Monday, September 03, 2007

Garrett McLead laid to rest

They honored him best by saying goodbye his way.

Laughter soothed many of about 600 mourners who overflowed pews and pressed into chairs lining walls Saturday at the funeral for Sgt. Garrett Ian McLead, 23. He died Aug. 22 in Iraq, alongside 13 comrades in a Black Hawk helicopter crash, after completing a reconnaissance mission.

"Nothing I can say will show how special he is to me and how much I love him and miss him," said the soldier's cousin Greg Emmons, who shared memories with mourners. "But he was a goof-off.

"Garrett couldn't just go surfing," Emmons said. "He had to moon everybody. And the stories get more graphic from there. Yet he was full of loyalty, bravery, love and life -- a glow I'll never forget."

About 100 Patriot Guard Riders of South Texas holding American flags stood solemnly, an arm's length apart, skirting the driveway entrance to First Baptist Church. Inside, six surfboards stood in salute along altar walls behind the flag-draped casket.

Whispering mourners fell silent as a slide show began with a moppy-haired toddler showing off for the camera. It clicked through baseball years and raised chuckles at the image of the lanky blond teen awkwardly twisted into slumber in an overstuffed chair.

Photos of the blue-eyed graduate in gown hugging family turned to surfboard antics next to a pier, then a cheek-to-cheek mash of mother Patti McLead with her soldier son. The final photo was a glaring sun radiating behind a silhouetted Garrett in Iraq as he stood alone griping his gun by his hip to the song "Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory."

As the photo faded, the crowd stood while family members who had gathered in the church Fellowship Hall filed in, filling six front-row pews.

In a 30-second video taken in Iraq, McLead narrated over the churning rumble of helicopters, his face shielded with helmet and goggles: "The Black Hawks are looking to see if we can get these guys." The camera panned the desert landscape. "See you later. Bye."

McLead was born in Houston but grew up in Rockport, where he played trombone in the high school band and worked on the yearbook staff while playing varsity tennis and soccer. At church, he organized the annual Big Kahuna Surf Trip. He enlisted during his senior year of high school and served two overseas tours, first in Afghanistan then Iraq.

"When I first heard about Garrett, I just dropped to the floor and wept," said the Rev. Walter Knight. "I was 40 when I came here, and Garrett said, 'We're a little disappointed -- they told us we were going to get a young guy.'

"Garrett had that Ralph Lauren face with a smile that said, 'Guess what I just did.' " Knight said. "He went from suntanned with sandals to sharp in uniform with shined shoes.

"I asked him, 'Have you seen any action over there?' " Knight told mourners. "He said, 'Nope, they all wear veils.' "

People laughed into crumpled tissues moist with their tears.

The funeral closed with a bagpipe version of "Amazing Grace" switching to a rock 'n' roll arrangement.

"That was just the way Garrett would say goodbye," said Paul Emmons, the soldier's uncle from Calallen, who has been speaking on behalf of the McLead family.

The family has been overwhelmed by the love and support the community has shown, Emmons said. Hundreds of people lined the route to Rockport Cemetery, as they had during a procession Wednesday as McLead's body arrived. About 60 motorcycles led hundreds of mourners to the gravesite.

"We'll never forget Garrett," Emmons said. "It's best said by a poignant phrase, 'Beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance,' and that's what we're going to do."

From the Caller Times

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