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God's soldier

They talked about a boy whose middle name was Christian, who once drove to a small Alabama town with a youth group to help reopen a church. He slept on a blowup mattress in the sanctuary at night and went door to door by day, inviting neighbors to a gospel meeting.

He shelled beans for hours with one family and persuaded all six to come. They got saved that night.

"Bryan Christian Luckey," said the Rev. Bruce E. Turner. "Christian by family namesake, and Christian by his faith in the Lord."

Army Sgt. Luckey, 25, was killed by a sniper in Iraq on June 29. His funeral Tuesday was a mix of Christian faith and patriotism.

Seventy-five Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle-riding, leather-vest-clad group of mostly veterans, held American flags as a welcome. The West Gate Baptist Church's private school gymnasium housed the service.

An American flag, large enough to cover a roof, stretched along a wall behind a white pulpit bearing a cross.

Luckey's wife, Catherine, nearly five months pregnant with a son named after his father, sat before her husband's flag-draped coffin. Luckey's father, Patrick, a seat away, put his right hand on the shoulder of his son Matthew Christian Luckey when Hymn No. 429 was called.

Marine Sgt. Matthew Luckey, 23, expects to begin his second Iraq tour in September.

Onward Christian Soldiers was the song.

The Rev. Daniel Wade, Luckey's childhood pastor, dabbed tears while he spoke of the Luckey boy who wore a tie to school and carried a Bible with him.

Wade pulled out an old poem Luckey wrote as a child.

"I don't know how long I have to live," went one verse. "But Lord as long as I do, let me give."

Luckey asked friends to pray for his Army unit's spiritual and physical salvation in Iraq, said Neal Greenwood, a friend.

" 'Do you think that I can reach out to the Iraqi people?' " Greenwood said Luckey asked him.

Luckey aspired to be a Baptist preacher. He graduated from Emmanuel Christian Academy and attended Hyles-Anderson College, a Baptist school, for a year.

But like many soldiers, Sept. 11 was a call to duty, pulling Luckey into the Army, his friends said.

His unit held a memorial service for him in Iraq on July 4. A video collage it e-mailed home flashed pictures of Luckey set to gospel music. There he was in his desert fatigues. There he was holding a rifle on a motorcycle. There he was looking out a blown-out building.

"Bryan was a great soldier," said Brig. Gen. Michael Fleming, who handed the Bronze Star to Luckey's widow. "He gave the ultimate sacrifice during combat operations."

He compared Luckey to the biblical prophet Isaiah, who answered the Lord's call to service by saying "Here I am; send me."

"When the nation called," Fleming said, "Bryan said, 'Here I am. Send me.' "

As the service closed, the Rev. Turner asked mourners to accept Christ. "Thank you so very much," he told those he saw. "Thank you."

Then he and the Rev. Wade led six members of the National Guard honors team, who pulled the casket up the aisle all the way to a hearse.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

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