JACKMAN — It started with a Facebook message. When Karla Talpey, the longtime local Boy Scout leader, heard just over a week ago that U.S. Army Sgt. Timothy Gilboe would be home for Christmas, she made a beeline for her computer.

“Who do we have to talk to that would line up a welcome home parade … for Tim Gilboe!” she wrote. “We should be escorting him into town. He’s a hometown hero and deserves a PARADE!!!”

Say no more.

Late Thursday afternoon, as the sun set on the shortest day of the year, this close-to-nowhere hamlet of 862 hardy souls put aside its last-minute Christmas preparations to do what it does best: Embrace one of its own.

Sirens wailed from the two U.S. Customs and Border Patrol vehicles, a Maine State Police cruiser and a pair of local fire trucks as they crawled down Main Street.

Mark Rancourt never let up on the booming air horn of his Moose River Lumber Co. truck with the hay bales lining its trailer.

And all along the 2.4 miles from the Mountain View Lodge to the Forest Hills Consolidated School, families stood in their front yards and merchants gathered outside their businesses — all waving American flags and thump-thump-thumping their mittened hands in tribute to the young soldier on Rancourt’s flatbed with the Silver Star pinned to his chest.

“It’s Jackman,” explained parade co-organizer Mark Giroux, 43, who fought in Operation Desert Storm and now owns and operates the Jackman Hardware store. “We take care of each other. We always have.”

And it’s a good thing they do. Tim Gilboe who, like so many war heroes, comes home with more baggage than he could possibly fit inside a duffel bag, will need all the hometown help he can get.

“We lost a good man that day,” said Gilboe, 25, sitting in a quiet corner of the Northland Hotel’s lounge an hour before the parade began. “And as far as I’m concerned, this is always going to be as much his medal as it is mine.”

It happened on April 28 near the village of Awatala in central Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. Gilboe, a member of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, was on a patrol in search of an enemy mortar emplacement not far from the U.S. soldiers’ base.

Approaching the village, the patrol spotted a three-man mortar team. Gilboe, armed with an M240 machine gun, shot and killed one of the insurgents.

The patrol then advanced on foot into the village and, recalled Gilboe, “that’s when it got bad.”

As they approached a building, shots rang out from inside. Two Americans went down, including Gilboe’s squad leader, Sgt. Matthew Hermanson, 22, of Appleton, Wis.

Another bullet tore into the ammunition-filled rucksack of Gilboe’s assistant gunner, setting the rucksack on fire. Dropping his gun, Gilboe beat the flames out with his hands “so we wouldn’t have a cook-off when the rounds exploded.”

As he turned to retrieve his weapon, Gilboe saw two insurgents bolt from the building and run directly toward him, their weapons firing.

A nearby American soldier shot and killed one of the attackers. The other, by now just a few feet from the unarmed Gilboe, took point-blank aim with his AK-47.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is going to hurt,”‘ Gilboe said.

As the enemy squeezed his trigger, Gilboe grabbed the end of the gun barrel and directed it up toward the armor plate covering Gilboe’s chest and abdomen. The round struck the bottom of the plate and shattered, knocking the wind out of Gilboe and sending several pieces of shrapnel into his upper thigh.

The insurgent tried to fire again, but miraculously his gun jammed.

Gilboe, 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 240 pounds, wrestled the smaller man to the ground. Fists flying, they rolled in the dirt for what seemed like an eternity.

“I knew I was going to win,” Gilboe, a star athlete back in high school, said with a smile. “Even though he had shot me and I knew I was out of wind, I knew I still had him.”

Finally, the assistant gunner managed to get off a clear shot with his weapon — the bullet nicked the knuckle on Gilboe’s little finger before killing the insurgent.

Gilboe’s wounds were minor. His platoon leader took a non-lethal round to the leg.

But Sgt. Hermanson, the squad leader who even then asked only about the men under his command, was mortally wounded.

“He knew he was going to die,” Gilboe said quietly. “And as he was slipping away, as he was dying, we propped him up and we let him know we’d gotten the two guys.”

Gilboe took charge of the patrol, cleared the surrounding buildings and, when the medevac helicopter arrived, helped carry Hermanson to the chopper. But Hermanson, just a week away from his first wedding anniversary, succumbed to his wounds en route to a combat support hospital.

“He died for me,” Gilboe said. “As we were going into the village, he had gotten in front of me — and he took the hit for me. If he didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

On Dec. 17, while his parents, Steve and Deanna, looked on, Sgt. Gilboe received the Silver Star at Fort Polk, La., for “exemplary bravery and leadership under extreme pressure.”

It’s the third highest honor the U.S. military can bestow for valor on the battlefield. As Gilboe’s citation noted, it symbolizes “the epitome of personal courage, dedication to duty and commitment to his fellow soldiers.”

It’s also cause for a parade.

Word spreads quickly in this town just 15 miles from the Canadian border.

Karla Talpey and Mark Giroux got things organized. By the time the caravan pulled out of the Mountain View just after 3 p.m. Thursday, signs proclaiming “Welcome Home, Tim” and “Our Hometown Hero!” lined Main Street all the way to the three-wing building that serves as the town’s elementary, middle and high school.

“He was mine from when he was 6,” said Scoutmaster Talpey, who watched Tim advance over 12 years from Tiger Cub all the way to Eagle Scout. “He’s a great kid. Well, not a kid anymore. He’s a young man.”

Flanked by his parents, his three brothers — Ben, Cody and Brandon — and an admiring gaggle of Cub Scouts, Sgt. Gilboe smiled broadly and waved as the procession snaked down the long hill … past the tin-roof houses … through the small downtown … past Pomerleau Park with its sheltered picnic tables that Tim built for his Eagle Scout project …

Outside one house, three generations of the Lecasse and Fortier families took pictures and cheered as the flatbed rolled by.

“We’re all so proud of him,” said Joanne (Lecasse) Fortier. “He’s done well, he really has.”

Pausing for a moment, she added, “I think every kid who comes home from the service should have a parade like this.”

Truth be told, Tim Gilboe is not the only Silver Star recipient who calls tiny Jackman home. Frank DuBois, 73, earned his in 1968 during the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.

“We went through four (12-man) teams in 34 days,” recalled DuBois, leaning hard on his cane. “You can fill in the rest.”

DuBois couldn’t stop a tear from running down his cheek as he embraced Tim during a post-parade reception at the school. Tim grew up with DuBois’ sons and, in these parts, that makes him family.

“I’ve looked up to this man my whole life,” Tim said, wrapping his muscle-bound arm around DuBois’ shoulders. “This man means a lot to me … and so does my grandfather.”

That would be Jack Gilboe, a Navy veteran who now owns the Jackman Motel along with Tim’s grandmother, Dianne. Jack was the family’s point person during Tim’s yearlong deployment to Afghanistan and a previous 18-month stint in Iraq — meaning his phone rang first whenever there was news to be shared.

“The last three months he was there were pretty tough,” said Jack, noting that Tim also sustained minor injuries when an improvised explosive device hit his convoy a month after the village attack.

It was during one of their long-distance chats just before Tim’s deployment ended in October that he told his grandfather he planned to leave the Army when his current enlistment ends next fall. Jack, who uses a cane to get around, breathed a sigh of relief.

“Enough,” Jack said. “He put his share in.”

As the early twilight fell outside, some 200 townsfolk crowded into the school’s lunch room to shake Tim’s hand and, more often than not, give him a bear hug. Through it all, his family stood off to the side and beamed.

“He’s my hero,” said brother Cody, 21. “I look up to him a lot.”

Cody came within a signature of joining the Army himself a while back.

But one summer evening, standing by a campfire in the backyard while home on leave, Tim told his younger brother to hold off. The last thing their parents needed was two sons in harm’s way at the same time.

And so Cody stayed put. And like everyone else, he worried.

“Every time my phone rang, it was a drop in my stomach,” Cody said. “I’m thinking, ‘What’s this about? Is it the news?”‘

Nearby, Steve Gilboe, Tim’s dad, chatted with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who made the long drive to present Tim with a congressional citation.

Steve, a foreman at the local lumber mill, knows the days ahead won’t be easy for his son. Strong and battle-hardened as Tim may be, the loss of Sgt. Hermanson remains a heavy burden.

Tim will head back to Fort Polk in a few days to serve out the remainder of his hitch. And the way his father sees it, a few more months decompressing with his comrades is probably the best therapy for all of them right now.

“When I was down in Louisiana last week, I spent a few minutes with the other boys,” Steve said. “And a lot of them have some really tough stories to tell.”

But all of that, at least on this Christmas Day, will be far, far away from this outermost edge of Maine. This will be a day for the Gilboe family — and the close-knit community that envelops it — to wrap a young hero in their pride, in their joy and most of all, in their gratitude.

“Just to have him home and safe,” Steve said. “That’s the best Christmas gift we could possibly receive.” 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com