MILLVILLE — Taps drifted through a soft, chilly breeze at Greenwood Memorial Park on Monday.
Under a green canopy rested the flag-draped casket of decorated U.S. Army Sgt. Jose Joaquin Suarez, the 24-year-old local man who died at Fort Hood, Texas, the day after Christmas.
Suarez’s burial was brief and solemn, and started with prayers as family and friends gathered around the grave for the 2006 Millville High School graduate. A nearby American flag flew at half-staff. Other flags in the city were also lowered to half-staff on the order of Mayor Tim Shannon.
A few minutes earlier, an honor guard of U.S. Army Reserve members had carried Suarez’s casket to his final resting place. Those same soldiers later fired a salute in Suarez’s honor.
U.S. Army officials said an unresponsive Suarez was found in his barracks at Fort Hood on Dec. 26. Suarez was pronounced dead later that day at the base’s Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, they said.
Army officials said Suarez’s death remained under investigation.
Members of Suarez’s family were not available for comment Monday.
Monday’s proceedings began with a 10 a.m. service at the DeMarco-Luisi Funeral Home in Vineland. The funeral procession traveled to Greenwood Memorial Park, escorted by members of police departments from Millville and Vineland. Members of Millville’s department stood at attention during the burial.
Police and officials from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office also were on hand as about 40 residents from at least Cumberland and Cape May counties lined Broad Street near the entrance to Greenwood Memorial Park. The residents said they planned to form a human wall and stop members of the Westboro Baptist Church from disrupting Suarez’s burial.
The residents said they were responding to rumors on social media sites that Westboro Baptist Church members would be present at the burial. Several of the residents waved American flags. They also carried signs, including one that read, “Stop Spreading Hate.”
Westboro Baptist Church is a Kansas-based congregation. Church members believe U.S. casualties in Iraq and other areas of conflict are God’s way of punishing the United States for tolerating gays and lesbians.
A review of the church’s Web site did not list Suarez’s burial as one of the church’s planned picketing sites. No one from the church showed up Monday.
Suarez was a pole-vaulter for Millville High School’s track team.
Many of his family members live in Millville and Vineland, where Suarez was born.
Among his survivors are his wife, Robin, and two children, Jose and Jordon. They live in Texas.
Suarez “loved computers, drawing and spending time with his family,” his obituary reads.
According to information provided by the Army, Suarez entered active duty service in 2006 as an information systems operator-analyst. Suarez was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Army officials said Suarez received two commendation medals, three achievement medals, two good conduct medals, the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraqi Campaign Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, the Army Service Ribbon, two overseas service ribbons, the NATO Medal and the Combat Action Badge.
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