Even the soldiers couldn't hold back tears as the family and friends of Derek Holland gathered in Whitehall on Thursday to say goodbye, celebrating the 20-year-old casualty of the Afghan campaign as a pathless boy who had turned, as if by the touch of a wand, into a sure-footed man.
Holland, a 2006 graduate of Pen Argyl High School, was one of two Army National Guard soldiers killed June 3 when their Humvee hit a roadside bomb near the town of Zormat in Garmaz Province.
A specialist with Alpha Company, 228th Brigade Support Battalion, Bethlehem, Holland was less than a month into his first tour, providing security during reconstruction of the Afghan infrastructure. The Wind Gap resident was the 25th person with Lehigh Valley ties to die in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Holland was still a high school senior, attending the Career Institute of Technology in Forks Township, when he decided to join the Guard. Teachers said the decision in the winter of 2006 seemed to transform him overnight from a shaggy-haired kid uncertain of his future into a determined young man eager to serve.
When he learned he was being deployed overseas, he showed neither fear nor bravado but concern for how his mother, Kathy Andreas, would take the news, friends said.
"His military bearing was exceptional," said Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Horner, Holland's supervisor, during the memorial service outside the Donald S. Reinert VFW Post on Springmill Road.
He remembered his first encounter with Holland.
"As we talked that day, I don't think I've been called "Sergeant' so many times," Horner said. "I told him "Horner' was fine and he replied "Yes, Sgt. Horner."'
That anecdote drew chuckles from the mourners, whose memories of Holland largely centered on his sense of humor.
"You'd yell at him if he did something wrong, and the next thing you knew he had you laughing," said Sgt. Jamey Yurkonis, a member of Holland's unit who was on leave at his home in Pine Grove, Schuylkill County when he was stunned by a television news report of his fellow soldiers' deaths.
Before the hour-long service, Andreas greeted friends and occasionally clutched at Holland's dog tags, which she wore around her neck. Holland's father, David Holland of Coplay, sat with eyes fixed on his son's flag-covered casket and quietly accepted his medals: the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Army Good Conduct Medal and several others.
A rifle squad fired three volleys in salute and a bugler played taps. A flock of white doves released from a wicker cage soared into the blue skies; Andreas released a single dove afterward, symbolic of her son winging toward heaven.
Finally, eight soldiers bore Holland's casket slowly to a hearse and a contingent of the Patriot Guard -- volunteer motorcycle riders who provide escorts and security at soldiers' funerals -- led the mourners away.