MARDELA SPRINGS - Two Marine Corps helicopters rumbled over a cemetery nestled among cornfields yesterday in tribute as 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Walter F. "Trae" Cohee III - Maryland's first casualty of the war in Afghanistan - was laid to rest near the little town where he was raised.
"He was just a good kid, just a good kid," said his mother, Jeanne Cohee, in a eulogy mixed with tears and laughter, as hundreds of mourners packed the town's volunteer fire hall for the funeral. "God knows I didn't raise an angel, but I want you to know I have one now."
Sergeant Cohee - whose nickname came from being third in a line of Walters - was a jokester always looking to play the next prank, even in a military tent in hostile Afghanistan, friends and family recalled in their emotional eulogies.
But he took his job with the Marines so seriously, they said, that he volunteered for the overseas duty that was to kill him and a comrade on Jan. 20, when their helicopter crashed in the mountains of northern Afghanistan, apparently because of mechanical problems.
His girlfriend, Vanessa Gerritsen, shared with the mourners something he once told her: "I love these helicopters. I am going to fly for as long as I possibly can. Even if something happens to me, it's what I love to do."
Later, at the burial on a spring-like afternoon, Gerritsen and members of the Cohee family flashed three fingers in memory of Trae as the helicopters flew over the cemetery in East New Market, about 15 miles from Mardela Springs.
One of Cohee's fellow Marines, Gunnery Sgt. Ken Jourdan, promised that the military men and women still in Afghanistan are "not going to let Trae's death be in vain. We're going to get the job done, finish what we started."
Fire hall service
Mourners began arriving late in the morning at the concrete-and-metal fire hall, where a viewing preceded the service. There were high school buddies, Marines in dress uniform, retired Marines who never knew Cohee, and numerous public officials. The line to enter the hall snaked in front of the three fire truck bays and onto the muddy brown grass.
The fire hall may have been the only venue in Mardela Springs large enough to handle the throng of 500 or more.
But it made sense for another reason: As a teen-ager, Cohee had been a volunteer firefighter along with his older brother Kris and their parents. In tribute, a huge American flag fluttered from a line strung between the raised ladders of two fire trucks.
For a community of just 350 residents, Cohee's death hit home hard. "The emotional impact, that ripple through the community, is most profound," said Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, a Republican from Cambridge, about 15 miles up U.S. 50 from Mardela Springs.
In little Mardela Springs - Jeanne Cohee joked that it's so small, "Wicomico County doesn't even know we're here" - everyone does seem to know everyone. Wendy Robbins, a clerk at Subway, used to have her hair cut at the Cohees' light blue house on Main Street. Charles "Rip" Ripple, who released 50 doves after the funeral, is the Cohees' insurance agent.
The closeness is evident all around. The sign at Wright's Market declares, "We honor Trae Cohee and pray for his family." Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican and former Eastern Shore high school social studies teacher, said Mardela Springs is the "heart of America."
Trae Cohee was, by all accounts, a ham - and his mother proudly said he got it from her. He liked to drive and dance at the same time, a friend remembered, and would crank up rock songs like "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Stairway to Heaven." His favorite sayings included "psych!" and "rock on!" and "freak of nature."
Despite being an avid soccer and baseball player, he displayed sufficient sloth in high school that he was known to arrive for class still wearing his pajamas. He would run home during lunch to change clothes.
Marine 'morale booster'
The fun and games hardly ended when he joined the Marines in 1993.
While at a restaurant in California a couple of years ago, Cohee tricked his grandfather into eating super-spicy food, then had to wipe away the tears of laughter, his great-aunt said.
Jourdan said that in Afghanistan, Cohee toyed with his comrades in their tent late at night by turning a flashlight on and off, aiming the beam at their eyes. It was that sense of humor that made Cohee the unit's unofficial "morale booster."
Cohee's friends and family spoke of a sweet side. He was the rare type to respond to a group e-mail. He signed every e-mail with "Love, Trae."
Gerritsen, who said she and Cohee planned to marry when he returned home, said she could never stay angry with him when he did something annoying; she had to turn away so he could not see her smile.
For all his antics, Cohee was a devoted Marine. His mother said he once told her, with a straight face, that he wished he could go through boot camp again.
This dedication, said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is what led Cohee to make a sacrifice for his country. "Sergeant Cohee died so that the terrible events of Sept. 11 will never be repeated," she said.
Staff Sgt. Brad Brown, who met Cohee four years ago, said his comrade had been eager to participate in the Afghanistan conflict. "He came up to me and said, 'I want to go.' I said, 'OK, if you want to.' He wanted to go because that's what he came into the Marines to do."
"In the business we're in, you lose friends; that's a fact of life," Brown said. "This is the toughest so far."
After yesterday's funeral, members of the Cohee family planned to fly to the West Coast for the funeral of the second Marine killed with Cohee, 24-year-old Sgt. Dwight J. Morgan of Mendocino, Calif.