LIVINGSTON - A grateful nation thanked a talented and generous soldier here Wednesday as her family, friends and members of the community gathered to honor her life with prayers and tributes.St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic Church was filled beyond capacity during the morning ceremony, with about 500 people crammed into the pews, spilling down the aisle out to the vestibule. Pfc. Karina Lau was later put to rest at Turlock Memorial Park.
Lau was killed in Iraq on Nov. 2 with 15 other American soldiers when their transport helicopter was shot down in an attack west of Baghdad. The 20-year-old Livingston woman was heading home on a two-week furlough from the Persian Gulf region. She didn't tell her family that she was returning home. The visit was supposed to be a surprise.
On Wednesday, under a haze of incense smoke, the Rev. Harvey Fonseca blessed the casket and delivered a homily that spoke of sacrifice, community and the promise of eternal life. Much of the ceremony was held in Spanish.
"What is home to us?" Fonseca asked. "It is a place where everyone knows us, a place like Livingston. This is where Karina was headed. She wanted to reach this place. She did."
Army soldiers from the Merced Recruiting Station of the Fresno Recruiting Company served as pallbearers.
Hundreds of cars lined the 13-mile stretch of Highway 99 between the church and Turlock Memorial Park.
California Highway Patrol and law enforcement officers in Livingston and Turlock helped guide the procession.
Holding their hardhats over their hearts, five Caltrans workers along the route saluted the passing motorists.
Those who knew Lau remembered a kind person with a humorous temperament. They also remembered her great conviction.
Ruben Flores, 21, of Livingston, was a bandmate of hers at Livingston High School.
"She was a very nice person," said the former drum player. "At times when she spoke, it was always about jokes and laughter."
A gifted musician, Lau finished eighth in a class of 200 and sang the national anthem at her graduation in 2001.
Her musical ability and promise earned her a scholarship to study music at the University of Pacific.
Another bandmate, 19-year-old Markella Tsatsaronis, attended middle and high school with Lau.
Tsatsaronis recalled a versatile person who was a natural musician, easily switching from one instrument to another. Lau's principle instrument was tenor saxophone.
"I remember her as a person who was always willing to work hard," said the sophomore at California State University Stanislaus. "And she was very good at whatever she did."
Tsatsaronis said Lau's death does not make her think differently about the war.
"She did something for her country and that's what she wanted to do. Not a lot of people are willing to do that," she said.
Lau left the University of the Pacific after a short time to pursue something more challenging, family members say. That's when she joined the army.
The recruiter who signed the young woman up attended the services. Speaking under his breath, he said while every one knows the risk of military service, no one ever expects tragedy to strike.
At the gravesite the army awarded Lau with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for her service.
Seven soldiers from the Army's Defense Language Institute in Monterey fired three volleys each in a traditional 21-gun salute as mourners gathered in a U-shaped formation around the Lau family plot.
Fonseca sprinkled holy water on the casket and led mourners through more prayers.
The American flag draping the casket was removed at noon, carefully folded and then presented to Lau's mother and father who clutched it tightly.
As the casket was lowered into the earth, deep heart-wrenching cries set off a sea of sniffles and tears, and the war was brought home.
"Imagine the person who shot that helicopter down. If he knew the person Karina was, there's no way he could have shot it down," Fonseca said earlier. "We don't know each other as a world. We need to know each other and only then will the guns be dropped to the ground."
Those who wish to contribute to the Karina Lau Memorial Scholarship Fund can send donations to Livingston High School, 1617 Main St., Livingston, CA 95334. The scholarship will provide financial aid to students of music.