Helicopters fly over in final tribute Taneytown buries flier killed in Iraq

April 23, 1994|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,Sun Staff Writer

TANEYTOWN -- Jeffrey Colbert's short military career came to a sorrowful close yesterday in the hills of Carroll County.

The helicopters he loved to fly sliced through the bright spring sky. Army riflemen fired their M-16s across the cemetery. A solitary soldier played taps, the lonely strains consuming those encircling the flag-draped coffin.

More than 200 mourners came to say goodbye to Army Spc. Colbert, killed when a pair of U.S. fighters mistakenly shot down two U.S. helicopters over northern Iraq last week. His postcard-perfect hometown of stone houses and rolling farms framed by the Catoctin Mountains seemed to stand still for a time yesterday, as friends and relatives tried to make sense of what happened.

At the funeral, the Rev. Paul Steiner played one of the family's favorite songs.

"Did you ever know you're my hero?" sang Bette Midler as the tape-recorded song filled the packed, standing-room only funeral home in Taneytown. "I can fly higher than an eagle. You are the wind beneath my wings."

Mr. Steiner then read an essay Specialist Colbert, 22, wrote when he was a teen-ager and planned to move from his mother's home in Taneytown to his father's house in Middletown. He was thrilled by the adventure of starting something new.

"I took a risk in my life, instead of playing it safe," he wrote. "This, in a sense, is like a new beginning."

The minister asked everyone to remember the helicopter crew ** chief, one of 15 Americans aboard the two Black Hawks.

He joined the Army two months after graduating from Middletown High School in 1989, served in the Persian Gulf war and later was transferred to a base in Germany, occasionally flying U.N. peacekeeping missions to help the Kurds in Iraq.

Remember the way Specialist Colbert liked Dr Pepper, Mr. Steiner said. The way he rooted for the Los Angeles Raiders and the New York Yankees. The way he doted on his daughters, Amber 5, and Beth, 4. The way he loved his wife, Laura.

"Think about all of those wonderful memories," Mr. Steiner said. "Those are the memories that will keep us going."

Several family members were too distraught to walk from the funeral home. They had to be helped to an Army van waiting outside.

A military honor guard carried the coffin to the street as the entire town seemed to stop to pay its respects.

Residents stood silently on the sidewalks. Flags flew at half-staff along East Baltimore Street. Police officers snapped to attention in the middle of the street, saluting the casket of the fallen flight crew chief as it was carried by six soldiers to a hearse.

A mile-long funeral procession of almost 80 cars wound its way through town on a 19-mile journey to Evergreen Memorial Gardens in Finksburg -- past the steepled churches and clapboard houses, the ranches and ramshackled barns along Route 140.

At the cemetery, seven soldiers fired three volleys from their M-16s while an honor guard stretched an American flag over Specialist Colbert's coffin. A soldier played taps, and the chopping whir of approaching helicopters grew louder.

The copters -- two Hueys and a Black Hawk -- fluttered overhead on their first pass. Minutes later, they returned, this time flying in a "missing man" formation. The two Hueys stayed on course while the Black Hawk peeled off.

Seconds later, the helicopter Specialist Colbert loved to fly was gone, disappearing over the treetops on its way back to base.

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