On Thursday, January 8, Alberto Francesconi’s family spoke softly, shed tears and embraced. No rifle salute. No funeral dress. Only happy memories and hastily printed “Alberto” t-shirts.
Francesconi, a 21-year old Marine from Bedford Park, died on New Year’s Day in Afghanistan. He was the first U.S. soldier to fall in Afghanistan this year. The Marine Corps notified Francesconi’s family just before midnight on New Years Eve here.
“He had a big heart,” said Michael Vega, an older brother. “He was very brave. What a terrible tragedy.”
More than 400 people attended Francesconi’s wake. Cardinal Edward Egan presided over the funeral, at Our Lady of Mercy on Marion Avenue. Governor David Paterson praised Francesconi during his State of the State address January 7, and Albany’s flags flew at half-mast Friday, January 9.
Francesconi’s mother, Minerva Negron, wailed when Marines lowered her son into St. Raymond’s cemetery, where Negron’s mother is also buried.
Born and bred on Park Avenue at 187th Street, Francesconi attended P.S. 85 and graduated from Aviation High School in Queens. A licensed aircraft mechanic and personal banker at the age of 18, Francesconi led by example.
“I was so proud of him,” said Pedro Sifonte, Francesconi’s uncle and godfather. “He came from a rough neighborhood.”
Francesconi took his cues from Robert Rivera, another older brother.
“I went to Aviation High School, so he went to Aviation High School,” Rivera said. “I joined the Navy, so he joined the Marines. He always used to tell me, ‘Whatever you can do, I can do better.’”
Francesconi served in Iraq from July 2007 to January 2008. A scout sniper, he was nervous before heading to Afghanistan last November. Rivera considered shipping out with his younger brother.
“We did everything together,” said Rivera. “Martial arts. Parties. The beach. The gym. When he was in streets, I was there with him. I protected him.”
In 2006, Francesconi married his teenage sweetheart, Cynthia. A family man, he savored trips to Orchard Beach.
“When I think of Albert, I think of the happiest moments of my life,” Cynthia Francesconi said. “You couldn’t be with him and not have a smile on your face.”
An aspiring pilot, Francesconi joined the Marines to earn money and polish his resume, relatives said. According to Sifonte, Francesconi planned to enroll at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida following his tour of Afghanistan.
“He never got that chance,” Sifonte said.
Francesconi called his wife from Afghanistan on December 31 to say goodbye. He was about to embark on a five-day mission. Stationed in one of the country’s most volatile regions, Francesconi worked to clear houses and root out insurgents.
The next day, he stepped on a pressure-activated landmine. Two nearby Marines were hurt but survived. Francesconi died from injuries an hour later.
“One of the Marines injured with him just flew back to Afghanistan,” Sifonte said. “Our family doesn’t support the war, but we support the troops. There are plenty of Bronx kids out there and we feel for them.”
Francesconi’s legacy lives on. When he returned from Iraq, Francesconi convinced a handful of friends to join the Marines.
“Here were these guys from the hood – out of work, out of school,” Rivera said. “Albert told them, ‘Come with me, see the world. There’s more to life than the block. There’s more to life than the Bronx.’ And he convinced them. I was impressed. Here were these guys selling drugs. Albert turned them around.”
One young man, a product of foster homes and the city’s shelter system, now commands a C-53 helicopter.
But Francesconi’s family is shaken. Vega was there when the bad news arrived. It was after 11 p.m. on New Years Eve.
“My mother came into the room and collapsed,” Vega said. “It was like the whole world crumbled. I had a phone in each hand. I called hundreds of people. I kept repeating the same words over and over.”
Cynthia Francesconi missed her husband this winter. Afghanistan, Francesconi told her, was three times worse than Iraq. Since the war began in 2001, 631 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan, 155 last year.
Phil Gonzalez, a former Marine who taught Francesconi in fourth and fifth grade, paid his respects January 8, at the quiet family gathering.
“It was my first year teaching, and Albert misbehaved,” Gonzalez said. “Parent teacher conferences were coming up. One night, I heard a knock on my window. It was Albert. He gave me a teddy bear and said, ‘Don’t tell my mother.’ He was a great kid.”