It was the soldier's smile that struck mourners who viewed images of Spc. Ari D. Brown-Weeks yesterday as they filed into Mountain Christian Church in Harford County.
The video montage of family photos spanned Brown-Weeks' 23 years of life, from beaming infant to proud uniformed soldier whose first name means "lion."
"That smile stands out in all the pictures," said the Rev. Victor Harner, pastor of the church on Mountain Road in Joppa. "It is the key to his inner spirit. And that name is fitting for a warrior and hero."
The Army paratrooper, a Massachusetts native who lived in Abingdon during the past two years, was killed Sept. 10 in Iraq in a truck accident that also claimed the lives of six other soldiers.
That smile stood out in the photos of him with Iraqi children.
"His desire to serve his country was clear in his heart and spirit," Harner said. "He really felt a calling to serve so that you and I could gather here today in freedom and honor what he did."
Tributes were offered by Brown-Weeks' family and fellow soldiers. His parents and other family members came from Massachusetts for the service. Flag-bearing members of the Patriot Guard, a group of motorcyclists organized to pay tribute at military funerals, lined the entrance to the church.
"We believe these families need to know there's people who share their grief," said Wally DaWall, a Navy veteran from Gaithersburg who is a member of the group.
Paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., donned formal uniforms and signature maroon berets to serve as pallbearers. Along with Harner, Col. P. Dudley Neal, a post chaplain, eulogized the soldier.
"It is an honor to stand here today with soldiers of the 82nd to honor our hero," Neal said, telling the family that "your grief has reached deep into our lives."
Harner recalled assisting with wedding preparations less than a year ago for the soldier and his then-fiancee, Ashley Tillery, a Harford County native. The soldier's personality was captured in letters written to loved ones and shared with mourners.
Brown-Weeks' mother-in-law, Debbie Tillery, read from the letter she received soon after the soldier enlisted: He asked for permission to marry her daughter.
"I am 100 percent in love with Ashley," he wrote. "I would give my life to protect her."
Weeks shared a letter her husband wrote from Iraq to her young cousin. "The Iraqis are trying to get their lives back," she read. "We have to capture the bad guys and get Iraq back to a good place."
She recalled a tribute that one of her husband's friends had offered at their wedding.
"He said that Ari truly had angels watching over him," she said. "I know Ari is with his angels now."
Burial will be in Arlington National Cemetery next month.