Saturday, April 21, 2007

Brian Ritzberg has services ahead of burial in Virginia

It would have been his 25th birthday celebration. But instead, he lay lifeless in a coffin that looked too big for his frame. To the right, equally still, but very much alive, a soldier stood at attention for the duration of a two-hour memorial service for Pfc. Brian Ritzberg Jr.

Ritzberg’s body was flown home last week from Kirkuk, Iraq, while his young wife, Clara, flew in from her own military post at Fort Riley, Kan. They met again last Wednesday in the Morisco Funeral Home in Astoria, not far from the apartment they once shared and the Queensbridge Houses where Ritzberg grew up.

The service was marked with spirituals sung a cappella, an intermittent organ and the halting words of the soldier’s young relatives — all with rumbling of the N train outside. An infant in the crowd, one of many of the soldier’s cousins, fussed in his young mother’s arms and cried out.

These sounds served as reminders that life would go on as the community memorialized the 18th soldier from Queens to die in Iraq.

“Life is full of swift transitions,” Pastor David Dean II, yet another of Ritzberg’s cousins, remarked early in a sermon that would ride a crest of religious fervor — through “amens” and “hallelujahs” and gospel lessons on preparation. “Tomorrow is not promised,” he said.

Ritzberg was only in Iraq a month when a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into his compound, on April 2, and he was fatally wounded by shrapnel.

Ritzberg was described by his relatives as “sweet” and “brave.” He ran track at Thomas Edison High School in Jamaica. He hoped his stint as a military policeman would lead to a career with the New York Police Department.

Elijah Mack, Ritzberg’s grandfather, helped raise him from a baby. “He was very lovable and a very likable person, I just hope now he’ll rest in peace,” he said.

For Mack, his own life keeps him distracted from the grief. He holds a part-time job and has 26 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. One of the last times this large family got together was to bury Mack’s wife, Ritzberg’s grandmother, in the very same funeral parlor just two months ago.

Throughout the service, Ritzberg’s relatives urged their family, many of whom live within blocks of one another, to come together. They pleaded they should stop “meeting like this,” as relatives who see each other only under bad circumstances tend to say.

Outside, when the service was over, the family gathered again, bundled against the unseasonable chill to share some memories.

“Brian was brave, man. We roughed him up, but he never ran away,” said his first cousin, Koh-Relle Brisco, a tough-looking 33-year-old, who admitted to being his smaller cousin’s formidable opponent. “He wasn’t big, but they say good things come in small packages,” he added.

Another cousin, who couldn’t have been older than 12, spoke out against the war effort, echoing statements made by others during the service. “They are babies out there,” she said with a deep scowl spreading across her young face. She thought it would be a good idea to make an anti-war commercial showing “all the happy memories of people who died.” Not long after, she struck a pose — and a smile — for a news camera.

Back in the nearly empty funeral parlor, a small table next to the coffin held military medals, recognitions of good service, a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the medals associated with Ritzberg’s particular campaign; the Global War on Terror Service Medal and the Iraqi Campaign Medal. The organ was quiet. The train rumbled by overhead.

Ritzberg was to be buried in a small town in Virginia.

From the Queens Chronicle

Related Link:
Brian Ritzberg remembered

Related Link:
Brian A. Ritzberg dies of injuries from I.E.D.