Saturday, May 19, 2007

Matthew Alexander laid to rest

Burying a soldier is a magnificent, terrible thing for a small town.

The people of Gretna, population 3,500, did it in grand fashion Friday.

Tears of pride and sorrow overflowed, right into the streets, as the city buried Matthew Alexander, a native son killed in Iraq May 6.

About 1,000 people lined the city's main drag, waving American flags, saluting and standing at somber attention as the funeral procession went by.

Alexander, a 21-year-old Army corporal, is believed to be the first Gretna resident to be killed in combat since World War II.

That was reason enough to do it right.

But there was more at work.

Over and over, people said that Gretna residents help one another. After a storm, when illness strikes, whenever people need.

And residents wanted to show their appreciation to a young man and his family - to make a meager payment on a debt that can never be repaid.

"They're trying to do what they can to comfort (Alexander's family)," said Gretna Mayor Tim Gilligan.

Gilligan knew Alexander as the paperboy.

"He always had a smile on his face," he said.

Patti Huff, a retired teacher who passed out American flags to people lining the streets, taught Alexander in grade school. "He was fabulous," Huff said - a polite, hardworking student.

Joanette Zach, who works at City Hall, got to know Alexander through her daughter, Nicole. Alexander's wife, Kara, served as Nicole's personal attendant when Nicole got married last December.

Asked why Gretna residents band together so, Zach broke into tears.

She covered her face with her hands, crying softly.

"It's just something in your heart that you feel," Zach said. "All the kids out here are so great and unique. And they're just like family. So when you lose one, it's like losing one of your family."

The day before the memorial celebration, people trickled into Gretna Community Church to pay respects at the visitation. A military sentry sat motionless by the flag-draped casket.

In the lobby, people lingered by a collection of memorabilia of Alexander's short life:

Steel dog tags.

High-top boots, the tan, desert kind.

The blue cord of an infantryman's uniform.

Used wooden drumsticks, nicked and scratched.

A collage of photos, his own handsome, boyish face in the center.

Friday, the spectacle grew as the afternoon wore on.

Six hundred students from Gretna Elementary School, where Alexander's mother works as a paraprofessional, waved tiny American flags as the sky-blue hearse drove by, bearing his casket toward Friday's memorial service at Gretna High School.

Led by 10 police motorcycles and three police cars, the procession arrived at the high school, where another 600 elementary students were waving flags.

Nearly 300 members of the Patriot Guard lined the parking lot, holding flags that snapped furiously in the breeze. Wearing faded blue jeans, Harley-Davidson jackets, leather gloves and bandannas, they rode in on more than 200 motorcycles from Nebraska and surrounding states to pay respects.

An estimated 750 people attended the service, a collection of song and story, preaching and military tradition.

Most poignant were the words of an Army buddy who served with him in Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Mark Grover of Poulsbo, Wash., said Alexander was loved by his platoon, which calls itself the "3rd gladiator platoon." He was a "go-to guy," calm under fire, a quiet professional who always gave 100 percent, Grover said. He said Alexander's life would serve as an example for the unit.

"I love you and I miss you, Alex," he said. "Thank you for being my friend."

Grover then stepped down from the podium, walked to Alexander's parents, Mel and Monica Alexander, and hugged Mel Alexander long and hard.

After the service, Grover said Baqouba, where Alexander died, has gained a reputation as the most dangerous place in Iraq.

Alexander was killed instantly when the enemy remotely detonated bombs hidden in a sewer pipe under a road, he said. The explosion destroyed his vehicle, he said.

Alexander's wife and parents accepted on his behalf a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and several other medals.

When the funeral procession left the high school, it passed a remarkable scene.

Firetrucks and police cars blocked side roads. Firefighters stood at attention. Children waved. Old men saluted. Construction workers stood silently and clutched their hard hats to their hearts. They stood in honor at every crossroad between the city and the Elkhorn Cemetery.

The Patriot Guard circled the cemetery. About 200 people crowded toward the casket and family. Shots rang out in a salute. Buglers played taps.

Matthew Alexander was laid to rest under a tall cedar tree.

From the Omaha World Herald

Related Link:
Matthew L. Alexander dies of injuries from I.E.D.