Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Matthew Soper laid to rest

To honor a soldier many had never met, they came by the hundreds.

They waved American flags, stood at rigid attention or wiped away tears for a family overcome by loss.

About 1,500 people Tuesday crowded into the Lumen Christi High School gymnasium for Sgt. Matthew Soper's funeral Mass.

Hundreds more lined Jackson streets, watching silently, as the hearse carrying Soper's body made a somber journey to St. John's Cemetery on E. South Street.

"This man gave his life for our freedom," said Daniel Barnes of Jackson, a leather-clad biker who did not know Soper but rode in the funeral procession with more than 300 other vehicles. "The very least we can do is show our respect."

Soper, 25, died June 6 in Baji, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device hit his patrol vehicle.

He was serving his second tour of duty with the Jackson-based Michigan Army National Guard 1461st Transportation Company.

Tuesday, a silent crowd rose to its feet in reverence as his flag-draped coffin was taken through a light rain and into the high school gym. Soper's weeping family walked slowly behind it.

His seven siblings, their spouses and his parents, Shirley and Warner Soper, filled the front rows of the gym as Father Bernard Reilly of St. Mary Catholic Church in Jackson delivered the homily.

"(Soper) was unique and had that unique place in the family ! and in your hearts," said Reilly, standing at a podium flanked by red, white and blue flowers.

As he and others spoke, men and women dabbed their eyes with tissues.

Soper's best friend, Sgt. Derek Eisele, shook with emotion when Reilly referred to him and A.J. Curtis as "brothers" to Soper.

Many who had been able to maintain composure broke down as they viewed a slide show of family photos, accompanied by live acoustic guitar versions of popular country music songs, "An American Soldier" and "If You're Reading This."

Pictures spanning Soper's life -- from a boy with his face smeared with food to a soldier kissing a niece -- had men wiping their eyes.

Toward the end of the Mass, Soper's brother-in-law, Jay Ciokajlo, fought his emotions as he read a poem Soper wrote. Soper's friends found it in his room in Iraq after he died.

An excerpt:

"I am that which others do not want to be.

I went where others feared to go.

And did what others failed to do.

I asked for nothing from those who gave nothing !

At least some day I will be able to say that I was proud of what I did and who I am."

Ciokajlo continued by sharing memories of Soper, who nicknamed himself "Big Slick."

"He was extreme. He wanted to be extreme in all he did. He did not get lost in a crowd," Ciokajlo said. He was the "life of the party" and "all that and a bucket of chicken to the ladies," he said, drawing laughs from Soper's family.

It was a light moment in an otherwise serious ceremony.

More than 100 military personnel attended the funeral, standing at attention as Maj. Gen. Thomas Cutler awarded Soper with the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. The Purple Heart is awarded to soldiers wounded in combat. The Bronze Star honors acts of heroism or meritorious service.

When the 1-hour, 45-minute service ended about noon, more than 200 cars and trucks and about 100 motorcycles made their way along the five-mile procession to the cemetery for a grave-side service.

The family rode in a white recreational vehicle marked with Soper's name on its side as those along the route stood for what amounted to a silent parade for a soldier everyone called heroic.

Among them was Andrea Beeler of Napoleon, whose brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Brent Beeler, 22, was fatally shot in the chest Dec. 7 while on patrol in Fallujah, Iraq. He was serving with a Lansing-based Marine Corps Reserve company.

"I figured I should be here," said Beeler, 19. Community support got her family through the rough time after her brother's death, she said, holding a small flag.

"I don't know what I can do as one person, but I know it helped me."

About 100 feet away, David Kughn, a 59-year-old Vietnam War veteran, stood on the corner of Jackson Street and Washington Avenue tightly gripping a 5-foot American flag and wearing a red, white and blue polo shirt.

"We wouldn't be able to stand out here today and do what we want if it wasn't for them," Kughn said as procession vehicles approached a 25-by-40 foot American flag, waving about 40 feet above Washington Avenue.

The enormous patriotic symbol was strung up near Mechanic Street by Blackman and Spring Arbor township fire department ladder trucks to honor Soper. The flag was loaned to Blackman by the Hot Air Jubilee.

All the support was "wonderful," said Soper's aunt, Sandy Cannons of Jackson. "It just touched the hearts. ! I know it meant the world to Shirley and Warner and the kids."

Master Sgt. Bill Bain said in 20 years of military service he has never seen such an outpouring of support.

"I was really amazed how this community stepped up."

Bain served with Soper when he toured Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with the National Guard 1462nd Transportation Company, based in Howell.

It always hurts when a soldier dies, he said, his face showing obvious signs of expelled tears. "But he was one of our own. ! He was one of the best."

From the Citizen Patriot

Related Link:
Matthew Soper remembered

Related Link:
Matthew Soper dies 'of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device'