BLANDING, San Juan County Before Wednesday's funeral for Lance Cpl. Quinn A. Keith, a local leader was asked what the loss of this young Marine in Iraq meant to this small community.
"You'll see" was the response.
As the procession proceeded from the San Juan Mortuary to an LDS chapel, the residents' non-verbal answer resonated as loudly, clearly and poignantly as the taps solo did late.
Keith, 21, who was killed by a suicide car bomber, along with six other Marines in Fallujah on Sept. 6, received a hero's welcome to his old hometown.
Hundreds of students and adults of all ages lined the streets to greet the stream of vehicles slowly weaving through town. Schools and shops shut down. Children waved flags, tipped patriotic red-white-and-blue top hats, held posters and expressed their thanks. Adults wiped tears and placed hands on hearts. Stars and Stripes across town were lowered to half-mast. A makeshift memorial blossomed on Main Street with pictures, flowers and messages.
It was a stirring display of support, patriotism, respect and grief, befitting a "fallen hero," as Mayor Tony Turk described the soldier of the Navajo Tribe whom he lauded for making "the ultimate sacrifice."
So many people showed up to pay their last respects, the funeral had to be moved from an LDS meetinghouse to the larger Blanding Stake Center. That large turnout occurred despite the fact Keith hadn't lived in Blanding since he left for Page, Ariz., his junior year of high school five years ago.
His mother, Leslie Jones, who now lives in Layton, requested that he be buried in Blanding because, she told Bishop John L. Thornton, "This has always been home." The town was more than honored to lay him to rest near seven other Blanding war heroes who were killed in action between World War I and the Vietnam War.
Among the hundreds of family and friends from Utah and Arizona attending the funeral included the vice president of the Navajo Nation, members from each military branch and the parents of Lance Cpl. Michael J. Allred, who also died in the suicide bombing. They drove the length of the state from Cache County after laying their son to rest Monday.
The ceremonies for Keith, who served two tours in Iraq, blended military, religious and Native American rituals.
Marines from Salt Lake City-based Charlie Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion posthumously awarded him with a Purple Heart, honored him with a 21-gun salute, performed a heart-wrenching rendition of taps and presented his mother with the crisply folded flag that had draped his coffin prior to burial.
After an LDS grave dedication by cousin Russell Keith, members of the Navajo Tribe solemnly walked in single file and sprinkled red dust and dropped flowers on the casket.
During the funeral, Keith's mom proudly showed a necklace, beautiful in its appearance and its symbolism, that her son had sent her for Mother's Day. The inscription: "To mom, with love."
Jones also read parts of a recent letter from him. He couldn't wait to return home to eat some homemade warm stew and Navajo tacos and to go deer hunting with family this fall.
He also shared personal feelings that this mom will cherish for a lifetime. He wrote about how thankful he was that the family had patched things up after a rough stretch and told her that he respected her as a woman and as a parent.
"I love you very much mom," he wrote. "I'm very fortunate to have you as a mom."
Quinn Keith's sister, Hillary Holliday, laughed while remembering his "big, big smile" and the way he roughhoused with his three brothers and her two young sons, whom he adored and always inquired about while in Iraq. She told of practical jokes he'd pull, including how he'd sometimes throw flour on an unsuspecting loved one's face while they were asleep. They called it "antiquing."
"I want everyone to be comforted," Holliday said, "and not take it so hard, because he wouldn't want that."
Clyde Keith, Quinn's uncle who took him under his wings after he left Blanding, also fondly recalled his nephew's cheery disposition.
"He would touch you just by his smile," he said.
He'd also make a temporary golf course in his uncle's backyard and be the daredevil to jump off the highest cliff at Lake Powell. The uncle chuckled about him "always being a ringleader for his brothers."
Outside, a former wrestling coach at San Juan High, David Lacy, shared a story about Quinn as a sophomore grappler. Badly losing a match by the score of 11-2, he suddenly puffed up his chest and mounted a furious comeback. He ended up winning by one point in overtime. He later made it to the state finals and earned an electric guitar from his mom in the process.
"He was just a young individual who never gave up," Lacy said. "He was just a real good man. He was well-respected by a lot of people young and old."
Quinn's courage was a trait many spoke about. On his arm, he had a tattoo of a Navajo warrior depicted after a victorious battle holding a rifle.
"He had great courage. He did not know fear as we know it," said his uncle, Leo Jones. "That's how I will remember him as a warrior going to battle."
Snippets of condolence letters written by U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett and Gov. Olene Walker were read. Hatch empathized with Quinn's younger brother, Stevenson, who's also served in the Army in Iraq. He also lost a brother in combat.
"He's been called home," the senator wrote. "We honor him. We will always remember him."
Kenneth Maryboy spoke on behalf of the Navajo Nation. Maryboy advised everybody to look to the morning star while praying and thinking of Quinn."Everything will stand still. Nature will stand still," he said. "You'll feel the presence of a loved one.
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