Patriotism thrives along fallen soldier’s funeral procession

If you think patriotism is waning, I can reassure you it is alive and thriving in the hearts of Americans.

The red, white and blue message was unmistakable along the solemn procession that took my cousin’s son, U.S. Army Pfc. Michael C. Olivieri, 26, last month from a funeral home in Homer Glen to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill.

The young man was an army field artillery tactical data systems operator and one of five U.S. soldiers killed June 6 while serving our country in Baghdad, Iraq. Others killed were Spc. Emilio Campo, 20, from Minnesota; Pfc. Michael Cook, 27, from Ohio; Pfc. Christopher Fishbeck, 24, from California; and Spc. Robert Hartwick, 20, also from Ohio.

Each soldier was on his first deployment supporting Operation New Dawn to develop Iraqi forces and improve civilian life when enemy forces attacked their unit, according to the Army Times.

Then, in a moment, whatever length that moment was, lives of courage, conviction and self-sacrifice were gone. The very best young men of character our nation had to offer gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Lt. Col. Andrew Gainey, the group’s battalion commander, called his men “outstanding soldiers, outstanding people and, most importantly, our good friends.”

Prayers and deep condolences reach out to the families of these true American heroes who died in service to their country and its cherished freedoms.

On June 15 and 16, the curved drive leading up to the Modell Funeral Home in Homer Glen was lined with Illinois Patriot Guard members. Each member of the honor guard stood silently alongside an American flag in unwavering respect as family and friends quietly gathered for Olivieri’s funeral. They did not mourn alone. Thousands of others shared their loss.

Along the roads, business signs all read messages of sympathy remembering their hometown hero as countless American flags flew at half-staff. On June 16, enormous numbers of people of all ages gathered along the 26.8-mile stretch that would bring the fun-loving young man with a big heart, respected for his choice of military service, to his final resting place.

An estimated 200 vehicles made up the funeral procession, preceded by police, firefighters and the Patriot Guard on motorcycles.

The two-hour trip passed hundreds of citizens quietly standing along almost the entire distance. So many people took time from busy lives to come and wait along paved and gravel stretches of roadside, across bridges and in parking lots. So many, many people expressing their sincere sorrow at the loss of a young man who wanted to make a difference.

There were the young, the old and babies propped in strollers. Groups of Scouts, high school cheerleaders, a group of karate-garbed kids and several Little League teams had organized and dressed in uniform to pay their respect as a group.

Scores of Lockport High School students stood together to remember one of their own.

Parents with children seated in a wagon, people straddling bikes, a postal worker alongside his delivery van, office workers away from their desks and an older man standing next to a lawn chair at the end of his driveway quietly honored their hero.

Groups of utility workers stood alongside their vehicles arranged in rows. A group of senior citizens in wheelchairs lined the entrance to their nursing home and gently waved personal-sized American flags.

A school bus driver stopped along his route and placed his right hand over his heart as the procession passed. Lines of police and firefighters stood at attention. Everyone wore faces of sincere sympathy and compassion.

Hundreds of American flags of every imaginable size adorned the procession route. There were small ones on sticks and large flags stretched between several people. At the beginning was the traveling Patriot Flag, remembering victims of 9/11 and military casualties. The 56-foot-long flag was hoisted between two extended fire truck ladders to form an archway.

Three or four more times, the procession passed under similar raised American flags by additional fire departments using aerial equipment from each side of the road.

Everywhere, crossing traffic stood still, silent and respectful of the procession’s slow and steady progress. The unhurried moments allowed both those within the lines of cars and those paying tribute the opportunity to revere the lifelong memory.

People and children held signs of every size and color, from professionally printed signs to crayon-colored, child-sized signs, with messages of gratitude, support, valor, honor and memory. “Thank you,” “God bless our hero,” and “Mikey lives in the hearts he leaves behind.”

So very many people took the time to purchase materials and create their sign to express their feelings to the family; so many dressed in patriotic colors; so many took time from busy lives to come and wait along the procession route as a lasting tribute to a special soldier who was also a husband, son, brother, grandson, nephew and cousin with a desire to make a difference.

The procession turned into the national cemetery lined with countless rows of ashen-white arched grave markers and the U.S. flag flying at half-staff. Among red maples and sturdy oaks, 10,000 Americans rest. The location reflects a beautiful solemnity and profound gratitude.

At the grave site, military men and women stood at attention as a 21-gun salute and the lonely notes of taps hailed home a hero on behalf of a grieving family and grateful nation.

We honor these heroic sons and daughters of the United States of America with our promise to always remember them.

The Olivieri family requests that any donations fund a Heroes Memorial Reading Room at the Homer Township Library to honor all courageous military personnel who served our country. Donations may be sent to the Homer Township Public Library, Olivieri Memorial Fund, 14320 W. 151st St., Homer Glen, IL 60491.

Ÿ Joan Broz writes about Lisle.