On a chilly Easter night, two days after his son and four of his fellow soldiers were killed in Iraq, David Pautsch watched their remains arrive on a jumbo jet during a somber, half-hour ceremony.
"You see these five caskets, flag-draped, it's sobering beyond belief," Pautsch told The Associated Press afterward. "There's no music in the background, but just the stark reality of those caskets laying there against the backdrop of this huge 747.
"You're just sobered, and you have to come to grips with the finality of it all. It provides good closure. You realize that this is the end."
The arrival of the five soldiers was the fourth dignified transfer ceremony to be open to the media since the Pentagon ended an 18-year ban on press coverage of the events. Corporal Jason Pautsch's father and two brothers were the first family members of a fallen soldier to speak with media afterward.
White-gloved soldiers and airmen meticulously carried the five flag-draped transfer cases from the jet to a truck, which took them to the military's largest mortuary. The silence was broken only by the cries of children, the hum of the aircraft and the cameras of photographers who were allowed to attend.
The Pautschs' trip to Dover from Davenport, Iowa, and their decision to describe the ceremony were both intended to honor Jason, who they said often felt that soldiers were not properly appreciated for their sacrifices.
"He despised the cowardly attitude of a lot of the politicians that brought into question the value of what they were doing over there," David Pautsch said. "He despised the idea that so many Americans were too gutless to stand up for what they believed."
Pautsch, 20, and the four other soldiers were killed Friday when a suicide bomber driving a truck detonated a ton of explosives near a police headquarters in the northern city of Mosul. It was the deadliest attack against U.S. troops in more than a year.
The U.S. military said the bombers targeted Iraqi police and the Americans were caught up as bystanders. Two Iraqi policemen also were killed in the midmorning blast near the Iraqi National Police headquarters. At least 62 people, including one American soldier and 27 civilians, were wounded, officials said.
The other soldiers killed were: Staff Sgt. Gary L. Woods Jr., 24, of Lebanon Junction, Ky.; Staff Sgt. Bryan E. Hall, 25, of Elk Grove, Calif.; Sgt. Edward W. Forrest Jr., 25, of St. Louis; and Private Second Class Bryce E. Gautier, 22, of Cypress, Calif.
Jason Pautsch's older brother, 23-year-old Jared, said he used his training as a private in the 82nd Airborne Division to keep his emotions in check during the ceremony.
"I wasn't going to stand there and bawl my eyes out," Jared said. "Some people had to be strong. You can shed a couple tears, but in the end, it's still freezing cold out, and you've got to stand there saluting your brother's body as it's going away. There's no time to stand there and break down.
‘You give the Army a blank check’
"You have to be able to stand there, know that he died for a reason, and then salute him for that reason."
Jason Pautsch graduated from high school a semester early, blowing off the senior prom and being able to graduate with his friends so he could enlist in the Army, his father and brothers said. He was a thrill-seeker who enjoyed hunting and BMX biking in his spare time.
David Pautsch, who owns an advertising agency in Davenport, had a long phone conversation with his son about 12 hours before he died. The news was a shock, he said, because they had talked so recently. But he said his son, a born-again Christian, wasn't afraid to be killed.
"It's a noble thing to lay down your life for someone else. Basically, when you join the Army, you give the Army a blank check to include your life. And they cashed it," David said. "God is bringing good out of this. And he understood that."
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