RUMFORD — On Saturday, tens of thousands of Maine wreaths were being placed on graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Simultaneously in Rumford, hundreds of people, state dignitaries, military officials and soldiers gathered at Mountain Valley High School to remember and honor U.S. Army Pfc. Buddy W. McLain, “who put his life where his heart was,” Pastor John Gensel said at McLain's service inside Edmund S. Muskie Auditorium.
McLain, 24, of Peru, was one of six 101st Airborne soldiers killed when they were ambushed on Nov. 29 by an Afghan Border Police recruit in Afghanistan. He left behind his wife, Chelsea, 20, of Peru, and their 15-month-old son, Owen.
“This is a sad day for America and for the McLain family,” U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said outside the high school while waiting for the funeral procession to arrive from Arthur Meader and Sons Funeral Home.
Snowe said she came “to express my deepest sympathy on behalf of the state and country to the ... entire family in a profound gratitude and indebtedness that we feel as a nation with respect to his heroism, courage and the ultimate sacrifice to our country.
“We are the greatest nation on earth because of people like Private First Class Buddy McLain, and we want to make sure the family knows how awe-inspired we are of his selfless service to our nation,” she said.
As the hearse carrying McLain's casket arrived at about 10:30 a.m., it passed beneath a large American flag hanging from an arch created by extended aerial ladders from two firetrucks, while River Valley area firefighters in dress uniforms lined the procession.
The hearse was parked in front of a gantlet of Patriot Guard Riders, each holding an American flag. Parked behind them was Buddy's black Mustang.
Chelsea McLain and her parents, Andrew and Brenda McLain of Peru, and Buddy's parents, Larry and Patti McLain of Mexico, and their family passed through the honor gantlet and into the high school followed by Gov. John Baldacci, Snowe, Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, where they had a private meeting.
Vocalist and guitarist Jamie Virgin, who performed at Buddy and Chelsea's wedding on March 11, 2009, and in August of this year for Buddy's going away party, performed Tim McGraw's song, “Live Like You Were Dying.”
Following pastoral comments and prayer, a MEARNG officer escorted Chelsea McLain to the stage, where she shared her last face-to-face conversation with her husband on Aug. 23 — the day before he deployed — about what might happen to him.
“He went on to say, 'You're crazy. I can't stop bullets. It can happen to anyone. If it's my time, it's my time to die,'” she said.
Chelsea said her husband told her that he had accepted death and was “no longer afraid to die.”
He said, “I can't promise my safe return home, but I can promise you this: I will see you again, in life or death. I will be in the gates waiting for you if I get there before you.”
She said she replied, “I love you so much it hurts. You're an amazing father and lover. I am so blessed to have met you and had you in my life, even if it was four short years. “
As her voice broke, Chelsea continued, saying, “If I could go back, I would have treated you better, and for that I am eternally sorry, but I can promise you from this day on, you will always be mine and Owen's hero.
“I will tell him all the amazing things about Daddy and all the fun we used to have,” she said.
Chelsea said she would always carry him with her in her heart and mind. She then shared a poem she said Buddy gave her on Mother's Day while she was pregnant with Owen.
Buddy's father, Larry McLain, spoke next: “When my son went away, he went away a boy, and every time he came home, he came home more of a man.”
A friend on behalf of Brenda Freeman then shared Freeman's prepared statement of anecdotes about her son-in-law.
“Buddy once told me that he wanted to come home a war hero,” the woman read. “Buddy has certainly met all the criteria to be a national war hero.”
Pastor Gensel gave the eulogy, which was followed by Natasha Tilberg singing “Amazing Grace” acapella.
That was followed by the benediction and Jamie Virgin performing Wayne Cochran's song, “Last Kiss.”
Under police escort, the funeral procession traveled to Demeritt Cemetery on Route 108 in Peru for the graveside service and a 21-gun salute, the shots reverberating loudly around the valley.
“Taps” was performed on a silver trumpet by Col. John Thomas, commander of the Air National Guard's 101st Maintenance, KC-135 Wing Air Refueling Tanker of Bangor.
A series of soldiers then conducted four American flag ceremonies, first removing the casket flag, folding it and presenting it to Chelsea McLain.
Three other American flags were unfolded beside the casket and refolded and saluted, with one presented to Chelsea, one to Larry McLain, and the last, which was touched to the casket, given to Buddy's mom, Patti McLain.
The painstakingly detailed military ceremony at graveside bespoke the concluding words of Maj. Gen. Libby when he said of McLain during the memorial service, “You are a patriot, a hero, and we will never forget your selfless service and sacrifice.”
Military honors for Pfc. Buddy McLain
Major Gen. John W. Libby of the MEARNG read Buddy's record of service, then listed the state awards Buddy earned, of which one each was presented by Gov. John Baldacci and military officers to Buddy's widow and father.
* the Maine Gold Star Service Medal “for making the ultimate sacrifice”
* the Maine Silver Service Star for the Purple Heart awarded for wounds received on Nov. 29 and
* and the Maine state flag that flew in Augusta in memory of the Peru soldier.
Brigadier Gen. Michael H. Shields, representing the Army chief of staff, eulogized Buddy as “a Maine boy who served his country in time of need.”
“Buddy wasn't just any soldier, he was a Cav Scout from 4th Brigade of the elite 101st Airborne Division,” Shields said. He quoted an officer at Buddy's memorial service in Afghanistan, who said, “I couldn't have asked for a better soldier.”
On behalf of President Barack Obama, Shields then awarded the Bronze Star Medal to Pfc. Buddy McLain “for his meritorious service” from Aug. 26 in the nation's continual war on terrorism.
On behalf of John W. McHugh, secretary of the Army, Shields awarded McLain the Purple Heart for wounds received in action on Nov. 29 in Afghanistan.
On behalf of the Department of the Army, Shields awarded McLain the:
* Army Commendation Medal, the Good Conduct Medal
* Afghan Campaign Medal
* War on Terror Service Medal
* NATO Medal
* Combat Action Badge
Major Todd Mitchell presented the Currahee flags of the 101st Airborne Division to McLain's widow and father.