ruNancy De Gennaro, Daily News Journal, May 24, 2015
MURFREESBORO – Choking back tears, biting his upper lip, 8-year-old Christian Golczynski looks into the eyes of the Marine colonel who hands the boy the folded American flag that was draped over his father’s coffin.
That moment of strength was captured by photographer Aaron Thompson for The Daily News Journal in an image that has since circulated the globe.
In 2007, Marine Staff Sgt. Marcus Golczynski was killed by enemy fire in Iraq. The Marine’s body was brought home to Middle Tennessee in a flag-draped coffin for burial, and it was at his funeral that Thompson snapped the photo that would become a symbol of the war.
Unless you knew Marcus Golczynski, you might not recognize the now 16-year-old Christian.
“He’s a mini-Marc. He’s got Marc’s build, the broad shoulders. There’s no denying Christian; he’s definitely his father’s son,” said Christian mother, Heather Golczynski. “Christian is also very kind. He’s very much like Marc in many ways. … He has a ton of friends in different circles, he’s very protective, especially of friends and family. And he’s got a huge heart.”
And her son is also resilient, she said.
“He hasn’t been handed the easiest cards in life, but he’s always come back a stronger and better person. He’s one of the strongest people I know,” Heather Golczynski said.
Today the 16-year-old is a junior in high school in Maryland where he lives with his mother. They are making plans for his college career. He plays goalie for his school’s lacrosse team and volunteers to teach the sport to children. He works at a pizzeria, and he’s taught himself to ride a unicycle.
Heather Golczynski, who continues to work full time, stays busy keeping up with all her son’s activities and is there for every game to cheer for him. To this day, she hasn’t been on a single date since her husband’s death.
“I’ve chosen to focus on my son and my in-laws, which I talk to often. I’ll figure out the world for Heather when I get my son off to college,” she said.
Despite staying active, Christian Golczynski said the memory of his father crosses his mind multiple times a day, especially during lacrosse games when the sidelines are filled with fathers cheering on the team.
“I still miss him a lot. It’s still present every day. I cope. I stay really close to my family and my dad’s Marine friends. We’re a tight-knit group. We talk about my dad a lot,” Christian Golczynski said.
Being involved in athletics has been good for his mental health, whether it’s lifting weights or playing a game. “It takes your mind off things,” the teenager said.
Talking to others who have experienced the loss of a parent helps, too.
“When I was younger, the first year after, I really felt alone. I felt like no one I knew had ever lost someone,” he said. He advises other children grieving the loss of a parent to express those feelings and “don’t hold it in.”
More than just a symbol of the war’s cost, Christian Golczynski became the inspiration for A Soldier’s Child Foundation, started by Daryl Mackin of Murfreesboro.
Mackin, who was neighbors with Sgt. Golczynski’s parents, kept the photograph of the young boy receiving the flag on his office wall.
“It’s become so famous because … the emotions across the board … everybody feels the same way. This poor boy. You could see the courage and the strength, sadness, he’s about ready to cry, but he’s holding it in. It captured me just like it did everybody else,” Mackin said.
Then when Mackin got wrapped up in throwing his own son a birthday party, it dawned on him that Marc Golczynski would never again get to plan a birthday party.
So on Christian Golczynski’s next birthday, Mackin held a celebration for the boy. That wasn’t enough for Mackin. He wanted to help more children who’d lost parents in service to their country. Eventually Mackin founded A Soldier’s Child to carry on his mission of providing birthday and holiday gifts to children of fallen soldiers. Now hundreds of children receive presents across the country each year until they turn 18.
Next week, Christian Golczynski will receive his annual birthday package. He will be 17.
“It’s a pretty big package. You come home, and it’s this giant box on your doorstep,” Christian Golczynski said.
Heather and Christian Golczynski are also active in helping with A Soldier’s Child, as well as other veteran-related organizations. Getting involved in helping others has been a key part of the healing process.
“Last Christmas we adopted one family that had a family member deployed. Every year we adopt a Gold Star family, somebody who has lost someone in the military,” Heather Golczynski said.
One of her husband’s fellow Marines committed suicide, so the Golczynskis also got involved with 22 Too Many, an organization focused on preventing military suicide and supporting veterans who return with issues related to combat.
“We had 20 children last Christmas we adopted,” Heather Golczynski said. “It’s my favorite part of the holidays. I really like doing that, shopping for gifts for others. I feel like that’s what I’m good at, reaching out and helping. That’s what makes me feel good, especially around the holidays.”
Most of all, she’s enjoyed watching her son grow up to “be OK and be everything he can be.”
“He’s the best part of Marc, he’s the best part of me, and then there’s the part that is just Christian. He’s the whole package,” Heather Golczynski said. “I think Marc would be so proud. Marc was always very proud of Christian.”
Contact Nancy De Gennaro at 615-278-5148 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @DNJMama
If you go:
What: A Soldier’s Child Foundation 4 on the 4th run/walk
When: 8 a.m. July 4
Where: Providence Christian Academy, 410 Dejarnette Lane, Murfreesboro