RED OAK — With a flag in one hand and another over their hearts, southwest Iowa residents said their farewells to Sgt. James Skalberg, not as individual mourners but as a collective group gathered to celebrate life and pay respect to a fallen hero.
Skalberg, 25, was killed in Afghanistan June 27 when the military vehicle he was driving detonated an improvised explosive device.
The entrance to Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Red Oak Saturday morning was surrounded by several hundred Patriot Guard Riders, as well as many other people holding signs and waving flags. The respect for Skalberg extended beyond the church, too. Hand drawn signs were posted outside homes throughout town, thanking Skalberg for his dedication to the country and sending condolences to his family, and a large number of protesters, many of whom were complete strangers to the Skalbergs, showed up on Broadway to stand up in honor of Skalberg against the picketers from Westboro Baptist Church.
The ceremony, officiated by Rev. Fred Pilecki, featured picture slideshows and memories from Skalberg’s life. Pilecki said it was important to not let the evil of Jamie’s death overcome the good — the kindness that has been shown to the Skalberg family during this time.
While the burden of death laid heavily on the congregation, it was lightened, if only by a bit, by knowing they weren't suffering alone. The packed church proved this.
Pilecki asked the the crowd to give a standing ovation out of honor and love for Skalberg and thunderous clapping erupted, which took several seconds to subside.
With bowed heads and tear-stained eyes, friends, family and even strangers to Skalberg listened to his life stories, remembering the good times and keeping in mind he's now in a better place.
Pilecki mentioned Skalberg's military involvement. He joined the U.S. Army in 2007 and was stationed in the field artillery. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart awards posthumous. This was his second deployment and he was scheduled to return home this month.
“Jamie often said, though, the Army was his job and not who he was,” Pilecki said.
Therefore, a large part of the service was dedicated to celebrating Skalberg's life and who he was. Despite the sadness that loomed throughout the pews, small smiles crept across many faces as Pilecki and Skalberg's friend Austin Duysen shared stories celebrating his life.
Pilecki said Skalberg loved new shoes, making his own fashion statements, dogs — he always took home strays — music and basketball.
“Jamie liked to joke, if he could marry a man, it would be Kobe Bryant,” Pilecki said as the congregation giggled.
Skalberg also loved his wife Jessica and son Carter, who turned one on Thursday, Pilecki said. He was looking forward to having more children and teaching them how to play basketball.
Duysen shared a humorous anecdote of when he took Skalberg hunting for the first time, and he showed up wearing shorts and flip flops. Duysen, with a chuckle, said Skalberg didn't kill anything, but luckily he didn't shoot anyone either.
Following the ceremony, the Patriot Guard Riders escorted Skalberg through Red Oak for the last time, passing under an enormous flag draped by two fire trucks above Broadway, and into Emerson, his final resting place.
At the cemetery, the Patriot Guard Riders and many other people stood circling the burial plot holding flags in honor of Skalberg and support of those he left behind. As the motorcade rolled through the cemetery, literally hundreds of mourners filed in as the flag-covered coffin was carried onto the burial plot. Jessica followed close behind.
A flag was methodically folded and presented to Jessica, a reverent symbol of her husband's commitment to the country. The ceremony concluded with a bugle player and a 21-gun salute.
While an emotional event on many levels, community pride emanated through the many flags that decorated the county and through everyone present who extended their love and gratitude for Skalberg who gave his life for his country.