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In burying son killed in Iraq, pastor’s family looks to God

MASCOTTE, Fla. (BP)–Pastor Felix Ramirez honored his fallen son, a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, in the way he knew best. He officiated at the funeral, led the procession of mourners from a white hearse to a rotunda at the cemetery and then sprinkled soil into an open grave, praying and reciting Scripture.

“If you live your life by faith, then death is nothing to be feared,” Ramirez said at a “Farewell Celebration” Feb. 21. “Yes, I cry out. My wife cries out….

“You people have never seen me cry or my wife cry,” Ramirez paused and looked up from reading his Bible in both Spanish and in English. “We loved Eric so much.”

Specialist Eric Ulysses Ramirez, 31, died instantly Feb. 12 when his patrol was attacked by small-arms fire, a rocket propelled grenade and an improvised explosive device in Abu Ghraib near Baghdad, Iraq.

A longtime member of La Primera Iglesia Bautista de Mascotte, a bilingual Baptist church where his father is pastor, Eric Ramirez joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from Mount Dora (Fla.) High School and was working for the San Diego (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department when he joined the California National Guard in 2000.

After his unit was called up for duty last year, Eric Ramirez sent his wife, Tracy Benson-Ramirez, and daughter, Isis, now nearly 2 years old, to live near relatives in Manitowish Waters, Wis. In December, he was given permission to return briefly stateside for the birth of his son, Chase Eric Charles Ramirez.

Eric Ramirez was to have returned from Iraq in March with the 670th Military Police Company.

Military dignitaries, a congresswoman from Washington, soldiers from various parts of the country and a representative from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department joined the family and others in the tribute to Pastor Ramirez’s firstborn.

In all, more than 200 mourners packed the 190-seat Mascotte church, from which a U.S. flag flew at half-mast, while another crowd of about the same size sat under a white canopy outside to watch the service on two large television sets equipped with extra speakers.

Ramirez’s flag-draped casket sat at the front of the church, flanked by three jumbo-sized photographs of Eric in uniform in Iraq, a photo of him and his family in December and dozens of patriotic flower arrangements. Several family members spoke of Eric’s commitment to God and his love for his family.

“One thing that I will always remember about Eric is how he loved to make Saturday morning visits with his parents for their church,” said Irma Pacheco, an aunt. “Eric grew up and became a great servant, not only for their country, but also for their Lord. I know I’ll see Eric in heaven.”

One of Eric’s many cousins, Javier Kinney, said he will remember to tell Eric’s children what an example the “oldest grandson” had in his life. “Generation after generation — that’s how we will know him and our children several generations down the line. He was a great man. Eric was a man of action.”

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R.-Brooksville, said Eric will be remembered for his service to his country.

“Eric’s bravery is so typical of our young men and women who are serving our country,” Brown-Waite said. “His bravery will never be forgotten.”

Speaking about the responsibility of living in a free nation, Lake County School Board member Jimmy Conner said, “Freedom isn’t free,” glancing down at Eric’s casket.

Turning to Felix Ramirez, Conner also said he had just witnessed one of the most moving times in his life during a congregational hymn, “Because He Lives,” when Felix Ramirez changed the words slightly to “Because He lives, there will be a tomorrow.”

“You bury your son and yet you can keep your eyes on Jesus,” Conner said to Pastor Ramirez. “That is the most awesome testimony and example that I have ever witnessed in my life of faith in Jesus Christ.”

The California man who was Eric’s best man at his Wisconsin wedding, Anthony Puente, said despite his anger at his friend’s death he will long remember the “Star Wars”–themed birthday party Eric threw. “It was funny to see a 27-year-old man at a Star Wars party,” Puente remembered.

Brig. Gen. James Combs, deputy adjutant general for the California National Guard and the man responsible for preparing and deploying soldiers into Iraq and Afghanistan, said Eric was a “great soldier and warrior.”

Like in Star Wars, which exemplifies the classic battle between good and evil, the soldiers in Iraq serve there because “there is an evil in the world,” Combs said. “His way of grappling with that was to strap on his laser sword for America. He was, without question, a Jedi in his own time.”

Telling mourners the war on terrorism is going to be a “long, hard and ugly struggle,” Combs vowed to pray for every soldier he sends into combat. To Eric’s wife, Combs said, “You carry a really heavy burden and you will be in my prayers for the rest of my life.”

Master Sgt. Steve Studebaker, who returned from Iraq four days before Ramirez was killed, said Eric’s “deep commitment to God … and country” sustained his unit there. “He always had that chuckle, just when you needed it most.”

Adel Ramirez, Eric’s 29-year-old brother, had much the same story to tell, but went on to recount that he constantly jockeyed with his brother for the family’s attention while they were growing up.

“Eric was the Fonz on ‘Happy Days,’ while I was Chachi,” he said. “I always played tricks on him. He just smiled at me.”

Adel Ramirez said he received two phone calls on Feb. 14 with important news. One was from his own wife, telling him that after 18 months of complications, she was pregnant with twins. The other call told him he needed to go be with his mother.

“She had lost her son, my brother, in combat,” Adel said. “I went from one extreme to another.”

Telling of the family’s anguish and suffering, Adel said some are angry at God because of Eric’s death.

“God wasn’t the one that killed Eric. God didn’t help the terrorists make that bomb that killed my brother. War killed my brother,” Adel said. “I do know God is not a murderer. God is not evil. God is not the reason Eric was taken from me, from us. What God did was He welcomed my brother into heaven.”

Adel Ramirez’s other sibling, Xochil Elmore, presented a multi-media show of her brother’s life. As it played, Eric and Tracy’s nearly 2-year-old daughter, Isis, repeatedly pointed her finger at the screen exclaiming, “Daddy, that’s Daddy!”

Delivering an evangelistic and impassioned sermon on finding meaning in life through focusing on God and restoring earthly relationships, Pastor Ramirez concluded the more than two-hour funeral service with a short invitation.

After the ceremony, nearly 100 cars marked with small American flags lined up for the 26-mile trip to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell where more than 60,000 veterans are buried.

Pastor Ramirez led the short procession with the casket from the hearse to the flower-draped rotunda, while Eric’s wife was followed by other family and friends behind the casket.

A 21-gun salute and taps by soldiers from Hunter Army Air Base near Savannah, Ga., were followed by a presentation of the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the U.S. flag, a California flag pin and a coin representing the military police company Ramirez served.

Pastor Ramirez and Tracy Benson-Ramirez each were presented with the Gold Star. In addition, Tracy also accepted one each for her daughter and for her son, to be presented to them when they are able to appreciate their father’s sacrifice.

Following the tribute at the rotunda, there was a short procession across the street where Eric Ramirez’s body would be laid to rest. More than a hundred mourners clung to each other as they traversed the slight incline to the gravesite. Reading Scripture and encouraging those assembled to place roses on the casket, Felix Ramirez stood soberly apart from the rest of the family, as he had done the entire day, leading in worship, even now.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he recited, in both English and in Spanish, scattering soil on the top of the casket, which cemetery workers only moments before had lowered into the ground. “Gloria de Dios.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles : PASTOR & PROCESSION, FLOWERS FOR A SOLDIER, A FLAG IN REMEMBRANCE and GRAVESIDE GRIEF.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan