With a 21-gun salute and the reading of a poem about war that Army 1st Lt. Robert A. Seidel III had written in the fifth grade, this small town and hundreds of flag-bearing veterans laid to rest a native son yesterday in a funeral service that many said was all the more poignant on Memorial Day.
Lieutenant Seidel, 23, who grew up in this Frederick County town of 2,300, had wanted to serve in the military since he was 10 years old. He was killed while on patrol May 18 when his Humvee was struck by an explosive device in an attack that killed three other soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter.
A 2004 West Point graduate, he was a rifle platoon leader with the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, N.Y., and was an Army Ranger, qualified for air assaults.
"Our goal was to welcome our hometown son back, and it's always important to make a statement that we're proud of the contributions of the men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line for our American freedoms," said R. Wayne Powell, fire information officer with the Vigilant Hose Company of Emmitsburg.
"This is Americana right here," he said, gesturing to the soldiers in dress uniforms and the giant American flag hanging from a rope strung between two firetruck ladders at the entrance to the cemetery where Seidel was buried. "It doesn't get much more simple than that."
Friends, relatives and fellow service members who attended the private funeral service at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton said the Mass served as a celebration of family - the soldier's and the military family he had yearned to join.
Nancy Progar, Lieutenant Seidel's fifth-grade teacher, read a poem that he had written for her class.
"It was about war and serving one's country," said Karen Santos, Lieutenant Seidel's cousin, who traveled from Rehoboth, Mass., for the funeral. "Just to hear it, for a little boy of 10 to write the way he did, it was incredible. He fulfilled his life, even though it was far too short."
Lieutenant Seidel's football coach at Catoctin High School read an essay that the former fullback and outside linebacker wrote as part of his congressional application to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. In it, those who attended the funeral said, Lieutenant Seidel acknowledged that serving his country meant putting his life on the line. He also vowed never to ask the troops in his command to do anything that he would not do.
"He was a gentleman. You could tell he had the military in him even before he was in the military," said Tom Rippeon, 48, of Lewistown, whose daughter attended her high school prom with Lieutenant Seidel.
Also included in the service was a country song by Brad Paisley that friends and family said Lieutenant Seidel sang constantly during his last visit home from Iraq in February.
Its chorus goes: "Yeah, when I get where I'm going, there'll be only happy tears. I will shed the sins and struggles I have carried all these years, and I'll leave my heart wide open, I will love and have no fear. Yeah, when I get where I'm going, don't cry for me down here."
"Apparently, that song meant a lot to Rob," said Aaron Venables, 22, of Thurmont, who choked up talking about his former football teammate from midget league through high school. "It hit pretty close to home when they played that song."
The Memorial Day funeral was attended by more than 200 military veterans and others, many of whom traveled by motorcycle from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Jim Sandefur III, 61, of Bunker Hill, W.Va., said he has searched for ways to serve his country since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Air Force veteran, whose two brothers-in-law were drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, tried to re-enlist but was told that he was too old for another tour.
So he decided to spend Memorial Day this year standing outside Lieutenant Seidel's funeral with a flag to honor the young man's sacrifice.
"With these kids," he said, pointing to the basilica where the private funeral Mass was being offered, "there's no draft. Every one of them I've met feels that what they're doing is helping to defend America. I don't ever want one of them to come back to America and not be shown love and respect."
Most of the men and women on motorcycles were members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group that was organized last fall in response to protests staged by Westboro Baptist Church. Members of the Kansas congregation picket military funerals to draw attention to their belief that God is punishing the United States by allowing men and women to die in Iraq because of the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Four protesters from the church arrived yesterday in Emmitsburg, but police kept them down the road and across the street from the driveway to the shrine.
Richard E. "Ripley" Marcks II, 58, of Allentown, Pa., has attended about 15 military funerals with the Patriot Guard Riders and served as ride captain and organizer for the gathering at the service for Lieutenant Seidel.
"We want to show honor for our fallen American heroes. Those are not just words for us. That's true," he said.