Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Rowan Walter laid to rest

A bagpipe player stood on the green grass outside the Mormon church in Clovis on Monday morning, playing a hymn before the funeral of Rowan Dale Walter, the fourth Buchanan High School graduate and the 15th service member from the Fresno area killed during the Iraq war.

Three young men -- Michael Soldani, 25, Kevin Healy, 26, and Nate Devlin, 25 -- watched solemnly.

Then the childhood friends, who had remained close to Walter and one another, laughed together as if on cue.

"He was very proud of his Scottish heritage," said Soldani of Fresno. "I always pictured a bagpipe player at his funeral."

Soldani said Walter, 25, was "the one" -- the person everyone flocks to, the one who is the unspoken center of a group of friends.

When they were at Buchanan, he would wear his hair crazy and uncombed, show up to school in clothes not seen since the '80s, excel in AP chemistry while hardly cracking a book, pick up foreign languages like they were teenage slang -- and befriend everyone he came in contact with, his friends said.

"Even then, when we would make fun -- not maliciously, but just kid around about people -- he wouldn't take part in that. He was always watching out for people," Healy said.

Inside, congregants looked at the photo of Walter on the back of the program -- his dark, bristly hair and direct gaze.

"Look how handsome," a friend of Walter's mother said softly to herself.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe people die only when it is their time to die and that they continue living in an afterlife. Funerals are seen as a time to celebrate a life. So mourners smiled and nodded to one another. Even so, when the color guard carried in the flag-draped coffin of Army Pfc. Walter, hundreds of faces froze.

The choir -- Walter's sister Hailey Cohen among them -- sang "Hallelujah" during the opening hymn. His other sister, Hanni White, gave an opening prayer of gratitude.

"We are so thankful to God that we got to have Rowan in our family," she said.

Elaine Soldani, who taught religion to Walter through their Mormon church, recalled a time when Walter, then in high school, stood to give his testimony and segued into his love of spring.

"He gave this outpouring of love for spring, for flowers and sunshine. Then he stopped, he put his head in his hands for a moment, looked up and said, 'I sound just like my mother!' The congregation burst out laughing with pure joy."

Walter's father, Bryan, a carpet-cleaning business owner in Clovis, spoke of the lovingly exasperated relationship between a hard-working father and a son with big and ever-changing dreams.

"I'm looking ... at bricks. Rowan, he's looking at clouds," Bryan Walter said.

"He is the worst worker I ever had. He'd watch you work. You pay him. And it didn't bother him a bit," Bryan Walter said with a laugh.

Bryan Walter said he watched his son's exploits with amazement. Before leaving on a two-year church mission to Europe in 2001, Walter learned French in a matter of weeks. In Switzerland he taught a man who spoke only Italian and Chinese to speak French, and the man taught him Chinese. During his service in Iraq he was learning Arabic.

At T-ball age, Rowan Walter told his father he was going to be a professional baseball player. By grade school it was the NFL. At Alta Sierra Intermediate School, Walter was a wrestling champion. After returning from his mission, he told his father he was thinking about a career with the FBI, CIA, special operations or the State Department.

After high school and his church mission, Walter attended community college in Provo, Utah, where he got pulled into a play and found he liked theater.

"So he informs me he wants to be an actor and moves to L.A.!" his father said. "That wasn't meant to be. All his life Rowan had people pick him out of the crowd. He wasn't made for knocking on doors. ... But while he was there he met the love of his life, Priscilla Lindsay. It was like a cloud catching a cloud. They were meant to be."

Through all of this, Walter had always told his father, "If things don't work out, it's the U.S. Army for me."

One day, a glove compartment blithely crammed with unpaid parking tickets caught up with Walter. He owed more than $1,500.

The next day, Bryan Walter got the call that his son was enlisting.

"Dad, break the news to Mom. She might not like it."

Bryan Walter was worried for his son. Not just the danger. He was thinking of his famously messy room.

"How does that fit into the U.S. Army?"

He was surprised later to get a call from Walter during basic training, when calls typically aren't allowed.

"How are you calling me?' he asked.

"The sergeant's in the restroom," his son said. "Dad, I love this. I love every minute of it."

Soon, Walter was a platoon leader. Then a medic. He married Lindsay in December 2005 while on leave from medic training in San Antonio. He was deployed to Iraq in October 2006.

He went on combat missions near Ramadi. He told his family he couldn't stand to stay in the tents when his friends were on patrol.

On Feb. 23, Pfc. Rowan Walter was killed by an explosive device, in an apparent ambush, after leaving a tank to help soldiers injured in an earlier attack. Also killed were Staff Sgt. Joshua R. Hager, 29, of Broomfield, Colo., and Pfc. Travis W. Buford of Galveston, Texas. The three were assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Carson, Colo. They are among more than 3,000 American service members killed in Iraq.

At the funeral's end, two military commanders presented Walter's parents and young widow with a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in war.

Outside, the sun was shining. Three trees in front of the church were in a full blossom of pink. It looked like one of the spring days Walter so loved.

At the cemetery, Walter's parents, Bryan and Adele, stood as straight and tall as the military guard that surrounded them. They smiled at each other a moment, before walking forward and taking their seats. There was a 21-gun salute. The folding of the flag.

U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Jim Conner, wearing white gloves and observing enduring ritual, handed a folded flag to Priscilla Walter.

Conner is one of her group of three inseparable friends. The first time he met Walter, he had told her, "That one. He's the one."

During the service, he had stood in the church's doorway with perfect posture, wearing an Army dress uniform, with tears running down his face.

"She had so much faith he was going to make it back," he said. " I thought he would make it back."

Walter's brother Rome said the closing prayer. He took off his white flower boutonniere and placed it on the casket, with each pall bearer following suit. Priscilla Walter hugged and gently kissed the casket.

From the Fresno Bee

Related Link:
Rowan D. Walter dies of injuries from I.E.D.