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Procession honors fallen Tampa soldier killed in Afghanistan

TAMPA — Army Staff Sgt. Ricardo Seija, with his zest for life and deep laugh, always knew how to cheer up his older brother.

As rain poured down with fury, that older brother, Yunis Seija, 36, and the rest of his family gathered Tuesday at a funeral home to honor the man they loved.

"I want to live just like him," Yunis Seija said. "He taught me many lessons: honor, devotion, love for his country. He lived life to the fullest and had a very sweet heart."

Staff Sgt. Seija, whose parents live in West Tampa, was killed July 8 in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb in the same attack that also killed Army Spc. Clarence Williams III, 23, of Brooksville, and four other Americans.

The Seija family emigrated from Colombia to Chicago, then settled in Tampa. The three Seija brothers wrestled, and Ricardo Seija joined the Leto High School wrestling team.

The family battled grief as they watched his body arrive at MacDill Air Force Base around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

His wife, Sunny, draped her body over his casket while his 8-year-old son from a previous marriage, also named Ricardo, watched.

Seija's body was escorted by deputies onto Bayshore Boulevard in a procession that would end at Gonzalez Funeral Home on N Dale Mabry Highway for a private service.

Flags in hand, onlookers lined the motorcade route. Some placed hands over hearts, others stood at attention.

"It's so heartbreaking," said Hillsborough County government worker Debbie McGee, 52, tears welling in her eyes. "I almost didn't come because I didn't want the whole city to see me cry."

Several downtown Tampa offices emailed employees, alerting them to the procession.

"This young man gave his life for this country; it's very important to be here," said Debi Ryan, 57, of the Banker Lopez Gassler law firm. "I know if I was the momma riding in that car it would mean so much to me seeing all these people paying their respects."

Rachel Bernaby, 58, knows what it's like to be that mother.

She remembers riding in a similar procession, looking out at the strangers who lined the roads, waving flags and wiping away tears for a Marine they had never met.

Her son, Cpl. Jonathan Porto, 26, of Pinellas County, was killed 2 1/2 years ago when his vehicle flipped in an accident in Helmand Province.

"I was overwhelmed by everyone," Bernaby said. "Just seeing everyone, complete strangers, come out and show their support. It was incredible."

Bernaby said she tries to come to as many processions as she can. The mother held two flags — one large and one small — as the procession drove on Bayshore Boulevard.

She hoped Seija's family would find some peace from the outpouring of support.

Veterans saluted as nearly 20 police motorcycles led the way, followed by the hearse.

A long line of sedans and sport utility vehicles filled with men in suits and women wearing black dresses was close behind.

The Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club that backs veterans' causes and attends military funerals, picked up the rear.

Women dabbed at their eyes as one man held out a peace sign. Karen Brooks said a prayer for Seija as her two sons, Jaxon and Zachary Brown, 13 and 11, respectively, watched the hearse go by. It was the first procession they'd seen.

In front of Tampa City Center, several officers lined up alongside police Chief Jane Castor, who sent a message to the department encouraging officers to pay their respects.

By order of Gov. Rick Scott, national and state flags were flown at half staff in Hillsborough County and Tallahassee.

Many in the crowd said they came out because they, too, have family members in the military.

"My son's in the Navy," said Brenda Tyler, 43, who works for the clerk of courts office. "Seeing this makes me pray even harder for him. And for everyone."

Yunis Seija later expressed his gratitude for the procession and for those who lined the route.

"I'm in awe," he said. "From little boys holding the flag to the elderly. They took a moment of their life to give respect to my brother."

Onlookers pay respects as the body of Staff Sgt. Ricardo Seija is escorted from MacDill Air Force Base through Tampa to a funeral home. See more photos at links.tampabay.com.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Onlookers pay respects as the body of Staff Sgt. Ricardo Seija is escorted from MacDill Air Force Base through Tampa to a funeral home. See more photos at links.tampabay.com.

Procession honors fallen Tampa soldier killed in Afghanistan 07/17/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 18, 2012 1:14am]
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