Dade City pauses in silent salute of Sgt. Mathes

DADE CITY — A hush fell over the city as the body of Sgt. Marcus Mathes was transported through town Tuesday to the National Cemetery in Bushnell.

The Caribbean music usually piped outside by the Tropical Breeze Cafe was silenced. Owner Edna Gonzalez watched the motorcade and wept for the Zephyrhills High graduate killed April 28 in a rocket attack in Baghdad.

Her tears were for a 26-year-old stranger, a man who was inspired to join the Army after he heard a country music song.

"They are just babies," she said. "They're dying for us."

Across the street, about 30 elementary and middle school students from Academy at the Farm charter school stood silently as the hearse crept through downtown. Each morning they sing I'm Proud to Be an American, their school song. On Tuesday, they wore red, white and blue shirts and held signs that said "God bless America," "We love you" and "I'm sorry that soldier died."

Down the road, tourists placed their plastic foam boxes of leftovers on benches and accepted flags passed out by members of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce, who had asked business owners to step outside as the funeral precession passed.

Silent waiters in black aprons put their hands over their hearts, and workers in business attire saluted the body of the second Pasco County soldier killed in Iraq in a month.

Mathes, a driver in the 94th Battle Support Battalion, died almost a month to the day after Spc. P.J. Miller, 23, of New Port Richey perished in a Baghdad explosion.

More than two dozen motorcycles, mostly driven by veterans, flanked Mathes' hearse as it made its way from the Calvary Assembly of God sanctuary to the cemetery. For a few minutes, their purr was the only sound in the city.

The silence followed Mathes' body as more than 100 people traveled in the motorcade up U.S. 301 to Sumter County.

State prisoners in orange vests turned off their weed trimmers in deference to the passing cars.

Oncoming traffic pulled over to the side of the road, except for semitrailers that could not brave the steep grassy shoulder.

In Hernando County, quiet clusters of folks who had heard about the motorcade stood outside businesses and deed-restricted communities with American flags.

One man held a sign that said "all gave some, some gave all."

The flag flew at half-staff over the hushed National Cemetery as mourners grieved for a soldier who loved the Army and would rave to his father about the enemy fire his company's helicopter endured during missions.

The silence finally broke when seven gunners fired their rifles three times into the air and a white-gloved bugler played taps.

In slow and deliberate motions, soldiers folded the flag draped over Mathes' silver casket and presented it to his high school sweetheart, Julia Mathes.

Now 24 and a widow, Mrs. Mathes cried into the flag, her hair covering her face.

Her sister and brother-in-law, Heather and Bryan Harvey, comforted Mrs. Mathes.

Bryan Harvey, a driver in Mathes' battalion, was nearby when the explosion killed his brother-in-law, but he wasn't hurt.

After the blast, he went to pick up pieces of Mathes' Bible.

Harvey, 22, was allowed to leave Iraq to come home for the funeral. He returns next week.

"I can't believe this happened," he said Tuesday.

Harvey met his wife when she came to visit her sister and Mathes on base in Fort Polk, La. There were parties and dinners and a strong bond between the four.

When Harvey and Mathes shipped out to Iraq together in November, they made a vow with the sisters that they would all take care of each other if anything happened.

Harvey held the folded American flag for Mrs. Mathes as she said goodbye to her husband.

Sometimes she can't believe he's gone. Sometimes it's all too real.

One thing has given her peace.

"It's the best feeling in the world knowing he died doing what he loved," she said Tuesday.

She, her sister and Harvey stood by Sgt. Mathes' casket before it was placed near one of the National Cemetery's straight rows of knee-high gray gravestones.

The four posed for a picture one last time.

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (352) 521-6518.

Dade City pauses in silent salute of Sgt. Mathes 05/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 5:05pm]

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