‘We don’t want him to be forgotten’: Motorcycle ride pays tribute to Shelton sailor’s Navy service

SHELTON — Xavier Sandor, who died by suicide in April while on deployment with the U.S. Navy, was remembered Tuesday as kind, generous and loving, beaming with pride every time he donned the uniform.

Family and friends gathered at Sandor’s parents’ Timberlane Drive home as the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Memorial Torch Motorcycle Ride escorted the memorial flame — first lit on July 9 in Eugene, Ore. — to pay tribute to Xavier’s service and sacrifice.

“Thank you for honoring our son,” Xavier’s father John Sandor said to the gathering. “I knew this was going to be a tough day, but I was looking forward to it. We don’t want him to be forgotten.

“This is such a great honor,” he added, tears flowing down his cheeks. “Thank you for making the trip. This is a true honor for you to come to Shelton and honor Xavier. It means a lot.”

“To know how much Xavier was loved,” his mother Mary Graft said, her voice cracking. “Thank you so much.”

Xavier Sandor graduated from Shelton High in 2021, where he starred as the football team’s starting quarterback. His parents said he chose to enlist in the Navy, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle, Pat Wynne.

He then went to boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill., earning the nod as yeoman leader and graduating as an expert marksman. He then went to A school in San Antonio, Texas, where he graduated as a master at arms.

“His first duty was on the USS George Washington, which was dry docked in Virginia,” John Sandor said. “Within three months he’s gone.”

Xavier was 19 when he died on April 15, Good Friday, just months after his deployment to the nuclear powered aircraft carrier. His death was part of a cluster of suicides aboard the drydocked ship. His parents have spent the past four months not only dealing with the grief but also fighting for answers about why it happened.

“He was happy, a good kid,” Graft said. “His group of friends, everyone misses him. He was that happy person. He made people happy, and everyone loved Xavier. Three months at this shipyard, and he takes his own life. I can’t fathom it. The rest of our lives we must go on without our son.”

Sandor said the Navy investigation into the “non-combat” death continues and could last another eight months before there are answers.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get the answers we seek,” Graft added. “We know what happened, but who did he go to talk to? Who was available? He spoke to someone. What was said?”

Sandor said Xavier would often complain about the condition of the ship, but never made any statements that would have led him or Graft to believe that he was that emotionally upset.

“That ship was no place for sailors to live,” Sandor said after he and Graft toured the vessel after their son’s death.

Sandor said Xavier worked the night shift, 12 hours from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. During the day, he said he was told of the fumes and smells from the ongoing work that left Xavier unable to rest, so he would walk a mile to his vehicle to try and sleep.

“If I knew it was that bad — I didn’t know, and he really didn’t say anything,” Sandor said. “He said it was awful but nothing to the point of what he did to himself.”

Graft said Xavier was lonely and lived in his car when not working. He would drive eight hours home to Shelton to spend time with family and friends, and Sandor said he would get his rest and drive back to the ship.

The Navy has since moved hundreds of sailors off the ship, according to media reports.

“That’s a little too late,” Sandor said. “I know a big part of the command structure is telling them to suck it up. But these are young sailors out of high school, first time away from home besides boot camp and A school. And then they are thrown on a ship that is uninhabitable.”

Not having the answers they seek adds to their emotional torment, he added.

“Something bad had to have happened for him to do that to himself,” he said.

Sandor said he spoke to Xavier an hour before his death, and that he had seemed upset. He told him to finish his shift and they would speak after. He said they received a text from Xavier moments before his death. He said he had spoken to someone but had not gotten the response he had wanted.

“He said he was sorry,” Sandor said.

From that point, his parents began a frantic attempt to reach Xavier and have someone check on him. But it was too late, he said.

The couple then drove to Virginia, then it took days before they were allowed to see their son’s body.

“It’s been difficult, but I don’t want his story to be swept under the carpet,” Sandor said. “Someone needs to be accountable. Something needs to be done so these young seamen can come in and if they need help, they’ll have someone to talk to. They need to have someone to talk to.”

Wynne talked about his nephew’s strength of character and how his loss has devastated the entire family.

“We love him so much. He was such a strong person, a loving person,” Wynne said. “It is hard, but we have to keep going, to keep his memory alive.”

Sandor said Xavier’s brothers, Greg Graft, 25, and Patrick Sandor, 9, may have been hit the hardest.

“We’re trying our best to function as best we can. Some days I am just proud of myself for just getting out of bed,” he said.

Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Memorial Torch Motorcycle Ride is an annual cross country tribute ride, in which the group escorts the ‘Fallen Soldiers Memorial Flame’ from Eugene, Ore., to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., stopping to honor and pay tribute to the country’s fallen service members along the way.

“We are all so grateful to be here to honor your son,” said Tribute to Fallen Soldiers organizer Warren Williamson.

Tuesday’s ceremony began at the intersection of Timberlane and Eagle drives, where traffic was stopped and the Shelton Fire Department ladder trucks raised the large American flag over the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers motorhome, which tows behind it the memorial flame.

The motorcycle riders and Gold Star mothers stood as Amazing Grace played in honor of Xavier.

Then the mobile home and motorcycles proceeded to the front of Sandor’s home where Williamson talked about the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Northwest and offered comments on Xavier before presenting the family with a plaque and portrait of Xavier with his parents.

“You were lucky enough to call him a friend,” Williamson said about Xavier. “He was a kind, sweet, caring, generous person who will be missed every day by his family, his friends and his fellow sailors. May we never forget the service and sacrifice of Xavier Sandor.”

Sandor said the family was proud of his choice to continue what had been a family tradition by joining the Navy.

“I can see it being scary in the beginning,” he said, “But whatever happened in that three months took a smart, young talented strong kid out of this world.”

Xavier’s parents said numerous agencies have reached out to help, but the couple say it is “too soon.

“It is our time to grieve,” Sandor said. “We must somehow just get through this day by day. It has not even been four months. In my mind he’s still coming home, he just at the ship, on deployment, and he’ll be coming home. I know I’m torturing myself but that’s all I have right now.”

“Xavier was a Shelton boy,” Graft said. “Everyone who knew him loved him.”