Saturday, June 09, 2007

Keith Heidtman laid to rest

NORWICH -- When the crowd at St. Joseph Cemetery dispersed Friday, family and fellow Army unit members gathered around the coffin of Army 1st Lt. Keith Heidtman for a final goodbye.

Family members of the fallen soldier placed their hands on the casket and Heidtman's mother, Maureen Robidoux, still in tears, bent to kiss it.

It was an intimate moment marking the end of a service that drew hundreds of sign- and flag-bearing supporters to Norwich.

Heidtman was killed May 28, Memorial Day, when his reconnaissance helicopter was shot down over northern Iraq. Lt. Col. John Whitford said Heidtman and his co-pilot were "at the tip of the spear," flying missions to gather information ahead of their unit.

"In his 24 years, Keith accomplished more, gave more, made a greater impact on the world, than most do in many decades of life," said Army Chaplain Kevin P. Cavanaugh during a funeral Mass at the Cathedral of St. Patrick.

Known locally as a star athlete from Norwich Free Academy who went on to graduate with distinguished military honors from the University of Connecticut, Heidtman had quickly earned respect as an Army aviator after earning his wings from the U.S. Army Warfighting Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.

He was sent to Iraq in December with the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry regiment at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Heidtman's commander, Lt. Col. Jim Barker, said "people were talking about how squared away 1st Lt. Heidtman was, both on the staff and in the cockpit.

"Keith was one of the most outstanding young pilots I have ever known," Barker said. "Without a doubt, he was destined to become one of our future great leaders in the aviation branch."

Heidtman was buried Friday with full military honors, posthumously honored with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, presented to his parents.

Soldiers fired a volley of shots and a solemn rendition of taps echoed from a far corner of St. Joseph Cemetery in Taftville. The service was punctuated by a flyover by two Black Hawk helicopters. "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes ended the ceremony.

No protests
Under the shade of a cherry tree at the cemetery, Linda LeBlanc of Norwich wiped away tears as the procession arrived at the gravesite. Her godson has served two tours in Iraq and she said she is scared for all those serving in the Middle East.

"I don't know them, but I love them," LeBlanc said.

Similar sentiments came from the hundreds of people with flags or signs of support who had lined the streets of Broadway outside the Cathedral of St. Patrick. The funeral procession to the church was led by Norwich police and hundreds of motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders and other veterans groups.

A mix of supporters came out in numbers in the event a Kansas hate group made good on threats to demonstrate at the church. State lawmakers even passed a law setting guidelines for any protests at funerals.

But police said they saw no sign of any protesters. The crowd remained patriotic, at one point breaking into song, chanting Lee Greenwood's, "God Bless the USA," from the steps of the church.

Across the street, nearby residents Pat and John Lucente, with granddaughter, Miah, waving a flag, looked on.

"This was a hometown boy who has given his life," Pat Lucente said. "It's something that really doesn't hit home until something like this happens. This could have been my son. Hopefully his spirit is among us, so he will realize his life was not given in vain."

As a testament to the lives he touched, hundreds came out to honor Heidtman at Thursday night's wake, where Whitford said peopled were still lined up outside Norwich Free Academy after normally scheduled calling hours.

Heidtman also is remembered for putting smiles on the faces of the children at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, a camp for terminally ill children.

First Lt. Ryan Flaherty, who served in the Connecticut National Guard with Heidtman, wrote in a memorial, "I will forever remember his strength, his courage and his quiet sense of humor. Keith Heidtman was the kind of man I'd serve with in any capacity. I am a better person for having known and served with him."

From the Norwich Bulletin

Related Link:
Keith N. Heidtman dies 'wounds suffered when his OH-58D Kiowa helicopter crashed after receiving heavy enemy fire during combat operations'