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Family remembers sons lost in service


SOME BETTER day than this, Gary Pontell might have found himself shooting pool in the club basement of his house in Columbia with the three sons who helped him finish the room and decorate it -- Steve, Darin and Michael. Some better day than this, he might have seen his boys in the full dress of manhood, all grown up, leading independent lives and happy to be home.

But here it is, a football Sunday in America, a perfect hour for the gathering of men, and the clubroom is dark and empty.

Gary Pontell presses a switch that lights up half the space and follows a visitor down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs, encased in glass on a paneled wall, is the flag that draped Steve's coffin, folded into a triangle at his funeral 12 years ago.

The flag from Darin's funeral will go on the wall next to it.

Darin died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

He was a Navy man, just like his big brother.

A Naval Academy graduate, just like his big brother.

He died in service to his country, just like his big brother.

Last Friday he was buried next to his big brother.

Their mother, Marilyn Pontell, brings a scrapbook to a coffee table and shows color photographs of Darin's bar mitzvah, about 12 years ago. Head-and-big-shoulders over him, smiling proudly in his Navy whites, is Steve.

Steve Pontell decided to go to Annapolis when he was a junior in high school. His father had taken him to the academy for a visit; it was pretty much love at first sight.

"I think he loved the discipline, the tradition," his mother says.

"He spoke many years about wanting to fly," says his father.

He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1988, then went off to flight schools in Mississippi and Florida.

"Steve was determined, intelligent and confident," Gary Pontell says. "And it was important to him that Darin keep him on a pedestal."

Steve liked being admired by his little brother. Big brothers are supposed to be admired by their little brothers. Big brothers are supposed to set an example.

Big brothers are not supposed to die.

It was Oct. 28, 1989, when Steve, in his first attempt to land a training jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier, crashed into the tower of the USS Lexington about 30 miles south of Pensacola, Fla. He had approached the carrier with too little altitude and too little speed. The aircraft stalled.

"That was quite a day for us," Gary Pontell recalls.

"We heard about it on CNN," says Marilyn. "Oct. 28 -- we were home carving pumpkins."

Steve was an ensign, 23 years old. He was buried in Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Cemetery.

The Pontells lost their first-born. Michael, a year younger than Steve and a University of Maryland graduate, lost the brother with whom he'd grown up. Darin, 10 years younger, had lost his big brother. For a time, he was angry and bitter toward the Navy and the academy.

But as he matured and considered college, he looked to the banks of the Severn, then decided to apply.

"He said, 'I'd like to go to the academy and finish what my brother started,'" Marilyn Pontell says.

"He wasn't interested in flying, though," says his father.

"He loved us so much," says his mother. "He knew we couldn't bear another pilot."

Darin focused, instead, on naval intelligence. After graduating with honors from the academy in 1998, he continued his training at naval installations in Virginia. When his future wife, Devora, visited him there, she was awed by the passionate way he studied; his mind became an encyclopedia of nations and the military of those nations. "He wanted to be the very best at what he did," she says. "He loved that job."

From February until August last year, he served aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Eisenhower, in, among other places, the Persian Gulf. During that time, Darin gave briefings to large gatherings of pilots and commanders. He thrived in his work, dazzled his colleagues and superiors. A videotape of one of his briefings is used as a teaching tool.

It was Darin's knowledge and skill that got him to the Pentagon, where the young lieutenant briefed admirals.

He and Devora were married six months ago. They lived in Gaithersburg. She's a lawyer who clerked for a Maryland judge until last month. He worked varying shifts at the Pentagon.

On Monday, Sept. 10, he went to work at 10 p.m. Devora expected him home about 10:30 the next morning.

She was one of four people to speak at his funeral Friday at a synagogue in Silver Spring. There were 800 people there. Devora spoke of Darin's sensitive and loving nature, his attention to others, how she could never beat him at the board game Battleship, how when he smiled everyone else seemed to do the same.

"Everyone talked about his infectious smile," says Gary Pontell.

"Everyone mentions that," says Marilyn.

Michael, the surviving son and father of the Pontells' two grandchildren, sits next to them on a couch in the clubroom. Friends and family are upstairs. The house has been filled with them for days, it seems, and soon the Baltimore congressman, Ben Cardin, and his wife, Myrna, will stop by to express sympathy.

They must all feel cheated, I tell the Pontells.

"Devora's the one who's been cheated," Gary Pontell says. "At least we had 26 years with him."

"All our children loved us," Marilyn Pontell says, touching Michael on the arm. "Loves us."

"We had as much fun hanging out with our parents as we did with our friends," Michael says, suggesting a better day when the clubroom was full of laughter.

"They're my best and closest friends," Gary Pontell says of his sons. Now there's only Michael. "There's a lot on his shoulders," Marilyn says, gently touching her son again. "But he has broad shoulders. ... He's a big boy."

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