Soldier `gave his life for all of us'

Family and friends remember Canton native killed in Iraq

July 09, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

Two firetrucks sat parked outside St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church in Canton yesterday morning with their ladders extended and a huge flag dangling between them. A church bell rang solemnly. And people filing into the old church pinned on striped red-white-and-blue ribbons as an organist played "America the Beautiful."

Hundreds of mourners and flag-bearing veterans turned out yesterday to remember Army Spc. Michael J. Potocki, a Canton native and military sniper who was killed last month in Iraq, just two months shy of the end of his military service.

"Today and in these past days, we have been remembering someone who had lovingly and honorably shown himself to be our friend," the Rev. Ross Syracuse, pastor of St. Casimir, told those gathered in the church where the soldier was baptized. "He was willing to make the bravest of sacrifices as he gave his life for all of us."

Serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, Specialist Potocki, 21, was assigned to the Army's 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment.

He and a small group of fellow soldiers had been tasked to watch locations where insurgent fighters had previously gathered to attack U.S. troops and shoot them if they reappeared, said Maj. Gen. Vincent E. Boles, the commanding general of the Army Ordnance Center and School in Aberdeen and the branch's designated representative to the funeral.

Specialist Potocki was killed June 26 when his unit came under small-arms fire in Al Asad.

Two young soldiers in combat uniforms who sat with Potocki's mother, Debra, and younger brother, Kevin, at the church and gravesite yesterday served in his unit and were with him in Iraq the day he was killed, a family friend, Debbie Riser, said. The Army flew them in from Iraq to attend the funeral.

In a eulogy delivered by one of the soldier's many uncles, Specialist Potocki was remembered as a friendly person who always had a big smile on his face and as a friend to fellow soldiers - "someone to count on when things went bad," Stanley Potocki said.

After attending Father Kolbe School in Canton, then playing lacrosse and graduating in 2003 from Patterson High School, "Mikey took a big step in life," Stanley Potocki said of his nephew's decision to join the military. "When he made it through his first tour, we breathed a sigh of relief."

"This tour would be a lot harder," the uncle said, adding that Specialist Potocki and his fellow soldiers "were being shot at all the time."

More than 80 cars followed the hearse from the church to St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Southeast Baltimore, near the city-county line. Police officers and military veterans on motorcycles blocked traffic at many intersections as the funeral procession made its way across town, attracting attention and prompting some pedestrians to salute or place their hands over their hearts.

White-gloved soldiers in dress uniform served as pallbearers and fired three rifle volleys in a solemn salute before a lone bugler played taps.

Then, General Boles presented Debra Potocki with a wooden case containing the American flag that had been draped across the casket, as well as her son's ribbons, military nametag and pins. A similar case was presented to Specialist Potocki's brother.

"He was a soldier and he served his nation," General Boles later said in an interview. "He went for us."

Family members have said Specialist Potocki was scheduled to return home next month and had planned to join the Baltimore Police Department.

Included in the funeral program was an excerpt from what Specialist Potocki had written about his time in the Army. Military service, he wrote, had introduced him not only to "extremely crazy weather conditions" and "interesting people from all over America," but also to the experience of "risking my life every day for a cause I'm not real sure is the real one."

"But all these things have turned me into a better man and a better person," he continued. "I've begun to not take things for granted because I know for a fact how bad things can really get."

Specialist Potocki continued: "I hate being in the Army," but he added that he was glad that he had joined because of the ways his service had changed him and would continue to do so until he left the Army.

"So for all the downsides to being here," he wrote, "all I have to do is look into the future and look at all the great things I have accomplished and how much of a better human being it has made me, and I'm happy again."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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