In Westwood, a hometown turns out for fallen Marine
Thursday, January 21, 2010
By MIKE KELLY
With the mournful hum of dozens of bagpipes, the gentle flapping of hundreds of flags and the indelible silence of thousands of residents lining its streets, Westwood welcomed home a local boy Thursday who gave his life in a faraway war.
Marine Sgt. Christopher Hrbek, 25, was killed a week ago in the hills of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province after stepping on a booby-trapped bomb.
His wake is scheduled for Friday afternoon at the Zion Lutheran Church, and his funeral will be held on Saturday at the church. But in the fading afternoon sunlight on Thursday, Westwood honored Hrbek with a solemn procession.
Funerals are not just moments of sadness. For some towns, they are moments of proud unity, too. In Westwood on Thursday, that mix of unmitigated sadness and unity were on full display.
Hrbek deployed with his Marine unit to Afghanistan in November. Before that, he served three combat tours with the Marines in Iraq.
And only weeks earlier in Afghanistan, he dashed through enemy gunfire to save the life of another Marine who had stepped on a similar bomb – an act for which the Marines had nominated Hrbek for a Bronze Star medal for valor.
But on Thursday, the Central Bergen County town that Hrbek called home before enlisting in the Marines came to a standstill.
“You hear about this kind of thing everyday in the news, but it doesn’t really touch home until it’s someone from home,” said Brian Schumeyer, 32 of Emerson, who grew up in Westwood and took the day off work.
With a color guard of Westwood firefighters marching in front and followed by five Marines from his former unit who had driven all night from North Carolina, a hearse bearing Hrbek’s flag-draped coffin rolled slowly past his high school and elementary school – and hundreds of students lining the sidewalk and holding small flags.
“What an extraordinary day,” said Hrbek’s father, Richard, who rode in the procession. “He knew so many people, but the thing that struck me was all the young children.”
Some people clapped softly. Others dabbed their eyes with tissues. Many just placed their right hand over their heart and silently mouthed “thank you” to Hrbek’s wife, Jamie Lynn Wengerter, and other relatives riding in a convoy of SUVs and cars.
There were senior citizens and young men in camouflage National Guard uniforms. There were painters who laid down their brushes and hair stylists who set aside their scissors, joggers in bright jackets and business women in long wool coats.
Police estimated the overall crowd at more than 5,000.
“Our family loved Chris very much,” said Hrbek’s mother-in-law, Ramona Wengerter of Emerson. “The whole community is turning out. It’s very honorable. The Marines are very honorable. The police and firemen are very proud of him. It’s wonderful how they are welcoming him home.”
Indeed, among many firefighters, Hrbek was seen as something of a younger brother, in part because he joined Westwood’s volunteer department when he was only 16.
Hrbek’s stepfather, Jaymee Hodges, is still senior captain of Westwood’s department. Hrbek’s two stepbrothers, Jim and Beau Hodges, are New York City firefighters.
“It’s a close knit department,” said retired Westwood firefighter Nick Ariemma. “The fire department is like a piece of the heart of the town.”
Several of Hrbek’s fellow Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, echoed similar feelings.
“Once you’re together, it’s like a family,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Jose Galvan, who served with Hrbek in Iraq. “He was always looking out for his brother Marines.”
With pipers striking up a rendition of the Marine Corps hymn at the town’s center, the procession passed under a giant American flag that hung between ladder trucks from the Emerson and Woodcliff Lake fire departments. Then, the marchers turned on to Westwood’s main business district, where fire fighters from dozens of neighboring towns and New York City stood shoulder-to-shoulder, each one holding an American flag.
Behind the fire fighters – some in rows three deep – stood thousands of ordinary people. On other streets, hundreds more waited.
“We felt it was important to be here,” said Peter Kramer, as he stood by the Ketler Elementary School with three of his children. “How else do you get to say farewell to a hometown hero who gave his life so we could stand here and do this?”
A few hundred yards away, Chris Rolfs, a local stone mason, waved an American flag.
“This is about our country,” he said.
On another block, Susan Kalman of Paramus held a hand-lettered sign that proclaimed, “Thank you Dirty Squirrel” – a reference to Hrbek’s Facebook nickname.
For Kalman, however, the procession struck a far more personal chord. Her oldest son recently enlisted in the Marines and is due to complete basic training.
“This hits home,” Kalman said as Hrbek’s hearse went by. “My son could be overseas next month. But for the grace of God, this could be us.”
The procession ended at the Becker Funeral home, with Hrbek’s Marine buddies standing at attention in the driveway and many relatives wiping away tears.
But as six Westwood firefighters lifted Hrbek’s coffin from the hearse and a group of Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian and Roman Catholic clergy watched, there was one last salute – from more than 40 bagpipers from police and fire departments from across northern New Jersey.
As Hrbek’s coffin was carried up the steps of the funeral home, the pipers struck up “Amazing Grace.”