Friday, February 16, 2007

Matthew Zeimer laid to rest

GLENDIVE (AP) — Hundreds of people packed into Sacred Heart Catholic Church Monday morning to bid farewell to an 18-year-old Glendive man who died fighting in Iraq.

Hundreds more braved bitter cold and swirling snow to line the streets of Glendive, honoring Matthew Thomas Zeimer as he was taken to Dawson County Cemetery for burial.

About 50 members of the Patriot Guard Riders came from four states to stand with their flags in front of the church before the funeral and then all around the burial site.

Protesters from a Baptist church in Kansas threatened to picket the funeral service but didn’t show up.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Ricardo Ramos, a casualty assistance officer from Fort Lewis, Wash., assigned to help the Zeimer family, said he was “seriously impressed” with the patriotism shown by the people of Glendive, particularly given the harsh weather.

“It restores your faith in small-town America,” he said.

Zeimer, a 2006 graduate of Dawson County High School, was killed in a firefight in Ramadi, in central Iraq, on Feb. 2.

He had been in Iraq barely a week and had arrived at his combat outpost just two hours before his death.

At the funeral service Monday morning, the Rev. Joseph Ponessa made note of the “sea of young faces” in the crowded church and directed the first part of his short homily to them.

He told them every generation is asked to make sacrifices on behalf of their countrymen, and “because of those sacrifices, history is a much better place to live in.”

Ponessa then spoke to the family members about the loss of their loved one, telling them, “You needn’t fear that he will ever disappear from your hearts. There’s not a chance, not a chance.”

Ponessa said the snowstorm prevented some special guests, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, from attending the funeral.

“It’s probably just as well,” he said. “There wouldn’t have been any room for them anyway.”

Also absent was the military chaplain who had been scheduled to conduct the service. Ponessa said the chaplain’s car went into the ditch somewhere outside of Glendive. He was unhurt but unable to go any farther.

When Zeimer’s casket arrived at the church, borne by an honor guard from Fort Lewis, Wash., it passed between two lines of flags held by members of the Patriot Guard Riders, who were asked by the Zeimer family to be present.

Montana State Capt. John McCabe said the group regularly assists at homecoming ceremonies for American troops, and at funerals and other events.

In this case, they had been planning to act as a shield in case protesters showed up.

Westboro Baptist Church regularly protests at military funerals, saying the war in Iraq is God’s punishment of the United States for its toleration of homosexuality.

After the service, a long funeral procession followed the hearse to the Dawson County Cemetery a little southeast of downtown Glendive.

It was 8 degrees with a stiff wind and steady snowfall, but hundreds of people stood at the side of the road waving flags, saluting or holding their hands to their hearts.

Some businesses hung flags from their buildings and trucks, and the Glendive Fire Department displayed a 20-by-30-foot flag from a long extension on one of its firetrucks.

It was even colder at the cemetery, which sits up on a hill exposed to the wind. Ponessa presided over a brief graveside ceremony, after which five members of the honor guard fired off a volley of three shots each.

Sgt. Richard Little played taps, having warmed up his fingers and his bugle for a while in his parked car first. The honor guard meticulously carried out its duties, slowly removing the flag from Zeimer’s casket and slowly folding it for presentation to Zeimer’s parents.

At a vigil service at Sacred Heart Church on Sunday evening, Zeimer’s twin sister, Tonya, called her brother a “fighter and a protector” who always knew when people were sad and upset and would try to comfort them.

She remembered crying on their birthday in August. Matthew was still in basic training at Fort Sill, Okla., and when he called to talk to her, she couldn’t hold back the tears. It was the first birthday they’d ever been apart.

Zeimer’s fiance, Stephanie Gallegos, whom he met in Oklahoma not long before he was deployed to Iraq, said she and Zeimer “spent every waking moment we could together.”

Then, gesturing toward his casket, she said, “It’s going to be hard for the family, but he did this for us. He did this for everyone.”

From the Record

Related Link:
Matthew Zeimer remembered

Related Link:
Matthew T. Zeimer killed in ambush