SEFFNER — As they pulled his casket from the hearse, a silver dog tag jangled in the silence.
Paul O. Cuzzupe.
He was 23 years old.
Family and friends of the Plant City Army medic, who died on Aug. 8 after serving just two months in Afghanistan, gathered Saturday morning at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on County Road 579 to say a final goodbye.
About 400 people packed the pews. They sang On Eagles' Wings and Amazing Grace.
His mother, Annette Cuzzupe-Kirk, sat in the front row with Cuzzupe's grandmother, Judy Allard; his brothers, 22-year-old twins David and Anthony; and his 11-year-old sister Alexis as dozens of other family members filed in close behind.
The priest called Cuzzupe a martyr and an American hero. But he was also just Paulie.
"That's who we mourn today," said Father Michael O'Neill. "He is gone from us temporarily, but we are still in touch with him. … He's still with us in spirit."
Cuzzupe, a 2005 graduate of Armwood High School, was an active member of the Seffner church. He led youth group retreats and played in a Christian rock band.
He talked about his devout faith while in Afghanistan and read the Bible all the time, said Lt. Bob Ashley, who read a tribute written by one of the men in Cuzzupe's unit.
"He was always there to help someone in their time of need," Ashley read from the eulogy written by Sgt. Brennen Lagemann. "Paul was a joy to be around."
Lagemann wrote that he was with Cuzzupe when insurgents in Akhtar-Mohammad-Khan attacked with an improvised explosive device.
As Cuzzupe was loaded onto a medical helicopter, Lagemann stayed behind, holding Cuzzupe's helmet. He wrote that as he watched the sun set over the desert, he wondered how so much beauty could exist in the midst of such tragedy.
Just then, two small birds landed near him. "In a way, I think it was Paul's soul coming back to say goodbye," Lagemann wrote.
The Army presented Cuzzupe's family with several posthumous awards, including a Purple Heart.
One of Cuzzupe's cousins, Biagio Stango, 22, said the family hopes others will be inspired by Cuzzupe's bravery.
Cuzzupe's academic adviser from Saint Leo University, where he began studying history and international relations but didn't graduate, told the family that the school would award Cuzzupe a posthumous bachelor's degree.
"He was a great guy," said Marco Rimanelli, noting that the school rarely gives such diplomas.
After the funeral, family and guests followed a procession of military veterans on motorcycles to the Hillsboro Memorial Funeral Home Cemetery in Brandon, which was saturated with American flags.
Hands shot up in salutes as an Army honor guard carried Cuzzupe's casket to a shady back corner of the graveyard.
A lone trumpeter played taps in the drizzling rain, and a flock of doves was freed into the sky.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.