten said he spoke with his immediate superior, but was told that because of partnership with the Afghan National Army, American flags were no longer being flown on military bases, only either task force flags or the Afghan National Flag.

So Patten sent the article and their reasons for flying it to the Army’s central base in Kandahar for legal review. The answer: it was up to the unit commander.

From there, Patten contacted the colonel, but feared the request would be denied. “The colonel looked at us and said, to our surprise, ‘I lost a good friend in the attack [on 9/11] and I went to Ground Zero to help. Do it.’”

Patten said they wanted to fly the flag on Sept. 11, but his team was scheduled to be re-deployed before then; they wanted to fly it on Barbuto’s birthday, but we wouldn't be at the base for the same reason, so they flew the flag on the Fourth of July instead.

“As we flew the flag, two Afghan soldiers walked up to me, hugged me and said [what translated to “Thank you”],” said Patten. “I realized that the tragedy that took place on 9/11 came home. The Afghan people are no longer living under the tyranny of the Taliban regime, they enjoy freedoms they never experienced before; for instance, women can go to school and get an education.”

Afterward, Patten and his team talked over how flying Barbuto’s flag “was a light in the darkness, people seemed to pull together more.”

“It became a symbol that we will not be silent... we will never forget those we've lost,” Patten said. “I know somewhere up there Christine was watching just like she is today. She saw soldiers pulling together, countries serving side-by-side, she saw tragedy turned into hope and freedom for people who've never known it. Today this is flag is presented to PVMHS in Christine's memory.”

After deciding to fly the flag and bring it back home to Peabody, Patten emailed PVMHS Principal Ed Sapienza with his plans. Sapienza said Thursday that Patten and his team’s actions became a great motivation to push on with the memorial garden.

As he prepared to present the encased flag to Jerry Hallinan, Patten had one last piece of news to share: “Also I'm proud to say this is my last official act as an Army officer. I am headed to join my wife and raise our future children in Peabody, the greatest city in the world.”

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