Family members, friends and officials said farewell Sunday in Waterford to Marine Corps Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse, who lived a life of triumph until his death last month in an ambush outside Nasiriyah, Iraq.
``We can never repay the debt, but we can pay tribute to him,'' Rowland said. ``He is a hero in the state of Connecticut and he is a hero to this nation.''
More than 600 people attended the service at Waterford High School, where Chanawongse graduated in 1999, and watched as his family received his Purple Heart, awarded posthumously to Chanawongse.
Chanawongse's older brother, Kemapawse, who delivered the family eulogy, said they had been together all their lives: ``We laughed together and cried together.''
Kemapawse Chanawongse said later that he knew his ``little brother'' was now in a place of happiness. Chanawongse was known to his friends as ``Chuckles'' for his good-natured bantering and wisecracking.
``I'm sure he's up there looking down, smiling,'' Kemapawse Chanawongse said. ``I'm so proud of him.''
Rowland said Chanawongse, whose nickname was Ahn, led a life that was a lesson to all. Chanawongse became an American citizen after coming to the United States from Thailand at the age of 9.
``He achieved a childhood dream. He lived a life of triumph,'' Rowland said.
``It kind of jolts you to see someone who volunteers for their country and gives up their life,'' Rowland said after the service. He said he is looking forward soon to welcoming back thousands of men and women who are serving in the reserves.
U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd escorted Chanawongse's mother, Tan Patchem, and her husband, Paul, to the high school auditorium stage where the Torch of Freedom and Memory was lit for the two-hour service.
Giving the opening remarks at the service, First Selectman Paul B. Eccard said it was not only important to grieve the loss of Waterford's son, but also to celebrate a life that was given for others.
``Some live long and give a little. Some live little and give a lot. Ahn lived little and gave a lot,'' Eccard said.
``He has become a symbol of what is good about America, our local community, and strong family values,'' Rear Adm. Robert C. Olsen of the U.S. Coast Guard told the mourners.
The service included a U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard presentation, the playing of the National Anthem by the high school band, the singing of ``America the Beautiful,'' and a violin solo of ``The Marine Corps Hymn.''
Rowland noted that Chanawongse's life dream was to be a defender of democracy and it was fitting that he died while trying to help the Iraqi people win freedom from an oppressive dictatorship.
``He had probably a greater appreciation for democracy than others,'' Rowland said. ``Indeed, he died an American hero.''
After the service, the couple and their family traveled to Washington, D.C., where Chanawongse will be honored and laid to rest with military honors today at Arlington National Cemetery.
More than a dozen members of Chanawongse's family attended the service, including his grandfather, 72-year-old retired Thai Air Force veteran Chran Pinrode, who wore his white uniform for the service.
After the ceremony, hundreds crowded the high school lobby, waiting in line to offer their condolences to Chanawongse's family.
Some close friends struggled without success to fight back tears.
``My mind is so jumbled. I don't know what to say,'' Steve Cavan, a close friend of Chanawongse, said as tears streamed down his face.
- DAN UHLINGER