Sunday, August 19, 2007

Juan Alcantara laid to rest

During six months in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Jerry Stuart and Cpl. Juan M. Alcántara searched homes, patrolled streets, and came under fire together. In treacherous war times, it was Alcántara who pressed on fearlessly, pushing the men in his unit to fight with valor, Stuart said.

"He was a great man and a hero," he told scores of mourners gathered to honor the fallen soldier at Alcántara's funeral Mass at the Church of St. Elizabeth in Washington Heights Friday.

The tearful eulogy appeared to be of little consolation to the soldier's mother, María Alcántara, who collapsed in the front pew as Army officers announced her son was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and an Army Commendation Medal for his military service.

When the Rev. Luis Saldaña finished his homily, dozens of relatives and friends embraced María and the soldier's grandmother, Librada Disla, who arrived Thursday from the Dominican Republic.

At the end of the ceremony, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who presided over the Mass, blessed Alcántara's coffin with holy water and delivered a stirring message to family members, adding he was "truly and deeply sorry ... for the loss" of Alcántara. "He was lost in the horror of war, which he fought with nobility," Egan said. "We ask you to join us in praying that the war ends and all of our young men and women return safe and sound."

Alcántara, 22, and three other infantrymen were killed Aug. 6 when an improvised explosive device detonated as they searched a house in Baqouba, according to Army officials. Alcántara, who was deployed to Iraq in June 2006, was part of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based in Fort Lewis, Wash.

Born in the Dominican Republic, Alcántara moved to Washington Heights with his family at age 5 or 6.

After graduating from Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in 2004, he enlisted in the Army, hoping to earn money to enroll in college after his service, his family said.

His tour of duty in Iraq was extended four months past the date he was to return, June 28 - the day before his daughter, Jaylani Marie, was born.

At the burial in Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, only the sobs of the deceased soldier's mother broke the silence in the graveyard as grieving onlookers watched six Army soldiers fold the American flag over the coffin.

"My only son, Mariel," María cried, calling her son by his middle name, as a soldier began to play "Taps" on his trumpet.

Family members placed white spider mums on Alcántara's coffin and said their final goodbyes. As Sayonara Lopez, his fiancee, neared the coffin with the couple's 6-week-old daughter cradled in her arms, the baby began to cry. Lopez handed the baby to another mourner, then draped herself over the silver coffin, pounding fists on it, screaming "No!" before relatives pulled her away.

From Newsday

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Juan Alcantara remembered at wake

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Juan M. Alcantara dies 'of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device'