The crowd of more than 1,000 at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church stood and joined in a full-throated version of “Here I Am Lord,” launching the melody into the vaulted wooden rafters.
Six pallbearers, dressed in navy-blue Air Force blazers adorned with medals, guided Senior Airman Adam P. Servais’ silver casket down the center aisle. Another airman followed, clutching a folded U.S. flag against his chest with white gloves.
Servais, 23, of Onalaska, died Aug. 19 in a mountainous area near the village of Yakhdan in southern Afghanistan. His convoy of U.S. Army Special Forces and Afghan army soldiers was ambushed by more than 100 enemy troops.
Amid a fierce exchange of fire, Servais was hit and killed by a rocket-propelled grenade, one of four U.S. military deaths that day throughout the country.
At the funeral, his casket passed about 50 airmen from Hurlburt Field in Florida, home base of Servais’ squadron. They flew in for the funeral and burial on C-130s. All wore navy blue dress uniforms, with silver Air Force chevrons on the left sleeve. Many sobbed as the casket passed.
Standing to the left were at least five rows of Servais’ family, many from the Coulee Region, some from as far away as Nevada, Montana, California and South Carolina.
“God’s house is a house of heroes,” said the Rev. Patrick Umberger, addressing the mourners. “Let us honor and acknowledge the heroes here today.”
Applause like thunder shook the church. After 30 seconds, the crowd rose and made it a standing ovation, all eyes focused on the seated airmen, an ocean of blue in the front of the church.
“We lost a great friend, we lost a great family member,” Umberger continued. “We know how much Adam loved his family at home, and when he died, he was with his extended (Air Force) family, whom he also loved and trusted.”
One of them, Senior Airman Christopher Tallent, roomed with Servais while on base in Florida and served with him in Afghanistan, eventually escorting his body home. He eulogized him as “one of the happiest people I had the pleasure to know,” someone who “could take any situation and make a smile out of it.”
He then read from a letter sent from Staff Sgt. Chris (last name omitted for security purposes), who went through combat controller training with Servais and is still serving in Afghanistan.
The letter recounted childhood memories Servais shared with him: “his mom forcing piano lessons on him when all he wanted to do was play hockey, the truck he and his dad built together.”
Matt Hoehn, a classmate and hockey teammate of Servais’ throughout childhood, read a letter from his father, John “Whitey” Hoehn, who coached a lot of the youth hockey teams. He remembered Servais as someone happy to play defense, who had no interest in scoring goals, and who never shied away from a challenge, or a fight.
“You embodied my kind of hockey player,” Hoehn said. “Physical, smashmouth, in-your-face.”
After the funeral, the mourners processed east on Main Street to Onalaska city cemetery. A crowd of about 250 motorcyclists in black leather jackets and chaps, members of the Patriot Guard riders, lined the streets holding hundreds of U.S. flags. All was silent, except the rustling of flags in the wind, the clucking of heels, the mumbling of babies.
“It’s an honor to make these guys know we care,” said Karen Fernstaedt, who drove her Harley Davidson in with seven others from Sauk Prairie, Wis., leaving at 5:30 a.m.
At the burial, a bugler played taps, airmen fired a 21-gun salute, and Servais was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor. His mother, Sue, was presented with a triangle, folded U.S. flag, which had draped her son’s casket.
Servais’ sister, Laura Ley, said she’ll especially miss her brother’s “infectious smile,” but said there was some comfort knowing how much he loved his military career.
“He loved what he did, and he knew the risks of it,” she said.
During his eulogy, Tallent said that Servais and the bodies of the three other U.S. military personnel killed Aug. 19 were sent home by hundreds of U.S. service members, who lined a makeshift parade route for them.
Once the bodies were secure on a C17 cargo plane, bound for U.S. soil, the pilot fired up the engine and prepared for takeoff. Suddenly, a vicious duststorm kicked up, which would delay the flight for three hours.
“All I could think (during the delay),” Tallent said, “was that Adam still didn’t want to leave the fight.”