May 5, 2011 for The Associated Press
by Josh Lederman

TRENTON, N.J. — As mourners filed out of the church, two by two, the organist struck up an unusual tune for a funeral: “America the Beautiful.” Outside, military pallbearers in ceremonial dress carried the flag-draped casket of 1st Lt. Omar Vazquez to the waiting hearse, while a dozen retired servicemen saluted, flags in hand.

About 60 miles away, President Obama was laying a wreath at ground zero — another dramatic moment in a week of celebration and somber reflection that began with news of the death of Osama bin Laden.

Families and friends of U.S. troops recently killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan face a swirl of emotions as they bury their dead while the nation marks the killing of the terrorist mastermind of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I was angry at first, because he didn’t get to see what he was actually fighting for,” said Vazquez’s cousin Marilyn Rodriguez.

Vazquez was killed by an improvised explosive device on April 22 in Iraq — nine days before Navy SEALs stormed a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Family members said the 25-year-old officer from Trenton had known since he was a little boy that he wanted to serve in the Army and defend his country from people like bin Laden.

“He would be proud, because they were out to make peace and get the people who hurt other people, to make sure it didn’t happen to other families,” Rodriguez said.

Sitting in the back pews of the Catholic church, under a golden inscription reading “The Lord is Here — He is Calling You,” a soldier who served with Vasquez reflected on the many funerals he’s attended for friends killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s the only time I wear this uniform,” said Sgt. Andrew Soto, who served with Vasquez for about three years when Vasquez was a cadet.

Soto said this funeral was different because Vasquez died while the military is preparing to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. But he said the knowledge that bin Laden is no longer a threat was helping him heal.

“My first thought was, ‘My friend died, but almost at the same time, we got the person we were fighting to get,’” Soto said. “If he was here now, he’d be smiling.”

In the hours after Americans learned that the nation’s archenemy had been killed, crowds outside the White House and throughout New York City erupted in patriotic fervor, chanting “U-S-A” and singing the national anthem. Students at many college campuses around the nation also rushed outdoors to celebrate.

The rejoicing seemed entirely appropriate to Willie Ransom, whose son was one of nine Americans gunned down April 27 by a disgruntled Afghan pilot at an airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Capt. Charles Ransom was assigned to help train the Afghan National Security Forces. His funeral is scheduled for Friday in his hometown of Midlothian, Va.

“I think it’s wonderful people celebrate, but the bottom line is somebody had to make the ultimate sacrifice to get this man,” Ransom said. “The same people who destroyed him, some of their buddies had to die, too.”

In Arizona, personnel at Luke Air Force Base were preparing for the arrival of the body of Lt. Col. Frank D. “Bruiser” Bryant. The 37-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., was killed in the same attack as Ransom.

The base will hold a memorial service for Bryant on Monday before his body is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Bruiser was a legitimate, full-up American hero,” said Major Stephen Anderson, who served as a flight instructor with Bryant for about three years. “He was a poster child for what it means to be a man, a good leader, a great fighter pilot and a great instructor.”

Speaking by telephone from Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas, Anderson said he felt a flood of relief when he learned his fellow troops had killed the man who embodied everything the United States went to war to stop. He said Bryant would have viewed bin Laden’s killing as “achievement of a national objective” — and that Bryant was exceedingly proud to be defending American freedom.

“Osama’s death was bought with the blood of Bruiser,” said Anderson.

He added that, offered the choice between the two, “I think I’d rather have my friend back.”