City dedicates park to Daniel Unger

By Reggie Ellis

Standing on lush green grass below a Monarch blue, October sky, the serenity of Daniel Unger Memorial Park on Oct. 14 was a perfect day for playing some baseball.

Marc Unger, Daniel's father, said the first thing he noticed when the family was opening the box of Daniel's belongings was a baseball and his glove. Like many fathers and sons, Marc said he and Daniel, a standout centerfielder for the Exeter Union High School baseball team, used to play catch in the yard.

"I cried like a baby when I saw this baseball," he said while slapping the ball into the glove. "I cried for the times we won't be able to throw it around."

Marc said whenever they have the first game of the season or dedicate a new ballpark, there is always someone to throw out the first pitch. "I tried to think of who would be the most appropriate person to catch the first ball at Daniel Unger Park." He then tossed a glove to Daniel's younger brother, David, 17, and told him to run to the middle of the park. Marc lobbed a high arching throw to David and the ball fell squarely in his glove. "The first pitch has been thrown, the park is now dedicated," Marc said.

Mayor Leon Ooley noted that the dedication was a stark contrast to the chaotic life that Daniel experienced while serving in Iraq. Unger, a 19-year-old National Guardsmen, was killed on May 25 during a mortar attack 25 miles south of Baghdad while saving the lives of two Iraqi civilians.

"Just stop and listen for a minute," Ooley said. "There are no bombs or grenades dropping in the air. People like Daniel Unger gave their lives to preserve what we're enjoying today."

In attendance were eight men from the Daniel's 185th Combat Group in the U.S. Army. Lt. Col. Paul McKenzie, battalion commander for the 185th, said in more than 25 years of service he had never seen a monument to a National Guardsman.

"This is really extraordinary," he said. "I was on active duty in Vietnam and it was different back then. Just the number of elected representatives here is truly a wonderful display of support for our troops."

Congressman Devin Nunes, Assemblyman Bill Maze, District 1 Supervisor candidates Bud Pinkham and Allen Ishida and Brian Thoburn, Chief of Staff to the Board of Supervisors were all in attendance. Maze said he was only one of four veterans serving the state Capitol.

"Members of my family have served in every conflict in our nation's history," he said. "My wife and I both know the sacrifice having uncles and cousins killed in battle."

The dedication was emceed by realtor Jim Heaton who introduced developer Chris Bitterlin who donated the four-acre park on the corner of Glaze Avenue and Belmont Road to the City of Exeter. Heaton referred to Bitterlin as an honorary Exeterite because of his membership to the Exeter Chamber of Commerce and that he "gets [The Exeter Sun] even though he lives in San Diego." Bitterlin said he was moved by the story of Daniel's sacrifice and his family's unwavering faith.

"To me this park is like a ship, and we are standing with this monument at the highest point, the bow," he said. "If Daniel had lived in another time I could see him standing with Washington crossing the Delaware or on D-Day as we approached the beaches [of France]. His is one of the most compelling stories that I have ever heard."

At the Sept. 14 Exeter City Council meeting, the mayor read Bitterlin's letter and the attached proposal for the wording of the brick-wall monument's plaque. In the letter, Bitterlin asked all those in attendance not release the wording until it was unveiled at the dedication. It reads:

"Daniel Unger, an Exeter soldier son of Lynda and Marc Unger died at the age of 19 during a mortar attack in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 24, 2004. Daniel gave his life for freedom while protecting two Iraqi civilians and he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his heroism and bravery.

"In Daniel’s memory, to all others who gave their lives in defending freedom, our citizens are eternally grateful.

"It’s the soldier, not the preacher who gives us freedom of religion. It’s the soldier, not the reporter, who gives us freedom of the press. It’s the soldier, not the lawyer, who gives us a right to a fair trial. It’s the soldier who keeps us free. -- Pastor Marc Unger, Daniel Unger’s father, June 4, 2004."

Lynda Unger, Daniel's mother, said the family moved a lot and never really felt like anywhere but her grandmother's house felt like home. That is, until Marc, while looking for a home somewhere in the Central Valley, found a little town called Exeter.

"You have made us feel welcome and this is our home," she said as her voice began to quiver. "Thank you for being Daniel's friend and our friend."

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