GUSTINE — He was a father, soldier and hero who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
That's how a somber gathering of more than 650 family, friends and community members remembered Sgt. Jose Rodriguez during a Mass and funeral service Tuesday in Gustine.
The 2008 Gustine High School graduate was killed in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province last month.
His wife, Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez, also known as Lupita, held their 13-month-old son, Octavian, as she gave Rodriguez a goodbye kiss right before the casket was closed in the Shrine of Our Lady of Miracles in Gustine. The interment service at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery followed the Mass.
The 22-year-old Stryker sergeant, who first joined the Army in 2008, was on his second tour in Afghanistan. In 2009, he was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash. He received the Army Achievement Medal and the Army Good Conduct Medal during the course of his service.
"This is the reason why we sleep at night, knowing that we have freedom because of them," said John Rupe, 13, a volunteer with the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle escort organization.
On Saturday, Rodriguez's body was escorted by about 50 Patriot Guard Riders from the Modesto Airport to Newman, said Garry Rupe, an Army veteran with the group.
On Tuesday, several of the group members, along with fire trucks and Merced County sheriff's deputies, escorted the fallen soldier to the cemetery, where he received military honors before the burial.
Rodriguez gave his life for this country, Garry Rupe said. "We shouldn't forget that," he said.
Newman resident Graciela Marin said she didn't know Rodriguez very well, but went to the services because she wanted to provide support. "I feel proud that he went to represent our country," she said in Spanish.
Marin said she has an idea what the family is going through, having a grandson in the military herself. "I pray for all the ones who are serving," she said. "May God bless all of them."
Modesto resident Jaime Gonzalez said he knew Rodriguez just a little bit. He's related to the family of the soldier's wife. "We pay little attention to all the lives that are lost and why they gave their life," he said in Spanish. "Until it hits close to home, you realize how difficult it is and all the pain (it causes)."
Gonzalez said a lot of families throughout the country are also receiving bodies from fallen soldiers. All those soldiers give their lives for this country to have freedom, he said, but yet not many know that. "We take (freedom) as if it was something normal," he said.
Gonzalez's cousin, Maria Gonzalez, who's the soldier's wife's aunt, said everyone in the family is deeply hurt. She said Lupita is trying to stay strong. "I think it's not worth it now," she said of all the lives that are being lost.
The country got what it wanted by bringing down Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, Maria Gonzalez said. Today, the lives of soldiers are being lost in vain, she said.
She said many young men are dying and leaving their families in America behind. Many of those families have children, she added. "They're not going to have the opportunity to meet their father," she said in Spanish. "There's nothing to compare to that pain."
Merced resident Angelina Seijas said the number of deaths is enough. "We want our kids back," she said, whose son-in-law is in the Army, and has served two tours in Iraq.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.