Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gregory Billiter laid to rest

Rain fell on an overcast spring day as hundreds of people gathered at St. Joseph Church for the funeral of Navy Chief Petty Officer Gregory J. Billiter.

The 36-year-old Villa Hills native died April 6 during an enemy attack while searching for unexploded bombs in Iraq.

"Gregory Billiter died on Good Friday, which prompts many of us to ask, 'What's good about Good Friday anyway?' " said the Rev. Daniel J. Vogelpohl, who presided over the funeral Mass Saturday. "Good Friday will never be the same for any of us here united by ... Greg's Good Friday death. What could possibly be good about Good Friday 2007?"

Vogelpohl then said it is the goodness of people - like Billiter - willing to sacrifice their lives for others that will mark the goodness of Good Friday for years to come.

Vogelpohl recalled giving a college graduation gift to Billiter in 1991. It was a tapestry of a saying from the Gospel: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God."

"How ironic ..." Vogelpohl said. "The irony of not knowing then what I know now: that Greg would give his life trying to be a peacemaker, a child of God."

He said Billiter's adult life dealt him many setbacks and disappointments, including not being able to find a job after college, having a knee injury disqualify him from being a Navy Seal, and being deployed to Iraq - three times.

"In a sense, I hear Greg calling out to me, to us, that life isn't fair, but deal with it," Vogelpohl said. "Learn to be creative about it."

He said it isn't fair Billiter leaves behind a wife of 10 years and 3-year-old son, but said the challenge to everyone there was to embrace the family to help give them peace.

Billiter's commanding officer, Cmdr. Martin Beck, received a standing ovation after repeatedly fighting back tears while recounting Billiter's service.

"His selfless leadership and sincerity earned him a respect very few in the military ever know," Beck said before announcing that Billiter had earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

Billiter specialized in dismantling explosive devices. He personally responded to 10 improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, 10 suspected IEDs, five hoaxes, four unexploded devices, nine post-blast assessments and 10 weapons caches, Beck said.

During his first two tours of duty, Billiter dived for mines off the coast of Iraq. This time he was the tactical commander in a convoy conducting patrols in Iraq when the vehicle he was in was struck by a rocket, Beck said. Billiter was severely injured and evacuated by a medical helicopter. He was later pronounced killed in action.

It was the first military fatality involving a Villa Hills person since Sgt. Ron Niewahner was killed in Vietnam in 1968, according to city officials. Billiter was one of three sailors assigned to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station killed in the attack. A military spokesman said they were the first Iraq war casualties from the base, located north of Seattle.

"I wish I had a mirror so I could have seen the dismay on my face when Greg told me he was going to become an expert in the disposal of explosives," Vogelpohl said. "I thought to myself, 'What kind of fool would do that? Doesn't he know?' But we all know Greg was one who loved challenges."

From the Cincinnati Enquirer

Related Link:
Gregory J. Billiter dies of injuries from I.E.D.