Bergen County town honors Marine killed in Afghanistan with display of flags
By Mark DiIonno - Courtesy of NJ.Com - January 21, 2010
WESTWOOD, New Jersey -- When Sergeant Christopher Hrbek came home today, the people of Westwood stood up for him.
The 25-year-old Marine was killed on January 14, 2010, in Afghanistan, and his town wanted to give him a hero’s return.
Everyone was asked to display flags on their property, or stand with a flag to honor Hrbek has his body was brought home from Dover Air Force base in Delaware this weekend’s funeral.
By this morning, flags were everywhere. On every home and lawn, in every store. Half-staff at the schools and the post office. A giant flag was draped over main street, billowing in the fresh January air.
There was John Misha was putting up flags along the “bare spots” on the route with his helper Juan Tamayo. Misha, a retired fireman who worked at Ground Zero, said he knew “the kid” and his family.
“His stepfather and I grew up here in Westwood. We’re Westwood boys.” He carefully climbed a ladder, trembling with cold and grief, to put a flag up on a phone pole.
At LN Grande 5 & 10, the flag display was front and center, as always. Ida Aboulsaoud was there, buying one to hang in her bagel store. By midday, Korean nail salons and Chinese restaurants all had flags in their windows. Local landscapers draped flags from high-atop their cherry pickers.
And so a few thousand people lined the procession route. Hrbek was a Westwood fire volunteer, and firemen came from about 30 towns in their dress blues to honor him. Old veterans came in their organization jackets and caps. There were soldiers, sailors and Marines. Women walked through the crowds, handing out flags. Mothers came with children, some in strollers. People put Stars & Stripes bandannas on their dogs.
“This is what Westwood does,” said Skip Kelly, a former mayor.
It was a Fourth of July parade, but without noise. The fire engine sirens did not scream, the crowd did not cheer. There were no brass marching bands, only the solemn strains of the bag pipes, the lonely rolls of the snare drums and slow heartbeat of the bass.
In the downtown, the stores emptied as the procession passed. People saluted, or put their hands over their hearts as the black hearse with the flag-draped casket went by. Men were stoned-faced behind sunglasses. The women who came out of the hair salons wept. Somehow, the babies knew to be quiet.
Chris Hrbek was a Westwood boy. His stepfather, Jaymee Hodges, was fire chief and is now a captain. His step-brothers were members, too. Chris started at 16, in the cadet program.
Monte Lucious, himself from a family of Marines and Westwood firefighters, put up a sign on the funeral home lawn today thanking Hrbek for his service.
“This is Mayberry here, man,” said Lucious. “Everybody knows everybody. He was good kid, from stand-up people.”
He went away as Chris Hrbek, a hometown boy, off to the Mideast war with good wishes and grave concerns.
He came back as U.S. Marine Sergeant Christopher Hrbek, a three-tour veteran of Iraq and a casualty of Afghanistan, brought home in a red, white and blue hero’s procession.
In mid-procession, Hrbek’s hearse passed Veteran’s Memorial Park in the town center, where there is a monument to all the Westwood war dead.
Three Westwood boys died in World War I. Twenty-nine died in WW II, back when Westwood only had a population of 6,100. Korea and Vietnam each claimed one. All those names, engraved in the town’s war dead stone. And now they welcome Christopher Hrbek, whose name will be etched and unveiled in a ceremony on Memorial Day. He is home.