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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2003

Bedford Twp. mourns Marine killed in action; hundreds gather for funeral of adopted son

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TEMPERANCE - Monroe County buried an adopted son yesterday, a 19-year-old Marine whose short life and tragic death in Iraq deeply touched his family and others in this community.

Pvt. Juan Garza, Jr., a troubled Texas teenager who found serenity in Bedford Township, was killed by an Iraqi sniper in Baghdad on April 8.

A Marine for less than a year, the 2002 Summerfield High School graduate's flag-draped coffin was the focal point of a tribute to a young man who had turned his life around.

“Now and forever, he is our hero,” Private Garza's older sister, Vanessa Garza, tearfully told those packed into the Temperance church pay their respects. “For as long as I can remember, he always wanted to be a Marine. Anyone that knew my brother knew what being a Marine meant to him. Juan left us doing what he loved. I love you little brother.”

Moments earlier, Private Garza's wife, Casey, 19, who is an Army soldier, had stood and adjusted the U.S. flag that adorned her husband's casket. She made sure it hung perfectly straight just as the man some called “a Marine's Marine” would have wanted it. The couple had only been married since Dec. 26.

Casey Lamson, 10, left, and Kelsey Lamson, 9, hold a flag as Pvt. Juan Garza's funeral procession passes by on Sterns Road. Casey Lamson, 10, left, and Kelsey Lamson, 9, hold a flag as Pvt. Juan Garza's funeral procession passes by on Sterns Road.
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“We come here this morning to be comforted, to be reassured that, even though we don't understand the mystery of death, God is in control of it,” said the Rev. Rick Flood of the Bedford Christian Community, Assembly of God church.

He recalled the day two years ago when he first met Private Garza - whom Mr. Flood later baptized - on the way to a religious lock-in at Eastern Michigan University.

The future Marine with the ever-present smile, he said, “never lacked confidence, never turned down a challenge. He did things completely and wholeheartedly.”

He began to weep openly as he told the several hundred mourners assembled before him, “I don't stand here only as a pastor performing a ceremony, but as a friend mourning a loved one.”

Mr. Flood showed a videotape, shot nearly a year ago, of an 18-year-old boy - not quite out of high school but adult enough to have chosen his path in life - being baptized. On the tape, Private Garza spoke openly about how God and his friends and family had saved him from a life of drugs and gangs.

Born in San Benito, Texas, Private Garza lived with his aunt, Jodi Bucher, in Temperance for the last five years. She and her husband, Michael, assumed legal guardianship of him after his mother ran into personal problems and his life threatened to spiral out of control.

After graduating from boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina, Private Garza became a member of the 1st Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment.

Yesterday, a contingent of Marines escorted Private Garza's coffin from the church after the hour-long ceremony as representatives from all four branches of the military joined in paying their respects to their fallen comrade.

The funeral processional stretched for miles as Monroe County sheriff's deputies and Michigan State police troopers blocked intersections and dozens of local residents stood at attention in their yards and driveways waving small U.S. flags as the hearse passed by.

Passing motorists pulled over along the narrow two-lane roads, standing next to their vehicles to show their respect. Others held U.S. flags or hand-painted signs, including one outside the Colonial Gardens subdivision that simply said: “Juan, we thank you.”

Outside the Wendy's Restaurant in Lambertville where Private Garza met his wife, a group of employees waved small flags in honor of their former co-worker, who was laid to rest in a corner of Whiteford Union Cemetery, less than a half-mile away.

At the cemetery, hundreds of mourners gathered beside Private Garza's last resting place. Memories of his days as a Bedford Township teenager or a Summerfield High School football player seemed distant as six Marines carried his casket to the grave behind a lone bagpiper playing a funeral dirge.

Local veterans from previous wars carried their own colors and stood at attention as solemn prayers were said over the young man's body.

Three volleys of rifle shots cracked the heavy gray air, followed by a bugler playing Taps.

Private Garza's Purple Heart was then presented to his widow, as was the triangular folded flag she had so meticulously straightened almost three hours before.



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