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Hundreds says goodbye as Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman is laid to rest at Florida National Cemetery

BUSHNELL — As the doors of the hearse opened, revealing the flag-draped casket, a warm August wind caused the American flags at Florida National Cemetery to stand at attention.

A bagpiper heralded the arrival with Amazing Grace, and military pallbearers wheeled Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman's casket along the crushed seashell sidewalk, the family trailing behind.

More than 200 mourners placed hands to hearts or stiff salutes to sweaty brows.

A prayer. Three volleys. Taps. And a folded flag for Spc. Coleman's young widow, his mother and his father.

Spc. Coleman, a 21-year-old from Hernando Beach, died in a firefight with insurgents July 24 in a remote, mountainous region of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.

His 10th Mountain Division infantry unit, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., was conducting security checks in the area when it came under intense fire.

Spc. Coleman told his father, a week before his death, that his unit's mission involved searching for the missing Army soldier captured by the Taliban. The military would not confirm the story.

In a brief memorial service Monday morning at Downing Funeral Home in Spring Hill, a standing-room-only crowd remembered Spc. Coleman as a teacher, a hard worker, a rival, a best friend, a hero and a brother.

A friend read a letter written by Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Alex M. Murphy, who recalled how he and Coleman trained during their senior year in high school before leaving for boot camp.

"It was always an adventure with Justin," Murphy wrote from Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he is stationed. "Sometimes I wish I could have been there with Justin in Afghanistan."

Spc. Coleman enlisted in June 2007, shortly after graduating from Nature Coast Technical High School, largely against his family's wishes, and deployed to Afghanistan in January.

His service ended with a streaming procession to the cemetery midday Monday, led by 113 motorcycles, most of them with the Patriot Guard Riders.

The procession traveled slowly through the heart of Hernando County, along U.S. 19 and State Road 50, blocking intersections for more than six minutes at a time.

"My heart goes out to the family," said Marie Huxley of Spring Hill, one of dozens who stood along the route, waving American flags or holding homemade "Thank You" signs.

At the cemetery just off Interstate 75 in Sumter County, military officials said comforting words to Spc. Coleman's family as they handed them the triangulated flags.

His widow, Nicole, 22, began to sob softly.

The mourners did the same.

At the grave site, Nicole Coleman touched the new headstone, her husband's dog tags dangling from her right wrist. The inscription read, in all capital letters, "Gone but not forgotten."

Spc. Coleman's body was laid to rest five paces from Army Pfc. Cody Clark Grater of Spring Hill, who died in Iraq almost exactly a year earlier.

Pfc. Grater's father, Larry Decker, helped lead the procession to the cemetery.

The two didn't know each other, he said, but now they do.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Hundreds says goodbye as Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman is laid to rest at Florida National Cemetery 08/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 4, 2009 8:42am]

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