Remembering a hero

A flag hangs from two fire truck ladders as the procession heads

With a wide smile resembling his fallen father’s, 4-year-old
Gabriel Gutierrez accepted a crisply folded American flag presented
to him in memory of Staff Sgt. David H. Gutierrez.
With a wide smile resembling his fallen father’s, 4-year-old Gabriel Gutierrez accepted a crisply folded American flag presented to him in memory of Staff Sgt. David H. Gutierrez. Bundled up against the cool afternoon air, the boy’s tiny face lit up as he hugged the triangle of fabric to his chest.

Too young to fully understand why hundreds of people were gathered around him and his family at the Gavilan Hills Memorial Park in north Gilroy, the toddler fidgeted in his seat. A few years older, his two brothers pressed their faces into the sleeves of their mother’s tan overcoat as they watched their father’s friends and fellow soldiers place eight pairs of white gloves on the gleaming silver casket.

David Gutierrez, 35, was buried with formal military honors Thursday afternoon under a sky streaked with wispy gray clouds. Hundreds of friends, family members and local residents packed into the St. Mary Church prior to the graveside ceremony. Before the Mass, a crowd of people waving small flags gathered outside and Gilroy’s Veterans of Foreign Wars lined up on the church steps, rifles in hand. Veterans came to attention and many women placed their flags over their hearts as the processional climbed the steps.

Wearing Hawaiian shirts in honor of the five years their father was stationed in the Schofield Barracks in Wahiawa, Hawaii, Gutierrez’s sons trailed behind their father’s casket. Gutierrez’s wife, Patty, wore a flowered Hawaiian dress under her coat and tucked a yellow orchid into her dark hair. Eight pall bearers, some of whom wore full military attire, others who clenched their jaws and fought back tears, carried their fallen friend and comrade into the church for a two-hour funeral Mass punctuated by a slideshow.

“He was one of the greatest people I ever met. He helped me change my life,” Sonder Raymundo, Gutierrez’s nephew, said in a eulogy before the Mass. Raymundo, who served in the United States Air Force and was inspired by Gutierrez’s military career, cried as he spoke directly to his uncle. “The only thing I regret is not telling you how important you were in my life.”

For those community members who didn’t know Gutierrez personally, Father Tad Terembula explained that his life had been “snatched away far from home by a Taliban bomb.”

“He was killed by the very people he came to help,” Terembula said.

Gutierrez was killed in Afghanistan Christmas Day by a hidden roadside bomb while on patrol.

“David, you have loved your family, you have kept your faith, you have run your race,” Terembula said. “Your mission is completed.”

Gutierrez was “a family man,” Terembula said.

A photo slideshow following Communion flashed pictures of a skinny kid with a wide smile, a young man kissing his new bride, a proud father cradling each of his newborn sons. For about 10 minutes, Gutierrez’s life lit up a screen set up on the altar, set to the country tune of “American Soldier” by Toby Keith. Flipping a large slab of meat on the grill, throwing back a beer with his friends, sticking his tongue out at the camera – Gutierrez was larger than life, his friends said.

“The first time I met David, I was 22. He really scared the crap out of me,” laughed Staff Sgt. Raymond Diaz, 29, during the eulogy.

After losing a bet with Gutierrez, who was Diaz’s team leader, Diaz was forced to do push-ups every time he saw Gutierrez. At the grave site, Diaz shared a few silent words with his fallen friend and touched his lips to the casket before leaving.

Gutierrez’s family also received the Bronze Star Medal – awarded for bravery – the Purple Heart and the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.

Gutierrez’s father, Hector, served in the Army’s storied air assault 101st Airborne Division – known as the Screaming Eagles – in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart himself. He accepted a second Purple Heart on behalf of his son. Like his grandsons and daughter-in-law, Hector Gutierrez accepted an American flag, hugging it to his chest and covering his face with his hand in a silent sob.

Following the funeral, mourners gathered at the Gilroy Veterans Hall. After several days of nonstop planning, receiving condolences from countless friends and family members, and caring for her sons, Patty Gutierrez’s eyes were tired but dry when she took off her dark glasses.

“I’m just trying to keep it together,” she said, stooping to ask her youngest son if he was hungry. “I’m trying not to pass out.”

The support of the Gilroy and military communities has helped her get through the last few days, she said.

“The big thing about being in the military is that you’ve got family everywhere you go,” Diaz said during his eulogy. Addressing Patty Gutierrez directly, he said, “Patty, if you need anything, we will be here.”

“I want to thank Gilroy,” Patty Gutierrez said Friday morning, a few hours before she and her family hopped a plane home. In a few months, she plans to start scouting out a new home in or near Gilroy, to be closer to her and her husband’s families. “All the love and support this town has shown us – it’s remarkable.”

After she unpacks back in Fort Lewis and takes a few moments to breathe, Patty Gutierrez said she plans to get in touch with the Ailes family, who lost their son and brother, Lance Corporal Jeremy Ailes, 22, to enemy action in Iraq in 2004. The family sent Patty Gutierrez a beautiful statue of a woman holding an American flag, she said. Like the Ailes family, many others Patty Gutierrez had never even met showed their support through care packages, flowers and donations.

“It was so much more than I expected. It’s very emotional,” she said.

Gutierrez’s three sons are holding up well, considering the circumstances, their mother said.

“They inherited their dad’s personality,” she said, fingering a dog tag engraved with her husband’s face that hung around her neck. “My oldest looks at this every day. They miss their dad.”

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