Near the end of the year the front page of my local newspaper was taken up by the stories of three deaths.
The main headline extended across the top of the page: “Saddam Hanged.” Even opponents of capital punishment like me have to admit that if you’re going to have a hanging, Saddam was a worthy candidate. Afterward, his body was hauled to his hometown in the back of a pickup truck. Most of the world won’t miss him. He was 69.
In the lower left corner of the front page was a story on the death of Gerald R. Ford, a decent man who became president and served his country patriotically from World War II until he died on Dec. 26. His state funeral was televised from Washington on Jan. 2. He was eulogized by two presidents, receiving well-deserved credit for his service. He was 93.
And the lower right corner of the front page was devoted to John Paul Barta. Unless you live down here in South Texas, you’ve probably never heard of him. But he was well known in Flour Bluff, a small coastal community near Corpus Christi. He was an all-star athlete, excelling in baseball and football. He was graduated from high school in 2000 and joined the army two years ago. He was assigned to the 1st Calvary Division and sent to Iraq in October. Two days before Christmas, he was killed by a mortar shell in Buhriz, about 30 miles north of Baghdad. He was 25.
I didn’t know John Paul Barta, but he sounds like a nice guy. His friends say that he was well mannered and respectful, competitive in sports, but a sweet-natured, thoughtful friend, somebody you could always turn to for help. His obituary says that he was “a good soldier” and that he loved being in the army. His friends say he was gentle and kind, but in his photograph he looks tough and confident in his army beret. His mother said, “All I know right now is I just have the biggest hole in my heart.”
His funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Corpus Christi on Jan. 3, a cold, overcast day with a strong wet wind blowing across the bay. A lot of people came to see him off. Before the service a slideshow depicted his life: a cute kid playing with his two brothers, an athlete in his football uniform posing with a girlfriend, a ballplayer poised in the batter’s box, a soldier in an army uniform, a groom marrying a beautiful young bride.
A bagpiper led the family to the front of the chapel, where they sat before a coffin draped with an American flag. In the style of modern funerals, three of his friends told long, affectionate stories about John Paul Barta that drew smiles and bittersweet laughs from the audience. The last friend to speak seemed reluctant to stop talking, as though he could put off saying his final goodbye.
The ministers had a few things to say about hope, peace and eternal life, and then the service was over. The family remained composed throughout, until it was time to take the coffin away. And then the young widow began to weep with deep and inconsolable grief. It rained for the rest of the day and well into the next.
A few days before the funeral, one of John Paul Barta’s friends reported talking to him for two hours before he left for Iraq: “He said he was scared to death, but at the same time was proud to be one of the people serving his country.” We probably overuse the term “hero” these days, but it’s hard to think of a better word to describe the courage and sacrifice of men and women like John Paul Barta.
Today’s scene at the First Baptist Church has been duplicated in our country at more than 3,000 times since the beginning of a war that has required very little of most of us. Whether we support the war or not, maybe all of us should attend one of these funerals, just so we can see how much this war really costs.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)Delmar.edu.)