|From The Columbia Basin Herald columbiabasinherald.com
Warden bids farewell to Schmunk
By Sebastian Moraga
Herald staff writer | Posted Jul 19, 2004
Close to 1,500 people show up at high school gym to salute fallen soldier
With large crowds defying the sweltering heat, and with the solemnity reserved for the greatest heroes of battle, the city of Warden bid a final farewell to its native son, Army National Guard Spc. Jeremiah Schmunk, killed in action July 9 in Baghdad.
Endless numbers of friends and relatives of Schmunk, 20, gathered at the Warden High School gymnasium Saturday morning to pay tribute to the fallen soldier. State authorities, from Brig. Gen. Gordon Toney, commander of the Washington Army National Guard to the state's Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, as well as city and community leaders, were present.
The hearse arrived at the door of the gym at 10:30 a.m. Contrasting with the solemnity of the moment, waves of laughter could be heard from the inside of the gym, as the crowd awaiting the start of the ceremony was watching selected home videos of Jeremiah's life on a giant screen.
The merriment soon turned to silence, when half an hour later, six men from the Honor Guard of the United States Army carried the flag-draped casket into the gym.
The silence became thunderous noise, as Col. Gerald Pryor, chaplain of the state's National Guard began the service by asking the crowd to salute Jeremiah with a round of applause. The public obliged, turning the applause into a 25-second standing ovation.
After a sung version of the Lord's Prayer, Pryor addressed the crowd again, telling the story of David and Goliath, comparing David's task with that of Jeremiah, and saying both men "had served purposes greater than their own."
Pryor's words were followed by Elizabeth Alexander's rendition of 'Come Ye Disconsolate,' which preceded Owen's remarks.
Owen offered his condolences to Schmunk's family and friends on behalf of the state, saying that those who knew and loved him can take solace in knowing that the young ex-wrestler from Warden leaves behind "a legacy of sacrifice, service, love and honor."
The state's lieutenant governor paid tribute to Schmunk's mother, Shirley, saying that he could see from where Jeremiah had inherited his courage and his smile.
Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg followed Owen, speaking of the sacrifice made by Schmunk and many of his contemporaries.
"Schmunk and his fellow soldiers are America's next great generation," he said.
A reminder by Lowenberg of the loss suffered by Shirley Schmunk ("we lost an outstanding soldier, but she lost an extraordinary son,") served as stoic prelude to a stirring eulogy by Lee Allen, a longtime friend of Jeremiah's family, which left most of the audience in tears.
Allen told a story of Jeremiah helping Iraqis during his time of Baghdad, and how that spoke of the young soldier's great capacity to show compassion, even in the most serious of circumstances.
"I love you, Jeremiah," Allen said, his voice repeatedly breaking. "I miss you."
He continued, with his eyes filling with tears, "Because of your sacrifice, you will always be a better man than me."
Once again, the sadness and the silence gave way to boisterous applause, as Shirley Schmunk made her way toward the stage.
Wearing blue and white, instead of the traditional black, Schmunk told the crowd of about 1,500 about the shows of support she had received from around the nation, and about the love her son felt for the community that had gathered to salute him.
"Jeremiah is proud he is from here, he loved every one of you," she said. "Thank you so much." Shirley Schmunk's latter words were met with an anonymous yell of "thank you" from the crowd, which drew more applause.
Jeremiah's mother, a source of strength for many of her son's friends during the days following his death, closed her speech with a poem, addressed to those mourning Jeremiah's death.
"Do not stand at my grave and cry," she read. "I am not there, I did not die."
After Alexander's performance of "Wind Beneath My Wings," Army National Guard member Justin Martinez, who grew up with Schmunk and who was with him when he died, called his lifelong friend the type of American fighter who "keeps his country free," and told the audience that instead of mourning his death, Schmunk's life should be celebrated.
He then saluted his fallen comrade, and exited the stage, to the sound of another ovation.
Scenes of profound pain and despair were seen as people left the gym and made their way to Sunset Memorial Cemetery, where those who had been touched by the young soldier's life, witnessed as their friend and neighbot was laid to rest.
The ceremony at the cemetery began with Pryor reading a passage from the Bible. After a short prayer, Toney delivered a chronology of Schmunk's military career, decorations and achievements, during his two-year military career.
"A soldier who is asked to give his life for his country is the noblest citizen," Toney said. "(Schmunk) epitomizes the concept of duty, honor and country."
With the notes of "Taps" resounding in the background, the ceremony continued, this time with Toney posthumously awarding Schmunk the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal, the Washington Army National Guard Distinguished Service Medal, and the Combat Infantry Badge.
The traditional 21-gun salute and presentation of the American flag to Schmunk's mother concluded the service, but not before a long line of his friends stopped at the casket and left either a rose, a carnation or a small American flag on their friend's casket.
As the crowd exited and jumped on school buses to take them back to the gym, handfuls of people stayed behind to say one last prayer or to share one last memory of Schmunk.
Owen extended his praise of the young soldier to the rest of the youth of the state of Washington.
"You may not know them personally," he said, "but when you read about them you realize what incredible young men and women we have making up our state."
Martinez said the one thing he will remember of the last moments of Schmunk's life is how fearless his fellow Warden citizen was.
"He believed he was doing good things," he said. "And we are doing good things, though it's hard to see."