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In Memoriam

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Pfc. Ryan Cox, U.S.M.C (NCD)

(reprinted from the Witchita KS Eagle, June 26, 2003)

Saying goodbye to a fallen Marine
The community gathers to celebrate the life of Sedgwick County’s first service member killed in Iraq.

BELLE PLAINE — It was a funeral that brought people together. Old and young Marines; women with gray hair and Sunday dresses, and women with highlights and tattoos; aging men with neat mustaches and ties, and teenage boys with earrings and swaggers; and shy children holding their parents’ hands. They were white, black, Hispanic, Asian.

The memory of Marine Pfc. Ryan Cox united them.

It was his funeral.

They came Wednesday to respect and remember the 19-year-old whose life passed through Belle Plaine, Wellington and Derby before he died June 15 from the accidental discharge of another soldier’s weapon near Najaf, Iraq. He became the first soldier from Sedgwick County to die in Iraq.

He was an infantryman from Charley Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Even before he graduated from Derby High School, he wanted to be a Marine.

His funeral brought hundreds of people to Belle Plaine, a Sumner County town of about 1,800, south of Wichita.

It was a funeral that drew Ernie Garcia, the senior assistant to Wichita’s city manager. Garcia, a lieutenant colonel and Marine reserve officer, wore his dress blues to the Belle Plaine High School gymnasium, where the service was held.

“I certainly didn’t know him personally, but he is a brother of mine because he is a Marine,” Garcia said.

“It’s a respect we have for each other.”

It was a funeral that drew Gary Canant, a 58-year-old Marine Vietnam veteran from Leawood. He volunteered to play taps at Cox’s burial after hearing about the young Marine’s death.

“It’s a way to honor somebody,” he said.

In the gymnasium, mourners walked past Cox’s open, flag-draped coffin.

Beside the coffin, a Marine in dress uniform stood erect, white-gloved hands behind his back.

As part of the Marine tradition, a Marine had accompanied Cox’s body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Kansas.

A young woman paused at the coffin. She saw Cox, in his dress uniform, medals pinned to it. He was tall. He had high cheek bones and a square jaw. He was handsome.

Before she quietly walked away from the coffin, creases formed in her forehead as she fought back tears.

The mourners, in the bleachers and in folding chairs covering the gleaming basketball court, watched a slide show made up of snapshots of Cox’s life: as a small child, petting a cat; a few years older, wearing a ninja warrior costume; crossing a finish line. He became one of the fastest hurdlers in the state.

In the moments after the tape ended, the only audible sounds were sniffles from people crying across the gymnasium.

“This is a tough one. We will try to get through it together,” the Rev. Steven Lee of Belle Plaine told the rows of people.

Lee wanted everyone to know about the good things Cox had done. The pastor read a letter Cox had written to his younger sister, Chelsea, 13. Among his advice to her: Never make fun of anyone, even if others do it.

At the Belle Plaine Cemetery, lined by old cedar trees, Lee told the mourners: “This body will rise again. This is not the final resting place.”

He asked people to bow their heads in prayer. “Thank you for this life,” he said.

Cox’s body will lie next to his grandfather’s. Stanley DeLano, who died two years ago, adored his grandson.

A woman began to sob uncontrollably just as seven Marines fired volleys of a gun salute, with blank rounds that cracked sharply as thunder rumbled overhead.

A sudden breeze blew across the cemetery, causing corn tassels to wave in a field nearby. The hot sun disappeared, and the temperature dropped in seconds.

Near Cox’s silver casket, surrounded by bouquets of red, white and blue, two Marines methodically folded two American flags.

In measured steps, they walked over to Cox’s mother, Robin Hamilton, and his father, Alan Cox.

Each Marine bent down on a knee and gently handed a flag to each parent.

The Marines appeared to say something to each parent, looking straight into their eyes, talking only to them.

The Marines stood up, stood straight.

And they saluted.