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Mourners bid tough goodbyes, week after week

The ritual has grown agonizingly familiar: The transfer of the military's fallen at Dover Air Force Base, then the journey to a final resting place.
Image: Funeral service for Missouri Army National Guard Sgt. Robert Wayne Crow
Family members receive flags during a funeral service on July 19 for Missouri Army National Guard Sgt. Robert Wayne Crow in Liberty, Mo. Crow, 42, of Kansas City, Mo.. Crow died died July 10 in Paktika, Afghanistan, after his vehicle was hit with an improvised explosive device. Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the summer twilight, a crowd gathers on a baseball diamond in Seattle, candles in hand, to remember a sailor who not long ago ran this dusty path.

In a California church, a young widow reunites with friends she saw just nine months ago at her wedding — this time, though, they've come to bid farewell to her soldier-husband.

And in a Tennessee high school, a family friend remembers the eager boy who grew up counting the days until he could don an Army uniform.

Day after day, the war in Afghanistan comes home.

The ritual has grown agonizingly familiar: The transfer of the fallen at Dover Air Force Base, then the journey to a final resting place. Some families have mourned privately; others have found comfort in the public embrace of their neighbors. In Burnet, Texas, in Owensville, Ohio, in Jacksonville, Ill., townsfolk have lined the streets in respectful silence to honor the return of the departed.

Last month, the nation marked a milestone in Afghanistan: The loss of 66 U.S. troops made July the deadliest month in the nearly 9-year-old war. Many were killed by roadside bombs.

That spike in violence stirred new debate about the war — but for 66 families, it was no time for punditry or political debate.

Instead, it was time for an Arkansas father to celebrate his 20-year-old son, finding some comfort, he said, in the knowledge that "God had other plans." Time for friends of a Minnesota graduate of West Point to recall his favorite words from Thornton Wilder: "Goodbye, world!... Goodbye to clocks ticking ... and Mama's sunflowers — and food and coffee... and sleeping and waking up! — Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you!"

Time, too, to reflect on dreams — a cross-country trip, a firefighting career, buying a plot of land — now sadly set aside.

More than 450 weeks have passed since the fighting in Afghanistan began.

This is how goodbye was said in one painful week in August.

'He brought joy and laughter'
The candles flickered as the sun was setting in a west Seattle baseball park one recent Tuesday as 200 people crowded around the infield to honor 25-year-old Jarod Newlove, killed with a second sailor after they disappeared miles from their base in a dangerous area of Afghanistan known to be a Taliban stronghold.

The mourners stood on the spot where Newlove had played second base for the Chief Sealth International High School Seahawks. And they signed two memorial banners. "You're home safe now J," one person scrawled.

After the tributes, some who knew Newlove best reminisced.

They remembered Jarod, the 140-pound wrestler who sometimes skipped practice to woo another student, Kim, who became his wife. The jokester whose grades sagged, then rebounded. The young man who needed tough love but found his way and "became a man" in the Navy, said Dave Rosario, his wrestling coach.

Newlove's best friend, Garrett Rochon, met Jarod in sixth grade. They became inseparable as teens, joined the Navy, became young fathers (he's godfather to Newlove's daughter) and took their families to the zoo in San Diego when stationed there.

"He loved his family and my family, like they were his own," Rochon said. "Whoever he connected with, he brought joy and laughter."

Rochon's wife, Tabatha, can't help but think of Newlove's year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. "They don't have a chance to know who he really was," she said.

'He was — IS — my soul mate'
On this same night, there was another gathering in a California home. Friends and family of Staff Sgt. Kyle Warren shared stories about the 28-year-old member of the Army's Special Forces, a red-bearded bear of a man — 6'4" and 250 pounds, size 14 shoe and a lust for life that matched his size.

He loved sports. He played baseball, soccer, football and rugby, excelling at all. He was a fierce competitor, whether it was on the line of scrimmage or in front of a Monopoly board (one Army pal recalled he wasn't happy unless he was the banker).

He adored dogs, too, and jokingly sparred with his wife, Sandra, about letting their golden retriever, Cincinnati, sleep with them on their white sheets.

Warren's ebullience, though, sometimes sidetracked him. His father joked he was on "the seven-year plan" at Northern Arizona University and cut off his share of tuition payments after two years. Warren dropped out and moved to Manchester, N.H., to join his mother. He met Sandra there and they dated for six years.

But Warren pursued her with the same passion that guided everything he did.

"I had my doubts," Sandra recalled in a phone interview, noting long stretches when he was away in training or deployed. "But he was always the one who said, 'No, this is it. We're meant for each other.' I felt protected with him. That was the sense that I got from him and when he hugged me, I felt like nothing in the world could ever hurt me."

They wed last November with a reception in a New Hampshire vineyard.

"We wanted to make sure that we had the bond ... and that's why this is so difficult for me because he was — IS — my soul mate. I know it's easy to say, but it's true," she said. "Yes, we had our fights and arguments, but at the end of the day, we loved each other and that's all that mattered."

Army medic was on second Afghanistan tour
Warren's death from a bomb came just two weeks into his second tour in Afghanistan.

In his first deployment, Warren, a medic, helped host a weekly health clinic for villagers. Once when two little boys were badly injured by a roadside bomb, he stabilized them and made sure they were evacuated to a hospital. Both survived.

Warren planned to enter the fire academy when he returned. Now Sandra thinks of all that will never be.

"I feel robbed of my life, of our life, all the plans that we had, the family that we wanted," she said. "Everything has been taken."

Days after the family gathering, Warren's funeral was held at the church in Redondo Beach, Calif., where he was baptized. A friend read some words on behalf of Del Warren, the sergeant's father.

"Kyle was smart, handsome, funny and so generous and loving," he said of his only child. "Whatever he had or whatever he knew, he would gladly share it with anyone who asked. ... I thought my son was invincible. I was wrong. I have a wound that will never heal."

Warren was buried near his beloved grandfather, "Papa Pete." He had made that request in his will.

Family members placed single, white long-stemmed roses on the casket before it was lowered into the ground.

Small town, big loss
Yellow roses awaited the return of Capt. Jason Holbrook.

On a blistering Friday afternoon, hundreds of folks from the Burnet, Texas, area stood along the highway, holding flowers with red-white-and-blue streamers and small American flags provided by the local grocery. They watched the county sheriff lead a somber procession from the airport to the funeral home.

Holbrook, a West Point grad and member of the Army's Special Forces, was killed with Kyle Warren. He, too, was 28.

Charles Goble, a family friend, helped organize the tribute. Burnet is a small town, too small for six degrees of separation. People here are closer than that. Goble's father and Holbrook's father were in the same VFW and American Legion chapters; his stepdaughter was Holbrook's classmate.

Goble remembers a quiet young man who loved to fish but who also had bursts of spontaneity — such as the time on a school bus when he suddenly started singing "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am."

"He would just do funny, outrageous things," Goble said.

And yet, he was mature, even as a boy. "He was the kind of kid who even at an early age, he could tell when something needed to be done without someone telling him," Goble said. "Jason was just exceptional."

All those memories sustained Goble as he stood on U.S. Highway 281, watching Holbrook's casket approach in a white hearse. "When I saw his father and mother drive by, that's when I lost it," he said.

Third-generation Marine
That same day, nearly 1,400 miles away in Williamsport, Pa., they said farewell to Lance Cpl. Abram LaRue Howard.

About 1,000 mourners filled St. Joseph the Worker Parish Annunciation Church; another 500 watched on video from a chapel next door as the 21-year-old Marine was eulogized.

Image: Bernard and Helen Yoder Dincher hold a photo of their grandson, Marine Lance Cpl. Abram LaRue Howard
FOURTEENTH IN A SERIES OF 23 PICTURES - In this Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010 picture, Bernard and Helen Yoder Dincher hold a photo of their grandson, Marine Lance Cpl. Abram LaRue Howard, during an interview in Williamsport, Pa. Howard, 21, was serving in Afghanistan on July 27, 2010 when he died of injuries from a roadside bomb blast in Helmand province. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)Mary Altaffer / AP

"He took friends under his wing during their trying times and helped them through their tough situations," said Christopher Bain, a family friend and injured Iraq war vet who read a eulogy written by Joseph Dincher, Howard's uncle. "So many times we heard how Abe was there from the beginning to the end. Never judging a person on the mistakes they made, but helping them through their situation and leading them in a better direction."

Howard was on patrol with Afghan police trainees when he left his vehicle after hearing reports of Taliban activity in the area. He was hit by a roadside bomb, according to family. His father, Bart, had helped his son buy top-of-the-line body armor, but Howard was apparently struck in an unprotected area of the upper torso.

Days before, thousands had paid their respects in a nine-hour viewing at Howard's high school, filing past his open casket on the stage where he'd played bass guitar for the school orchestra not long ago. His battered football helmet and No. 50 jersey were on display, too.

Howard was not just a musician and athlete. He was a hunter, a poet, a Roman Catholic who led his platoon in reading Scripture before and after patrol.

And, just liked his father, uncle and grandfather before him, a Marine.

Soldier 'always dreamed about being in the Army'
In Ohio, yellow ribbons tied around light poles marked the path home for Army Spc. Joseph Bauer.

On a Saturday afternoon, Bauer's widow, Misty, stood in a Cincinnati funeral home next to a display of photos, several featuring her husband in a Cincinnati Bengals jersey; another in a prized Ken Griffey Jr. Reds' jersey in Army camouflage pattern.

Bauer, 27, was deployed to Afghanistan last October. His barracks were decorated with Bengals paraphernalia but it was hard to follow his favorite team as they made their push into NFL playoffs. When he was in remote areas and had limited time to talk, Misty recalled, he'd say two things: "I love you" and "Tell me the Bengals' score!"

Bauer had recently reenlisted. He planned to make the Army his career.

He was part of an extended family that includes five brothers and two sisters, four half-sisters, a half brother, a stepsister and a stepbrother.

"He loved his family," Misty said.

Michael Stansbery was a family man, too, a homebody who liked nothing more than being with his sister and parents.

The third generation to wear a uniform, Stansbery had declared his intentions long ago — in first-grade, to be precise. He'd written a letter that said: "I will be in the Army, I will go to battle and have a bunch of men with me to help. I will go to the ocean and save someone from trouble."

Those words were read at his memorial service.

"Mike ... always dreamed about being in the Army," said family friend John Jankowich, who noted Stansbery had reenlisted after a tour in Iraq, expecting to be redeployed. "He couldn't wait to go. ... He never talked about being afraid. He said he was where he was supposed to be. He didn't sugarcoat things, but he didn't complain."

'He loved the team'
On a recent Sunday, Jankowich joined hundreds in the gym of Wilson Central High School in Lebanon, Tenn. — the place Stansbery had wrestled and practiced drills as a member of the Junior ROTC. They watched a slide show spanning Michael's 21 years, from a photo of him as a baby in his father's arms to one as a young soldier, helmet on, smiling, thumbs up.

Bryan White, his head wrestling coach, remembered a dedicated kid who wasn't the greatest on the mats, but compensated by being a great teammate and fundraiser who gave his all.

"That's why he was one of the best wrestlers I ever had," he said. "He loved the team; he loved belonging to the team."

Sgt. Chris Mauro, who'd worked with Stansbery at Fort Carson, Colo., recalled his ability to juggle the serious, his soldier's duties, with the frivolous, his fascination with anime, or Japanese animation.

"There were times I would go up and do barracks checks to see how he was doing," Mauro said. "He'd be playing 'Final Fantasy' on one TV, watching cartoons on another and had his training manual in his lap. He would do all that at the same time."

From South Africa to the U.S. Marines
Shane Martin liked to joke he was so American he got married on July 4th.

In fact, it was just a coincidence. As was Sept. 11, 2007, the day he was sworn in as a Marine.

Martin, a native of South Africa, became a U.S. citizen in an unforgettable way: a naturalization ceremony at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces during his first tour in Iraq. He was killed on his second deployment, in Afghanistan.

And when he was laid to rest, Marine pallbearers escorted his casket into church while the choir sang "America the Beautiful."

Martin, a 23-year-old lance corporal, had started adult life on a different course. He loved to draw, using charcoal and oils. He was studying web design at the Art Institute of Houston when he shifted to the Marines.

It all made sense.

Martin, who moved to the United States at age 12, was a military history buff with a family legacy of service, said his aunt, Amanda Brock. "It wasn't that he wanted to go to war for war's sake ... but he did believe that, if needed, you were required to protect," she said.

'It's as if he had his own magnetic field'
Martin had recently resumed drawing and had asked that art supplies be mailed to him — though what he really loved were care packages stuffed with Oreos, onion rings, cinnamon buns and other junk food.

At his funeral, nearly 600 mourners at Prince of Peace Catholic Community church in Houston viewed photos of a young man with bright, blond hair and a wide, easy smile — as a boy at Disneyland on his first trip to America, as a groom feeding cake to his bride, Lauren, at their 2008 wedding, as a soldier in Iraq.

Martin was buried with pieces of rock from cherished places — his childhood home in Durban, South Africa; an annual vacation spot, Destin, Fla.; his family ranch and his wife's house in Texas. Each family member also wrote a letter.

His 14-year-old sister, Diane Wallace, spoke of his charisma.

"It's as if he had his own magnetic field — everybody wanted to be around him," she said from the pulpit.

Martin's 23-year-old widow, Lauren, talked of their eternal bond in her eulogy.

"Shane was my greatest love and best friend. He IS my soul mate," she said, her eyes briefly tearing up, "and he was my protector."

Then turning her gaze to the casket, she said:

"I am forever proud to call you my husband and the wife of a U.S. Marine. I am so proud of you. I love you, handsome. Wait for me."

Solemn duty at Dover
Before dawn the following day, soldiers and Marines at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware performed a solemn duty.

In the inky darkness, they carried the latest casualties of the war in Afghanistan down the ramp of a transport plane.

In the first two weeks of August, 12 Americans troops have died.