Monday, September 03, 2007

Nathan Hubbard laid to rest

Under a broad blue sky, they laid to rest another son of this San Joaquin Valley town Friday, another young man felled tragically in war. This death seemed perhaps the cruelest of all, for this was his family's second son to die in Iraq.

Nathan Hubbard had joined the Army to carry on what he considered the unfinished business of his older brother Jared, a 22-year-old Marine killed by a roadside bomb in November 2004.

Nathan Hubbard enlisted in 2005, a year out of high school, and joined the same Army unit as his eldest brother, Jason, 33. The two were in separate Black Hawk helicopters over the oil-rich terrain of Multaka on Aug. 22 when mechanical problems sent Nathan's chopper plummeting to the earth.

All 14 soldiers aboard were killed, including Nathan, an Army corporal on his first tour of duty at age 21. Jason, an Army sergeant, witnessed the aftermath of the tragedy from the air, accompanying his unit in disbelief and budding grief to the smoldering wreckage that held the remains of his little brother.

The death of a second son from a single family brought comparisons to fact and fiction, recalling the tragic deaths of the five Sullivan boys during World War II -- immortalized by Hollywood in 1944 as "The Fighting Sullivans" -- and the plot of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."

On Friday, the eldest and last of the fighting Hubbard boys stoically led Nathan's flag-draped coffin into St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Fresno, the same place where Jared had been eulogized less than three years earlier.

More than 1,000 people attended Nathan's funeral -- friends and family, old high school classmates in their Sunday best, military comrades in dress uniforms or desert camouflage fatigues, politicians and Army brass, and scores of law enforcement officers.

For Clovis, a onetime farm town turned fast-growing suburb on Fresno's northern edge, Nathan's death added to a grim toll from the war. He was the seventh serviceman from the city to die in the Middle East, the fourth in the last seven months.

As speakers intoned the verses of Ecclesiastes -- a time to be born and a time to die, a time of war and a time of peace -- mourners wept and struggled to make sense of the awful odds.

"Disbelief is what we're all feeling," Keith Peranick, 24, a friend of the Hubbard brothers, said before the service. "America lost a great son, and an even better soldier. To have pride like that, to go finish what your brother started, is beyond the call of duty."

During the funeral, the family's minister, Pastor Tim Rolen of New Hope Community Church, talked of Nathan's zest for life from Day One, how he arrived as a 10-pound, 2-ounce bundle that "brought adventure in a big way."

The boy spent his entire life in Clovis. He wrestled and played football. But what he liked most was socializing, Rolen recalled, adding: "Many of you were part of that hobby."

Nathan loved sushi, the San Francisco 49ers and Giants, and Lipton tea, which he drank in copious amounts in Iraq after his mother shipped tea bags halfway around the world.

Friends described Nathan as curious and free-spirited, trying oddball hobbies such as underwater welding, learning to rock climb and struggling to spearfish.

"Although God granted him half a life, he lived it to the fullest," longtime friend Don Valenzuela told mourners as he wiped away tears.

A bit of a dreamer, Nathan was proud when his big brother Jared enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school along with his lifelong friend Jeremiah Baro. The pair joined up to serve in the same Marine unit, Baro becoming a sharpshooter and Jared serving as his spotter.

After an initial tour of duty, Jared returned home with stories for his brothers. Jason was then a Fresno County sheriff's deputy and Nathan was still in high school. Always a tight trio, they got the same tattoo -- of three interlocking ravens -- on their left biceps before Jared headed back to war.

On his second tour in Iraq, Jared, a Marine lance corporal, was with Baro on a mission in Ramadi, west of Baghdad. A hidden bomb detonated by an Iraqi insurgent sent shrapnel flying. Eight Marines were walking on the road that night when it happened, but only Jared and his friend were killed.

Grappling with his grief, Nathan tried working at a ski resort and ranch, but nine months after his brother's death decided there was unfinished family business. His parents had conflicting emotions about another son enlisting, said Rolen, the family pastor. They were proud but worried about the risks.

Nathan told a newspaper reporter in Fresno shortly before he left for basic training that he accepted the danger. "If I worried about dying," he said, "I would live too cautious, and I want to live a very great life."

His brother Jason resigned as a sheriff's deputy to join up with him, a step their mother later speculated was intended in part to keep an eye out for Nathan's well-being.

But in the skies over Iraq, no brother's love could protect Nathan as his Black Hawk spiraled to the ground.

Jason didn't see the wreckage until his own chopper circled back. "We kind of went into a holding pattern over this downed bird," he later told reporters. "I went through all the emotions of telling myself that it was them, and telling myself that it wasn't them."

When Jason's chopper touched down at the crash site, his comrades swarmed over the debris in the grim task of recovering the bodies, leaving him behind, in shock. "I couldn't participate in that," he said. "I knew Nathan was in there."

His parents got the news much as they had before, with the knock of a military officer at their door. They huddled on the floor of their bathroom with their pastor.

Nathan's body was returned home and carried by hearse in a procession from the local airport, the streets of Clovis lined with red, white and blue ribbons and clusters of weeping mourners who showed up to pay tribute.

Flags all over town were lowered to half-staff. A local coffeehouse put out a jar to raise money for the Nathan Hubbard Memorial Fund. Testimonials flooded pages on A candlelight vigil brought mourners together Monday.

On Thursday, Nathan's father, Jeff, and brother spoke for the first time since the tragedy, on behalf of themselves, Nathan's mother, Peggy, and his sister, Heidi.

In their home on a quiet street now lined with American flags, Jeff Hubbard, a retired Clovis police officer, said the support in the days after Nathan's death had only strengthened the family's resolve to back what he described as America's war on terrorism.

"We just want people to support the nation in what it's doing to make the world a better place," he said.

After the spillover crowd departed St. Anthony's on Friday, the funeral procession wound five miles to Clovis Memorial Cemetery -- past where Nathan was born, past the schools he attended.

The valley heat settled in and the temperature pushed past 105. Mourners fanned themselves, gathering around the grave site, near the headstones of Nathan's brother and best friend.

A flyover of military jets shattered the still, muggy air. Doves of peace scattered in the skies.

An Army honor guard fired off a volley of rifle rounds, a 21-gun salute.

The sound rolled across the vast valley expanse like a couple of thunder claps. Like lightning striking the same patch of ground. Twice.

From the LA Times

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