It was four days before Christmas, and Sgt. Joseph Lemm’s family awaited his call from Afghanistan, which would certainly brighten the holidays for his wife and two children. But the call never came.
A suicide bomber drove his motorbike into Lemm’s convoy as it patrolled a village near Bagram Airfield.
Lemm and five other service members in his convoy died in the attack.
Lemm was 45.
“He was just everything for our family. He was always my rock,” Christine DeGuisto said, wearing her husband’s police badge and speaking from his desk in the Bronx. What used to be covered with papers and reports is now a makeshift memorial with photos, a rosary and newspaper headlines.
“I just miss him.”
‘One of our finest’
Lemm grew up in a small Nebraska town, but he wanted to escape the farm life for the city. He loved sports and always wanted to be a police officer and a soldier.
Lemm enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was promoted to technical sergeant with the 105th Base Defense Squadron. He was deployed three times, twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq.
Throughout his military service, Lemm received numerous commendations, and he is expected to receive the Bronze Star Medal with Valor posthumously.
Lemm started his 15-year New York Police Department career at the 48th precinct and was recently promoted to detective.
Police Commissioner William Bratton called Lemm “one of our finest.”
“Det. Joseph Lemm epitomized the selflessness we can only strive for: putting his country and city first,” he said.
The hero soldier was highly respected not just overseas but also at home where, in 2006, Lemm was nominated for a New York Post Liberty Medal after he chased down and caught three suspects involved with stabbing a teenager.
A ‘gentle giant’
His bravery and size — he stood about six-foot-four — earned him his nickname: Superman.
“Joe was more than a hero; he was a superhero, and that’s why he got the nickname Superman,” said his former partner, Det. John McCrossen. “He was there for everyone else before himself. That was Joe,” McCrossen said. The two had been partners since 2002.
But Lemm, a “gentle giant,” was afraid of one thing: Snakes.
“Joe was petrified of snakes,” his wife said with a laugh, as she shared warm memories of life with her superhero.
Wherever he went, DeGuisto said, children would flock to see him.
Full military honors
Upon news of his death, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the flags of all state buildings to be lowered to half-staff in honor of Lemm.
Hundreds of New York City’s finest joined members of the military to pay their respects during Lemm’s memorial at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. More than 100 NYPD motorcycles led the procession down Fifth Avenue as the drums beat and the sound of “Taps” filled the air. Lemm received full military honors for his heroism and bravery.
A photographer captured the moment Lemm’s 4-year-old son Ryan saluted the flag-draped casket, a picture reminiscent of John F. Kennedy Jr. raising the same salute at his father’s funeral.
Though that day was about honoring Lemm, those who knew him say he would not want the others who were killed to be forgotten.
“He was a person that was for everybody, and the others that aren’t getting as much focus as Joe — that would bother him,” said McCrossen. “Joe would be furious that they weren’t getting the attention that he’s getting and they deserve.”
He would never want those who lost their lives to be forgotten, five more names added to the list of fallen heroes.
Staff Sgt. Peter Taub, of Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. Taub’s father said he Skyped with his 30-year-old son a few weeks before his death. His son told him he was in Saudi Arabia, perhaps to allay any fears his family would have if they knew he was in Afghanistan. Taub and his wife were expecting their second child in the spring.
Air Force Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen, from Plymouth, Minnesota. The 36-year-old was the first openly gay female active duty service member in the U.S. military and the first openly gay Air Force officer to die in combat. She fought for years to get the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy repealed and later married her partner. She is survived by her wife and 4-year-old son.
Staff Sgt. Michael Cinco, from Mercedes, Texas. Cinco, 28, was assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.Cinco married his high school sweetheart and enlisted after graduating high school, The San Antonio Express-News reported.
Staff Sgt. Chester McBride, from Statesboro, Georgia. McBride, 30, was a graduate of Savannah State University and was a star football player in high school. Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore ordered the flag over City Hall to be lowered to half-staff in his honor.
Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa, from Manorville, New York. Bonacasa, 31, left behind a wife and young daughter. He was on his fourth tour of duty in the region.
Bonacasa and Lemm were close. They were partners in Afghanistan and Lemm was his role model.
DeGuisto said she finds comfort in talking to Bonacasa’s wife, and she finds solace in the memories from his comrades at the NYPD precinct.
“I enjoy being here because there is always a new story that comes out. So my being here, it helps me get closer to Joe,” she said.
Today, DeGuisto’s children are her primary concern. Her son, she said, is a “clone” of his father, and she knows he will carry on his legacy.
Her daughter, 17-year-old Brooke, is showing strength and singing at a benefit held in her father’s honor.
DeGuisto’s desire is simply that her husband be remembered and honored.