Staff Sgt. Frank J. Gasper left behind his wife and family four times to serve his country in Iraq. On Tuesday, he came home for good.
Gasper, 25, was laid to rest at Merced District Cemetery. The soldier was killed May 25 in Najaf, Iraq, when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. He was two weeks into his fourth deployment with the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group based at Fort Carson, Colo.
Flags in Merced flew at half-staff to honor Gasper; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement of condolence.
But if he were here today, Frankie Gasper would want people to remember his life with a smile, not tears, say those who knew him.
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"This is devastating, but when you think about Frank, you smile," said his 20-year-old cousin Cassie Richards. "Everybody has a good memory of Frank."
Born on Veterans Day in Merced, Gasper grew up near a dairy farm in Snelling, where he and his sister Victoria liked to play in the barn while their dad milked cows. He came from a sprawling family brimming with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles. The clan usually celebrates Thanksgiving at their grandmother Maria's house in Merced. At those events, everyone made sure they got a chance to talk to Frankie, said Richards, because everyone felt close to him.
He was the cousin with the beautiful smile, who usually wore a backwards baseball hat. The one with a gentle heart who could listen as well as he talked, respected his elders and looked out for the younger ones.
He loved cars, especially Chevy Novas from the late 1960s and early '70s. His first Nova was a green model with a passenger door he had to wiggle to work the right way. He loved tinkering with it to make it run louder. One of his proudest moments was when he won the burnout contest at the Merced County Fairgrounds, said his sister Victoria Beuerlein.
Just before Gasper's last deployment, his unit got to learn defensive driving techniques from a stunt driver who had worked on one of his favorite movies, "Gone In Sixty Seconds." He was so excited about the training that he couldn't stop talking about it, said Beuerlein.
When he was 15, Frank's father died -- a blow that shook him to his core. He joined the Army five years later in October 2002, following in the footsteps of uncles and cousins who served in the military.
It was a choice he felt called to, and something his father would have been proud of, said his aunt Beatrice Mendoza.
"He knew that's where he had to be," said Mendoza. "It's comforting to all of us to know he felt that way and that it's not that he went in (the Army) because he had to or because he was running away from something."
That same year, Gasper married his wife, Breanna. The two had both attended Golden Valley High School, but didn't really know each other during school. When they connected after graduation, they quickly became inseparable, said Breanna Gasper.
Frank's already big smile would double in size when he was around Breanna, remembered Mendoza.
"They were beautiful together," said Beuerlein. "You could tell when they looked at each other they were in love. You know when people get that look in their eyes? You could always see that when they would smile at each other."
In the Army, Gasper worked as a radio operator with the 3rd Battalion of the 10th Special Forces group. He was a motivated soldier who planned to become his family's first Green Beret. He saw his time in Iraq as a chance to help people. He was very proud of his job, and so was his family.
"He believed that what he was doing made a difference," said his mother, Anita Richards.
In letters home he would tell her, "Momma, we are doing so many great things over here. We are setting the oppressed free."
Even though he was the one writing from a war zone, Gasper never forgot to ask how his family was doing, said his mother. Sometimes he would name every cousin, aunt and uncle individually, which turned his letters into four-pagers.
"Then he would say, sorry if I forgot anyone," she said. Gasper also sent his mother the names of soldiers in his unit who weren't receiving mail, so she could send them letters and packages of their own.
Now the people Gasper named in those letters each cherishes their own favorite memory of him. For his 21-year-old cousin Marina Monica, it's how they grew close writing letters to each other over the past few years, and how when she started dating a new boyfriend Frank wrote, "Tell him you have a big cousin in the Army so he better not break your heart."
For his cousin Cassie Richards, it's a big barbecue the family had at Lake Yosemite when Gasper was home from a deployment, and how hard Frankie laughed as he towed Cassie on an inner tube around the lake.
For his sister Victoria, it's his laugh, and how her brother loved to imitate the sound of rumbling engines when he told stories about cars.
For his mother, Anita, it's the last visit she made to Colorado, just before Gasper's final deployment. "The minute he saw me, he asked, 'Momma, will you make homemade tortillas?' and I did," she recalled.
At Gasper's memorial service Tuesday at Apostolic Tabernacle Church, some of those favorite memories were shared with the relatives, friends and community members who packed the pews. Standing at the church podium a few feet away from her husband's flag-draped casket, Breanna Gasper spoke directly to him, calling him "my bunches," one of the couple's pet names for each other.
"You were my world and my everything," she said. "My world was shattered the day God took you." She said she would miss two-stepping with her husband, even though he stepped on her feet.
Gasper's mother spoke of her son's bravery, and how one of his nicknames was Gasparticus "because only the strong can call themselves warriors," she said.
"Why did my son have to die in Iraq?" asked Richards. "The answer is, he wouldn't have had it any other way."
One of the soldiers from Gasper's unit, Staff Sgt. Dustin Beuerlein -- who is married to Gasper's sister Victoria -- planned to read a poem Gasper wrote at the service.
But the copy of the poem was missing when he got to the podium. Instead, Beuerlein looked out at the audience and said, "No matter what anybody thinks Frank liked what he did. He loved everybody, and he'd want everybody to be laughing and smiling, not crying for doing what he liked to do."
Toward the end of the service the choir sang the national anthem. The music boomed through the air and fell down like a blessing on Gasper's casket and family.
Afterward, police and Patriot Guard Riders escorted Gasper's hearse to Merced District Cemetery. Flags lined part of the route, and workers from offices near the cemetery stood outside to watch the procession pass.
At the cemetery entrance, a group stood waving flags and homemade posters with messages such as "Snelling Thanks Frankie."
At the grave site, flags snapped in the wind as soldiers marched Gasper's casket to its burial spot -- a plot next to his father's grave.
An honor guard fired a 21-gun salute and a bugler played taps.
National Guard soldiers carefully folded the flag on Gasper's casket into a tight triangle. Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Csrnko, commander of U.S. Army Special Forces, presented the flag to Gasper's wife, Breanna.
Then about a dozen soldiers from Gasper's battalion, some who came to the funeral from Fort Carson and some who came from Iraq, filed past the casket, saluting their brother.
One soldier took off his Airborne maroon beret and left it on top of the coffin. He kneeled for a long moment embracing Gasper's wife and mother in their seats, then walked briskly away, wiping tears from his cheeks.
Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.