MARIPOSA COUNTY — A folded flag. A 21-gun salute. A prayer. Taps.
Each of these steps is a stage in the burial of any U.S. soldier.
It was no different for Pfc. Lukas Hopper, as his daylong funeral Saturday came to an end in a small Catheys Valley cemetery.
The event marked not just the loss of a young man, a son, a brother and a friend, it also was a vivid reminder of the price the United States continues to pay in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Hopper, a 20-year-old paratrooper from Merced with the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C., died in a noncombat accident in Baghdad on Oct. 30 when his Humvee crashed. He was two weeks from the end of his deployment.
"I'm not here to talk about how Hopper died, I'm here to talk about how he lived," said Brig. Gen. Robert Abrams before more than 600 mourners Saturday morning at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Yosemite Avenue in Merced.
The general described Hopper's commitment to the armed forces as more than a duty, but as a commitment to a set of ideals: honor, courage, loyalty. "We mourn his loss," Abrams said in conclusion. As the general handed Hopper's mother, Robin Hopper, her son's posthumous medals, the hall fell silent.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic eventually broke the silence, a collective voice filling the hall with the chorus "glory, glory, hallelujah."
The funeral was a time for mourning, but it also was a celebration of Hopper's life and a reaffirmation of his family's faith. His friends and family described Hopper as an adventurous, opinionated and fun-loving prankster who grew up fast after he joined the Army.
Hopper's aunt Paula Kruczyk described how, in his typical impetuous way, Hopper joined the Army on a whim. He had meant to sign up for the Navy like his father and grandfather, she said. But when the day came to sign up, the Navy recruiter wasn't in his office, so Hopper chose another branch of the armed services, she said.
"Rather than wait, our impetuous Luke went ahead and signed up for the Army," she said.
Nick Koenig, who knew Hopper since middle school, said that was Hopper's way — he lived in the moment.
Family members and the church's bishop spoke of seeing Hopper again in the afterlife.
Hopper's mother said she was consoled knowing that she would be reunited with her son, as the Mormon faith declares. "It is through that sure knowledge that I know we will be a family together again," she said at the head of the chapel.
At 1 p.m., the funeral procession drove into the foothills of Mariposa County, led by law enforcement and the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle-riding veterans.
At the graveyard in Catheys Valley Cemetery, six paratrooper pallbearers carried Hopper's coffin to his grave. As their boots softly stomped the ground in unison, a line of soldiers stood with their rifles ready in a nearby clearing.
The solemn ceremony then proceeded in ordered silence: the crack of rifle fire, the playing of a bugle, the folding of the flag, a reading from the Bible and a benediction.
Before the benediction, Gen. Abrams knelt at the feet of Hopper's parents and presented his mother with a U.S. flag folded into a triangle by the pallbearers.
When Hopper's coffin finally disappeared beneath the ground, the quiet of the graveyard was broken by the sudden sound of his mother's sobs.