Honoring a fallen soldier


THURMONT -- A few years before he joined the Army, Erik W. Hayes helped his pastor place a 17-foot steeple on their church in Thurmont. The pair climbed scaffolding to the roof and had nearly maneuvered the cumbersome wooden steeple onto its platform when wind gusts blew through the Catoctin Mountains. The pastor feared they would fall, but Hayes insisted that they finish the job.

"He said, 'Brother Wade, if we slip, I will go first and you can fall on me so you won't get hurt,'" the Rev. Wade Sandridge said yesterday.

During his eulogy for Spc. Erik W. Hayes at the country church in Frederick County, Sandridge said the anecdote was "typical Erik."

Hayes, 24, who was killed Nov. 29 in Al Miqdadiyah, Iraq, when a bomb detonated near his military vehicle, grew up in small towns in Carroll and Frederick counties. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division, based in Vilseck, Germany.

Hundreds crowded Evangelical Bible Church, where Hayes had worshiped since childhood. In the foyer, they stopped at a collage of photos showing a young boy maturing into manhood. Many pictures showed Erik and his 20-year-old brother, Bradley, who was severely injured in a car accident two years ago and is in a nursing facility in Hagerstown.

Before the service, mourners filed past Erik Hayes' casket. Many touched his brow or kissed his cheek while his father, Douglas Hayes, repeated, "I am so proud of you," and often saluted his son.

"Everything you started, you finished," he said to his son.

Brig. Gen. Roger Nadeau praised the young soldier for his "ultimate sacrifice and selfless service" before presenting Hayes' mother, Debora Reckley, with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

Sandridge prayed for the military, especially for a 19-year-old in the congregation who was deployed to Iraq yesterday.

"These people are volunteering because they love God, family, country and freedom," he said.

Thurmont, near Camp David, the presidential retreat, "is often filled with dignitaries and officials, and I have heard them say over and over that there is going to be peace," Sandridge said. "I have been here 20 years, and there is still fighting."

The musical selections combined religious hymns and patriotic tunes. When the choir sang "Proud to be an American," the congregation stood, waved flags and joined in the chorus.

"None of us ever thought we would be sitting here today," said Dottie Miller, Hayes' former teacher. "Erik and my daughter Lacy even got haircuts together once. She complained that she looked like a boy afterwards."

Lacy Miller, pianist for the service, asked a friend to read Miller's memories of Hayes.

"Things went too quick from preschool to high school to the Army," Miller wrote. "I can still see him with his tool belt helping our pastor build this church where I worship. War and honor don't mean much until they come home to your town. I knew Erik's heart was with his mom and with taking care of Brad. But he went to Iraq.

"He also e-mailed me about indigenous Iraqi spiders," she wrote, eliciting a ripple of laughter. Hayes was known for his love for and knowledge of animals.

Rachel Olson, choir director, recalled how Hayes spent hours on a hot summer afternoon cleaning a cabin at the beach for a group of church campers, how methodically he laid carpet at her new home and how slowly he drove, "like a grandma," she said.

She read the last e-mail she received from Hayes. "Make sure you tell people what we are doing," he wrote. "We are doing what is right, and we're changing lives."

Hayes so loved his hometown that his mother insisted the funeral procession detour from the church into downtown Thurmont before the drive to the cemetery in Harney in Carroll County.

Several hundred vehicles traveled down Main Street, where other traffic was halted, police officers saluted and flags flew at half-staff.

The white steeple that Erik Hayes helped erect glistened in the bright sunlight.

Hundreds also gathered at the gravesite. An Army honor guard fired a salute, played taps and ceremoniously folded the flag and presented it to Douglas Hayes.

Michael Hess, an Army veteran of the first Persian Gulf war, gave the father a handful of Iraqi sand to spread over his son's casket.

Sandridge offered the soldiers who were present his thanks and a final blessing.

"We honor you for what you are doing, and we pray God to bless you," he said.

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