The very name of Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller is revered in and out of the U.S. Marine Corps, and when a young Marine by the name of David Bilodeau, of Myakka City met the legend in person, his one desire was to emulate his personal hero.
By all accounts, Bilodeau, originally from New Hampshire, came as close to achieving that goal as any man or Marine could hope.
First Sgt. Bilodeau — a true American hero and warrior — passed away Feb. 11 at the age of 86. He was laid to rest with full military honors at the Sarasota National Cemetery on Thursday.
Puller is the most decorated Marine in history and the fourth most decorated U.S. serviceman. He led Marines through some of the most bloodiest battles of World War II and also served in the Korean War. Puller died in 1971 but his legend lives on.
Perhaps Bilodeau’s legend is just beginning.
Bilodeau also served in the Korean War in the U. S. Navy, lying about his age to get in early, anxious to begin a long and honorable service to his country. After Korea, Bilodeau joined the Marine Corps and served in the elite, “Swift, Silent and Deadly,” Second Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam.
He served three official tours in Vietnam and given his highest security clearance would only tell family he served two additional unofficial tours, spending a total of five years in country and in harm’s way.
Like many combat veterans, Bilodeau never shared all of the details of his experiences, but he was a highly decorated — and highly respected — Marine.
“There were a lot of stories he wouldn’t talk about but when he did open up about his time in Vietnam it was crazy,” said Bailynn Blizzard, Bilodeau’s 13-year-old granddaughter whose eyes filled with tears. “Especially when he used to talk about coming home and how people were being disrespectful to him. That was really powerful, too. He really was a hero. He loved the Marine Corps and I don’t think anyone who ever met him could ever forget him.”
Story after story was told about Bilodeau at Thursday’s memorial service at Griffith-Cline Funeral Home. Words like, “A life well lived,” and, “An uncommon man,” as well as, “A worthy man worth talking about,” were uttered by many.
Ironically, Bilodeau didn’t want a lot of fuss at his funeral. He was a quiet and determined man who loved his family and God intensely, but he also was a man who had a commanding presence and perhaps even he didn’t know the impact he had on others the second someone met him.
“It was a lot more than he would have wanted but he deserved this,” Nicole Blizzard said. “He always told my mom that he didn’t want anything fancy for a funeral. He was assuming he would die before my mom, but my mom always told him, ‘Over my dead body.’ He may not have wanted all this, but he deserved this and I think he would be proud.”
Bilodeau came into Blizzard’s life around the time she was 17 and when Bilodeau met the love of his life, Nicole’s mom Betty, who passed away 18 months ago. Blizzard said she and her mom went through tough times and it wasn’t until Bilodeau came along did her mom learn to love again.
Bilodeau never liked the term “stepdad,” so the two agreed that Blizzard would call him, “Spare dad. ‘I’m your spare dad,’ he used to tell me.”
For the next 26 years, Bilodeau became a father, grandfather and great-grandfather to many — blood related or not — and impacted every life he touched. So much so for Blizzard, that she joined the Marine Corps herself. She comes from a military family, but she was the only one who joined the Marines.
“He was a man of men,” Blizzard said. “A patriot of patriots. What you would call ‘salty’ in the Marine Corps. I was in too, so our relationship was special. Our whole family was in the military but I was the only who joined the Marines so he and I had this connection just from wearing the same uniform.”
Few around him knew the real extent of his heroism. He had the medals, but rarely shared the stories behind them. However, Bilodeau is specifically mentioned in a variety of books about Force Recon Marines in Vietnam.
When with family, Bilodeau made it all about them and never about him. His favorite quote summed up his personality: “Those who know, don’t talk. Those who talk, don’t know.”
“He was the kind of Marine that would take leave and would go off into the hills of Okinawa and camp out in the caves,” Blizzard said. “He wasn’t a man of many words but he observes and pays attention to everything. When he did speak, the whole room stops and pays attention. He was quiet, but everybody noticed him. Everyone likes to toot their own horn now and then, but he would never do that. That was just the man he was.”
Bilodeau retired from his beloved Marine Corps in 1976 with the Third Reconnaissance Battalion. Force Recon is the Marine’s version of special forces and they receive training similar to what Navy Seals undergo. Bilodeau also graduated from the elite Army Ranger School and the Navy Underwater Swimmer’s Course, to name a few.
Following his time in the military he joined the ranks of law enforcement and served as a detective in Hollywood, Fla.
His very presence in a room spoke more about the man than he ever needed to do.
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders rode in from across Florida on Thursday to line the entrance of the funeral home, holding American flags. The riders escorted the hearse — with a Marine Corps emblem on the side — to the cemetery where they stood vigil in honor of Bilodeau.
Bill Franklin, ride captain, said there is only one mission for Patriot Guard Riders.
“To show honor and respect to the heroes, the veterans and their families,” Franklin said.
The Patriot Guard Riders only attend services when invited and are all volunteers. They consist of veterans and non-veterans who just want to honor and respect the nation’s heroes. They attend funerals of veterans and first responders and sometimes that means meeting a recently killed-in-action soldier’s remains at the airport, escorting them to home ground.
Franklin didn’t know Bilodeau, but the opportunity to honor a hero brought him to tears on Thursday.
“It’s an honor to do this,” he said.
Blizzard said Bilodeau showed her mom the kind of love she had waited for her entire life and taught the men in her family what it is to have loyalty and honor. Standing before the crowd at the service, she said, “To David, I love you endlessly. I know you are with my mom and holding her tight. And you are probably standing next to Chesty right now.”