Ashley Dawson has been to countless memorial services in the five months since her older brother, John, was killed in Afghanistan. So she couldn't help but think Saturday's ceremony at the University of New Haven would be any different from the others.
Then, on Thursday evening, she stopped by Arcadio "Kayo" Rodriguez Jr. Field for her first look at a newly installed flagpole and stone commemorating her brother.
Dawson, a senior soccer player at New Haven, read the stone's inscription, words she'd chosen herself and which end with a passage from John 15:13. "Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends." She gazed up at the glistening white pole and gold anodized ball overlooking a familiar pitch; a field she's practiced and competed upon almost daily since arriving on campus four years ago.
Right away she understood this dedication service would be different; that this memorial would occupy an immediate place in her heart.
"Kayo's been the biggest part of my college experience; it's a very personal place," Dawson said. "It's nice to have a place like that on campus that I can walk by every day on the way to practice. Having something dedicated to my brother there is really personal and special to me."
Ashley rose to the occasion Saturday, scoring the tying goal in the second half of what would be a thrilling 2-1 victory over Le Moyne, a perfect lead-in to a perfect tribute for an American soldier who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
John Dawson, a corporal and specialist in the U.S. Army, had been deployed to Afghanistan three months earlier when an Afghan soldier, part of a group being advised and assisted by the U.S. military, attacked his American allies on April 8. Dawson was 22.
Ashley, from the central Massachusetts town of Whitinsville, has admired and emulated her older brother for as long as she can remember.
"He was my role model; I always wanted to do the things he was doing," Ashley said. "I started soccer because John was playing. I was only 3 or 4 and I couldn't wait to start. So my mom had to take me the next town over to get me into a soccer program."
Ashley soon became immersed in the sport and joined several competitive leagues. John preferred to play for fun, but did whatever he could to help challenge his sister and improve herself as a soccer player.
Like the time Ashley, looking to better her trapping skills in the yard, asked John for help.
"He was pelting balls at me," she laughs. "It was 40 degrees and my legs were all red. But he was always down to help me and make me better."
There were occasional squabbles and disagreements. But as the two, just 18 months apart, grew older, they became even closer. John's positivity and playful demeanor rubbed off on Ashley. So too did his humbleness, patriotism and desire to help others.
While training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, John organized a blood drive, one of the largest the base ever had. Yet he wasn't one to boast about accomplishments. His parents, Rhonda and Michael, didn't find out about it until after he was killed.
The idea for a permanent memorial in John's honor at New Haven sprang from Laura Duncan, the women's soccer coach.
"We wanted something more personal and more permanent than another couple of meals to help get the family through another week or two," Duncan said.
There had never been a flagpole at Kayo Field. Each game they'd just hang a flag on the fence surrounding the field. Debbie Chin, the longtime athletic director, loved the idea and ensured it would happen in time for Saturday's home game with Le Moyne.
Final approval for the project came Monday; installation began Tuesday. By Friday, the area was complete and dressed with plants and blooming flowers.
"It's amazing, when we look back now, the field never had a flagpole," Duncan said. "It looks like it belongs and to be able to dedicate it ... Ashley's graduating this year, and for her to be able to come back and know that once she leaves, nothing's ever forgotten here; she's not forgotten, she still has our support throughout."
John Dawson made one visit to Kayo Field. Last fall, while on military leave, he came to see his sister play soccer. New Haven led 1-0 at halftime. Ashley, according to her coach, was outstanding, yet the Chargers lost the game. Afterward, Ashley posed for a photo with John, not far from the current site of his flagpole. The date was Sept. 10.
So much has changed in a year. Time continues to march forward. Memories, as they tend to do, begin to fade, replaced by new ones; some happy, some sad.
But Ashley Dawson can always come back to this spot to reflect and to remember.