By Jeremy Harrow
The bell tolled solemnly for Corporal Robert Marcus Rodriguez Friday as the hearse carrying the slain marine from Maspeth made its way to Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Brooklyn for the young soldier's funeral.
Rodriguez, 21, died in the Iraq war on March 25 when his tank fell into the Euphrates River after the driver had been shot by a sniper. Three other marines in the tank, members of the 1st Tank Battalion of the 1st Marine Division, also lost their lives.
Despite pouring rain and unseasonably cold temperatures, the uniformed men and women of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Police Department and the Fire Department never lost their composure as they lined up along the street outside the church to honor Rodriguez.
He received full military honors as a color guard greeted the corporal's arrival. Mayor Bloomberg and other dignitaries were also present as eight marines in their dress blues escorted Rodriguez's flag-draped coffin into the hushed church.
About 200 mourners and parishioners gathered to pay their respects. Befitting the young Puerto Rican's cultural heritage, the services were conducted in Spanish and English.
The Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, spoke endearingly of Rodriguez. “Let's hope we can imitate his decision,” Brosnan made a point of saying as he commended the corporal's choice to serve others.
That service, the pastor said, was done “to the full extent of his abilities.” Brosnan told the mourners to be “proud of his sacrifice” and to make their lives better because of it.
Although the Rodriguez family now lives in Maspeth, they used to live near the church in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn. The family continues to attend Blessed Sacrament, said Brosnan.
“Robert had made his communion here,” the priest said.
The family declined any interviews at the funeral but they delivered a statement at the corporal's wake earlier in the week: “When a family suffers such a great loss, such as we have, the support of our community, parish, friends and neighbors are greatly appreciated. We have realized that we are not alone in our pain.”
At one point in the funeral, a children's choir from the Blessed Sacrament school got up and sang “God Bless America” as many in the audience stood up in respect and quietly mouthed the words.
Bloomberg told the Maspeth family that he was extending his “heartfelt condolences” on behalf of all New Yorkers. The mayor described the day as mixture of sorrow and pride.
“Freedom and security are precious, and come at a price,” he said, “and Robert was willing to pay that price.”
Bloomberg spoke of Rodriguez's ambition to join the NYPD after his tour of duty. “He truly would have been one of our finest.”
The mayor also reminded everyone that the war in Iraq really began 19 months ago in Lower Manhattan when two airplanes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers. The need to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the wrong hands made it imperative to go into Iraq, he said.
“We owe Robert more than we can ever say,” Bloomberg said.
As the corporal's coffin was accompanied back to the hearse by his fellow marines, the children's choir serenaded the procession with its rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
Carole Antenor who, like the Rodriguez family moved to Queens but still attends the Brooklyn church, said she came to pay her respects “because I have three nephews in the Army.” The 52-year-old said she thought “they did a good job” with the funeral.
The young marine was buried at Pinelawn National Cemetery on Long Island.
Alex Ginsberg contributed to this report