MONROEVILLE, Ohio - More than 1,000 people crowded into the Monroeville High School gymnasium yesterday to pay tribute to a fallen soldier eulogized by his father as "our hero."
Army Pfc. Jason L. Sparks, 19, who received his high school diploma in the same gymnasium 14 months ago, was killed Sept. 8 when his unit came under fire in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a center of resistance to U.S. forces.
Speaking to the hushed crowd in his dark blue Ohio Air National Guard uniform, Scott Sparks saluted his son as a brave soldier who willingly risked his life to help bring freedom to Iraq.
Mr. Sparks, a member of the 179th Airlift Wing who served with that unit in Kuwait last year, said
his son had no illusions about what military service could lead to when he enlisted in the Army seven months ago.
"Jason was well aware of the danger of his chosen profession, and he was determined to do his duty to his country," Mr. Sparks said.
He urged the crowd of family members, friends, military personnel, and students to remember servicemen in Iraq and other overseas deployments.
"He was honorably serving his country, as are so many of our servicemen and women," he said. "He did it right. We should also take time to support our troops all over the world with letters, care packages, and just notes to say thanks. Jason would have wanted it that way. He was our hero."
Finishing his eulogy, Mr. Sparks addressed his family.
"Most of all, I would like to thank my wife, Lisa, and my daughter, Sarah, for making his life so special."
Turning to his son's flag-draped casket, he added in a trembling voice, "Jason, we love you."
Mourners sniffled and stifled sobs as eight Monroeville football players, dressed in their black, gold-numbered jerseys, carried their former teammate's coffin out of the gymnasium.
During the hourlong service, Brig. Gen. Ron Young announced that Private Sparks had been honored with the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge for his service.
Private Sparks enlisted in the Army in February and trained in South Korea and Kuwait with Company C, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, before being deployed to Iraq on Sept. 2, less than a week before his death.
Dick Winslow, commander of American Legion Post 547 in Monroeville, repeated a tribute he read before last week's Monroeville High football game.
"Jason Sparks sacrificed his life recently in Iraq for the cause of freedom," Mr. Winslow said. "Jason rubbed shoulders with us. He was one of us."
After Mr. Winslow spoke, the crowd stood and saluted as the high school band played "The Star Spangled Banner."
The Rev. Wayne Chasney, pastor of Congregational Community United Church of Christ, read the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's Gospel, and then tried to comfort the grieving crowd.
"If you leave here with nothing else today, I want you to leave with hope," he said. "Hope that Jason is in a better place, hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jason's sacrifice deserves no less."
Hundreds of mourners holding American flags and signs honoring Private Sparks lined U.S. 20, the main street through Monroeville, as his funeral procession rolled slowly past on the way to Riverside Cemetery.
There, members of the 179th Airlift Wing draped three U.S. flags over Private Sparks' casket, one at a time, then folded each into a dark blue triangle emblazoned with stars.41.24377 -82.69511
More than 1,000 people crowded into the Monroeville High School gymnasium yesterday to pay tribute to a fallen soldier eulogized by his father as "our hero."