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Fallen soldier was S. Baptist who gave his life for Iraqis

EXETER, Calif. (BP)–On a sunny day in early June the small Central California town of Exeter looked as though it were decorated for a patriotic celebration. And in a way it was. The community of 9,500 was celebrating the life of one of its favorite sons, a young California Southern Baptist minister killed in the line of duty in Iraq.

Spc. Daniel P. Unger, 19, son of Marc and Lynda Unger, was memorialized and buried June 4, a week-and-a-half after being mortally wounded by shrapnel while protecting Iraqi citizens at his base just south of Baghdad.

Marc Unger is pastor of Exeter Baptist Church. Daniel was a licensed minister.

During the funeral several speakers paid tribute to Daniel, who was part of the 1st Battalion, 185th Armored Regiment, 81st Separate Armor Brigade, Alpha Company of the California National Guard.

Almost filling the home section of Monarch Stadium early that Friday morning, about 2,500 people remembered Daniel as a student, an athlete, a minister, a friend, a brother, a son and a soldier. But more than anything else, Daniel Unger was remembered as a Christian who wanted everyone to know his Savior, Jesus Christ, personally.

Jack Gallagher, pastor of Prosperity Avenue Baptist Church in Tulare, Calif., alluded to Daniel’s collection of Superman memorabilia and said he often wore a Superman shirt. “Daniel was a super person, had a super faith, had a super Savior and had a super gift of eternal life. He was a super man for the Lord. He was an example to all of us.”

Ron Climer, a California Southern Baptist Convention missionary and senior chaplain for the Fresno County Probation Department’s juvenile division, worked with Daniel on several occasions in prison ministry and said he “never saw anything but good from people.” Climer used the words, “honor, integrity, love and honesty” to describe Daniel’s character.

“God, family and country topped the list of those things most important to him,” Climer added. “Grief is the price we pay for loving. Today our grief is great, but only because our love was great. Our tears are for Daniel’s family, loved ones and for you and me. These are not tears for Daniel because he has gone to a place I’m looking forward to going.”

Trista Mayoral read a letter from her husband, Capt. Stephen T. Mayoral of the United States Army and Daniel’s commanding officer.

The letter recounted how the base came under attack in the middle of the afternoon May 25. It stated that soldiers took cover as the first rounds of mortar shells exploded. After the initial volley, soldiers headed for the safety of several bunkers.

But Daniel first thought of the safety of the Iraqi civilians working on the base he was assigned to protect that day. Not fully understanding what was happening, the Iraqis hesitated as the mortar shells landed. Daniel ran toward them and guided them to a bunker for safety. But before he could make it inside the bunker, shrapnel from a mortar round hit him.

The commanding officer wrote that Daniel was “everything that a commander wants in a soldier. … He was a proud and professional soldier. I will never forget your son and he will be part of my life forever.”

Daniel’s father officiated during his son’s service. Leaving his wife, children and other family members in the bleachers, Marc slowly passed his son’s flag-draped casket, touched it gently and made his way to the platform to deliver an evangelistic sermon.

Marc explained that no one took Daniel’s life. “He gave his life. He willingly gave his life so that someone else could live.”

Dressed in a suit and a camouflage baseball cap with a U.S. Army insignia on the front, Marc praised God for Daniel and thanked the military for the opportunity to let Daniel serve his country.

“It’s the soldier, not the preacher, who gives us freedom of religion,” he said. “It’s the soldier, not the reporter, that gives us freedom of the press. It’s the soldier, not the poet, who gives us freedom of speech. It’s the soldier, not a campus organization, that gives us the freedom to assemble. It’s the soldier, not the lawyer, that gives us the right to a fair trial. It’s the soldier, not the politician, who gives us the right to vote.

“It’s the soldier who keeps us free,” Marc said.

Marc said Daniel admired his grandfather, Murray Unger, who received a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement in battle while serving under Gen. George Patton in World War II. “[Daniel] thought it would be great if he could ever achieve such an honor,” Marc said.

He did. Daniel was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals.

At 17 Daniel asked his parents for permission to join the military. Marc told the crowd that he and his wife prayed about the request and decided to sign a release form so Daniel could join the California National Guard.

“I believed then and I believe now that God called Daniel Unger into military service. … I believe God had a plan for my son.”

At the end of the service Marc asked those attending who were not Christians to pray to receive Jesus. He said that is what Daniel would have wanted.

After the funeral service, Daniel was laid to rest with full military honors at Exeter District Cemetery. The graveside service included a 21-gun salute, taps and the presentation of the flag to his family. It was a service befitting a fallen hero.

A week later Daniel’s parents admitted their son’s death is taking its toll on them physically, emotionally and spiritually. Battling sleep deprivation, both Marc and Lynda believe the tears they shed are part of their grieving process that will help heal their broken hearts.

“Our tears are healing tears,” Marc said. “I know the Lord uses tears to heal and that they are an outward expression for deep-felt emotions. We spend a lot of time crying and a lot of time praying.

“As I’ve gone through this, I’ve discovered the deeper my sorrow and my needs are, the greater God’s grace seems to be to pull us through,” he said. “Each day I pray that He will get us through this. He is right there and it is exceedingly and abundantly more than anything we could ever expect from Him.”

Lynda said the thing that has helped her most is “knowing the Lord. I can’t imagine going through this as a lost person. I don’t know how people do it.”

Both agreed the support of family, friends, the Christian community, the Visalia and Exeter communities, and the military family has been overwhelming. During the first two days, the Ungers said they received more than 400 phone calls, many from people they don’t even know. Marc said a woman whose son was killed in Afghanistan a year ago called and talked to Lynda for more than an hour.

They also have received hundreds of cards and letters.

“This whole thing has caused me to be more compassionate, loving and concerned about people,” Marc said. “It is one thing to know how to minister to those in grief because of what the Bible says, but it is a whole different thing to walk in the valley of the shadow of death yourself. It gives you a whole different perspective on things, and I’ll never be the same.”

In reflecting on their son, Marc said, “He was the best. As a pastor, I deal with different father/son relationships all the time. Some are good. Some are bad. And some don’t exist. Daniel and I had a relationship that was very special.”

He spoke of their mutual love of karate. Marc, an instructor, is a sixth-degree black belt while Daniel had achieved the fourth-degree black belt. He also recounted how they worked together in “Champions for Life,” a prison ministry of the Bill Glass Evangelistic Association. Marc even helped Daniel with sermon preparation after he became a licensed minister just before turning 16.

With a tear running down her cheek and a slight smile on her face, the mother of the fallen soldier said, “He was a little mischievous and very playful. He liked to make people laugh.”

After being home-schooled through eighth grade Daniel convinced his parents to let him attend public school. He told them, “If I am supposed to share my faith, I need to go where the people are.”

Though it can be difficult to remain strong in one’s faith in the military, Lynda said Marc “encouraged Daniel to stay in the Word. When he got to Kuwait, he began to really buckle down and go back to being faithful in God’s Word. The other soldiers saw that he was different and respected him for that.”

“I had to ask God the question: ‘If Daniel was having such an impact on so many people’s lives, why didn’t He just let him live?’ Why didn’t God just let him live and come back and pick up where he left off and do what he was doing?” Lynda asked.

“But, I can say that God’s timetable is different than ours. God’s plans are different than ours, and I have to think that through every day.”

Lynda said she is not angry with God. “I’m just trying to understand it.”

Marc said he believes God is “using Daniel’s life and heroic death as a platform from which the Gospel of Jesus Christ can go forth. Already,” he said, “many have been saved.”

A water tank amid orange groves that line the highway leading into Exeter was being painted the morning of Daniel’s funeral. When finished, it read: “In Memory of Pfc. Daniel P. Unger, March 21, 1985-May 25, 2004, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13.'”

Lynda said it has helped knowing Daniel “died a hero because saving someone’s life is never senseless.”

Daniel is survived by his parents; brothers Marc Lawrence II, 32, of Downingtown, Pa., and David, 17; and sisters Elizabeth May, 13, and Anna Leigh, 11.
Used by permission from the California Southern Baptist

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  • Terry Barone