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Falwell leads funeral of Liberty grad killed in Iraq

LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Jerry Falwell doesn’t ordinarily conduct funerals in Vermont in the middle of winter, but it’s not every day that one of his university alumni dies as a hero in Iraq.

Marine Sgt. Jesse Strong, 24, who graduated from Liberty University in 2003, was killed in action by hostile fire on Jan. 26. Strong and three other soldiers from the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion from Vermont died when their Hummer was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Campus officials say he is the first Liberty student to die in battle.

“He was very outgoing, gregarious and happy. He was a very committed student leader,” Falwell said. “He made lots of friends and though he had graduated a year earlier, when he was killed there was a huge response here on the campus from the students and the faculty.”

Strong, the son of a Methodist pastor, was a well-liked prayer and spiritual life leader while at the Lynchburg, Va., campus. He had attended one semester of seminary in Charlotte before his reservist group received word that they were to report to active duty in September 2004.

Liberty students described Strong as a man of faith who always had a smile and would go out of his way to help others, living his faith in everyday life and sharing it with others.

While in Iraq, he corresponded with a fifth-grade class from his Vermont hometown. One letter stuck out more than the rest. “I am bulletproof until the Lord calls me home to be with Him,” Strong wrote. His funeral was held Feb. 4.

Falwell said Strong’s father, Nathan, called and asked him to officiate at the funeral, which was held in Albany, Vermont, a small town of about 1,200 people. More than 1,000 people packed the local high school to pay their respects to the fallen soldier. Local and state dignitaries, including Vermont’s governor, attended the service at Lake Region Union High School.

The two-hour funeral included salutes by fellow soldiers and eulogies from Strong’s friends and family. He is survived by his father and mother, Nathan and Vicky Strong, and 26-year-old brother Matthew and 22-year-old sister Heather.

“No human being can answer the question why, although I do not believe it is wrong for a family to ask that question. We’re human beings,” Falwell said.

Even though the death of Strong and countless other soldiers is hard to understand, Falwell said he supports President Bush in the war on Iraq. Although war is difficult, he said, it is sometimes necessary.

Falwell said he has immense respect for soldiers who are willing to lay their lives on the line for the freedom of others — and he has high regard for the families of the brave men and women in the armed forces. It is a supreme sacrifice, he said, and should not go unnoticed.

“We Americans owe more to the soldiers than we owe to the preachers or the teachers or the media or anyone, because the military — over a 200-year period — has provided and guaranteed for us all the freedoms we enjoy,” he said.

During the funeral, Falwell quoted an appropriate prose from 19th-century English preacher Charles Spurgeon: “God is too good to be unkind; He is too wise to be mistaken, and when you can not trace His hand, you can always trust His heart.”

“God makes no mistakes,” Falwell added. “But we will be in heaven before we understand it all.”

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  • Jackie Watson