BEAVER DAM — Barely a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. Marine Sgt. Kirk Straseskie penned a letter to his fellow soldiers voicing expectations of war and the possibility of dying.
The envelope said the letter was only to be opened upon his death in war.
Relatives and friends attending Straseskie’s funeral Wednesday heard his words read as a final tribute to the 23-year-old Marine who drowned May 19 attempting to rescue four crewmen of a Marine helicopter that crashed into a canal in Iraq.
Straseskie, a native of Beaver Dam, was the first person from Wisconsin to die in military operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“It’s quite possible … that I could die, plain and simple,” he wrote to his buddies in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion of the 4th Marine Division. “I don’t want to die, but don’t confuse that with fear.”
Straseskie said if he died, he would die “standing tall.”
“Life is something to take by the throat and squeeze to get as much as possible out of it,” he wrote as he expressed love for his Marine family, his family in Beaver Dam and, especially, his numerous nieces and nephews.
Straseskie said he was not afraid of dying if it meant freedom for his family.
“Tell them I was at peace with myself when I died,” he wrote in the Sept. 19, 2001, letter.
A detail of six Marines in dress blue uniforms carried Straseskie’s flag-draped, wooden coffin into St. Michael Catholic Church, where more than 500 people attended the hour-long service.
Following the casket were his father, John, a retired Army first sergeant who wore his uniform, and his brother, Ryan, a lieutenant in the Wisconsin Army National Guard who also was serving in Iraq at the time of Straseskie’s death.
The Rev. William Key said the Marine’s death illustrates the relationship between sacrifice and love.
“He died trying to help others who died in that canal. That is the stuff of heroes,” Key said.
Key said Straseskie was known around Beaver Dam for helping children. As a high school student, he helped those with special needs.
“He died as he lived, helping others,” Key said.
Straseskie, who had the Marine emblem tattooed on his chest, also helped younger Marines adapt to war, said Marine Sgt. Christopher Swaine of Boston, who served with Straseskie for six months in Iraq and was allowed to return home to attend his friend’s funeral.
“‘Ski’ was a strong Marine. He was a Marine’s Marine, always doing things right,” Swaine said. “He was a great leader and a fatherly figure to all the younger guys. When he had to take care of them, he did.”
Beaver Dam High School athletic director Todd Sobrilsky, who attended the funeral, was Straseskie’s wrestling coach and his defensive line coach in football.
“Kirk was our senior captain. He called all the plays,” Sobrilsky said of the one-time linebacker. “How Kirk died — jumping in the canal to save his fellow Marines — doesn’t surprise me in the least.”
Sobrilsky said Straseskie wrestled in the 152-pound weight class but was often called upon to face opponents 20 pounds heavier.
“He was one of those guys who always said, ‘Put me in where you need me, coach,’” Sobrilsky said.
He said Straseskie often returned to school while on leave and at one time presented a Marine Corps award to a student.
“Kirk was so proud to be a Marine,” Sobrilsky said.
Businesses and government buildings throughout Beaver Dam flew their flags at half-staff in honor of Straseskie. World War II Army veteran John Stauropoulus, who lives a half-block from the church and knows the Straseskie family, had a large flag in his yard, also flying at half-staff.
Stauropoulus said Straseskie was a “Jack Armstrong, all-American kind of kid” who sacrificed his own safety for others.
“The will to live is very strong,” Stauropoulus said. “In Kirk’s case the desire to help others overcame his feelings for self-preservation. The kid didn’t hesitate to jump in and help.”
Squad cars from the Beaver Dam Police Department and the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department escorted a 97-car funeral procession from St. Michael’s to the Highland Memory Gardens cemetery about five miles north of Beaver Dam.
Straseskie was buried next to his mother, Dianne L. Straseskie, who died in 1997.
“Kirk’s death had affected this community profoundly,” said Beaver Dam Police Chief Gary Cox. “Kirk was very well-respected in Beaver Dam. Being a relatively small town, his loss of life is felt by many.”
Marine Sgt. Straseskie was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Camp Pendleton, California. Straseskie jumped into a canal near Al Hillah trying to save four fellow Marines whose CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed into the water. Despite Straseskie’s efforts, all five died. Kirk attended Beaver Dam High School where he played football, wrestled and ran the 400 meters in track. Too small to play linebacker at 171 pounds, he did it anyway. He also volunteered to work with severely disabled students. He was really a hard worker who was always looking to help someone out. Kirk wanted to make the military a career, but he met and fell in love with a woman from Juneau. He was reconsidering that decision and was thinking about going into law enforcement. Kirk, who had the Marine emblem tattooed on his chest, also helped younger Marines adapt to war. ‘Ski’ was a strong Marine; he was a Marine’s Marine, always doing things right. He was a great leader and a fatherly figure to all the younger guys.
Sgt. Kirk Straseskie, 23, of Beaver Dam, Wis., was a third-generation military son who promised to make his father proud. Straseskie drowned May 19 after he jumped into an Iraqi canal to try to rescue victims of a helicopter crash. Four Marines on the Sea-Knight helicopter were killed when it crashed into the Shat al-Hillah canal about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Mark Kirst, principal at Beaver Dam High School, said it was totally within Straseskie”s character to try to rescue the crew. “He was always looking to help someone out. He was not a guy who would wait around for somebody else to do it. He was a doer”. Straseskie graduated in 1998 from Beaver Dam High School, where he played football, wrestled and ran the 400 meters in track. He wanted to make the military a career but he met and fell in love with a woman from Juneau and was reconsidering that decision, said his father, John Straseskie. “He thought about going into law enforcement”, his father said. The elder Straseskie said both he and his father served in the Army. Another son, Ryan, is with the Wisconsin National Guard.