Police vehicles with flashing lights, motorcyclists in leather
wearing military pins, and people in cars waving small and large
flags headed down First Street Thursday afternoon in somber silence
as part of the funeral procession for Staff Sgt. David H.
Police vehicles with flashing lights, motorcyclists in leather wearing military pins, and people in cars waving small and large flags headed down First Street Thursday afternoon in somber silence as part of the funeral procession for Staff Sgt. David H. Gutierrez. Hundreds of people also stood along the street, some quietly holding banners and waving flags, to pay tribute.
“I just came down to show my respect to another warrior,” said San Lorenzo resident Jim Epperson, who donned a black leather jacket with military pins and a black cap. San Lorenzo is near Hayward, about 60 miles from Gilroy, and Epperson said he regularly travels to funerals for other soldiers.
More than 200 residents, including St. Mary School students, lined the street near St. Mary Church, where a funeral Mass was held for Gutierrez. Hundreds more locals lined up across from Gabilan Hills Memorial Park and on other areas along First Street to pay their respects. Gutierrez was killed in Afghanistan Dec. 25 by an improvised explosive device while on patrol.
While some people said they knew Gutierrez’s family, others said they were merely veterans or patriots who wanted to show their support.
Epperson was joined by Gilroy resident Jose Heredia, a fellow member of the First Cavalry Division Association, who said he went to school with Gutierrez’s family.
Heredia, a Vietnam veteran, said he wanted to ensure that what happened to the soldiers of his generation did not happen to fallen soldiers today.
Many returning Vietnam veterans were greeted by protesters rather than by supporters, said Dennis Panak, ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders. The group aims to prevent that from happening nowadays, seeking to honor soldiers throughout the nation, serving as escorts in funeral processions and for soldiers who have returned from war.
Panak and more than 50 other members of the Patriot Guard Riders, including some Gilroyans, showed their solidarity by wearing black leather jackets with badges and pins that displayed patriotic statements or memorabilia from military service.
Like many of the Patriot Guard Riders, Fremont resident Dianne Layfield traveled more than an hour to honor Gutierrez. Layfield’s son, Lance Cpl. Travis Layfield, was killed in an ambush in Iraq in 2004. Dianne Layfield has attended about 20 funerals of fallen soldiers since then. An airbrushed picture of her son was emblazoned on the back of her jean jacket, and she waved a flag that proclaimed “Honor and Remember.”
She often leaves her business card with families, and many people contact her after funerals so they can share their stories, she said.
Among those outside the church included St. Mary School students, who waved flags and held up red, white and blue banners.
Principal Christa Hanson said students had prayed for Gutierrez’s family during an assembly all week, and they also prayed for other soldiers.
Olivia Zertuche, an eighth grader at St. Mary School, said Gutierrez was a fellow parishioner, and she believed it was important to honor him and what he did for America.
“If he can risk his life for us, then we can take an hour out of our day to honor him,” Zertuche said.
Several students from Brownell Academy Middle School lined up along the school’s back fence. One boy, standing next to a teacher, gripped an American flag that stood at least a foot above his head. Still more students stood behind the fence, their fingers slipped through the chain links, hanging their heads.
Gilroy resident Mark Zappa, who is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, said small towns like Gilroy tend to be supportive of soldiers.
“This city is always family-oriented and it’s very patriotic,” he said.
Even those who did not intend to go to the procession were affected by the ceremony. Gilroyan Mary Schiltz happened to be in the area when she noticed an enormous American flag hanging from fire truck ladders outside Gabilan Hills Memorial Park
“It’s just beautiful,” she said.