Sept. 20, 2007 — A police escort with sirens wailing led the hearse carrying the body of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gregory Rivera-Santiago through Christiansted Thursday morning to St. Joseph's Church in Mount Pleasant.
Rivera-Santiago was killed Sept. 9 west of Baghdad in a motor vehicle accident.
A full military funeral for Rivera-Santiago, the third Virgin Islander to die in Iraq this year, began in the Grand Ballroom at Government House, with flags flying at half-staff. Rivera-Santiago lay in state at Government House, and close to 80 friends, family and dignitaries paid their respects.
"I am here to pay my respects to a brave fallen Virgin Islands soldier who distinguished himself in the 82nd Airborne as one of our finest. He made the ultimate sacrifice," said former Sen. Holland Redfield. During the viewing one could hear "hero" mentioned several times.
At 10 a.m. the mourners filed down the main staircase while the casket was prepared to be taken to St. Joseph's Church.
"I am here on behalf of the government to make sure his memory will live on forever. It is an honor to have had him here at Government House," said Pedro Encarnacion, St. Croix administrator. The casket was then carefully carried down the main staircase by pallbearers of the 82nd Airborne to the quiet "Ready, step" directions of the head pallbearer.
Close to 175 people came to the Catholic memorial service held at St. Joseph's, where once again the casket was open.
Gov. John deJongh Jr., Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis and Cheryl Francis were at the church to pay last respects to the fallen soldier.
"Gregory was always very quiet, but he liked to crack jokes." said Moses Gordon, Rivera's boyhood friend, during the eulogy.
"He was cut out for the military with his crisply starched and ironed clothes that could stand up on their own. He was a smart man who loved to read.
"He loved his family and was always there for them even baking birthday cakes for his kids. We will all truly miss him," Gordon said
Gordon later told the Source that Rivera's young daughter Ayani had asked, "Where are we going to find another dad like him?"
Army Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the commander of Special Operations Command South, awarded Rivera-Santiago four medals posthumously. He presented them to Rivera's widow, Brooke Rivera; his mother, Carmen Santiago, his father Gregorio Rivera; and brother Ommi Rivera.
"Gregory is no stranger to St. Josephs," said Rev. Louis K. Kemayou, "He was baptized, made his first holy communion and confirmation here at St. Joseph's."
Rivera-Santiago's mother and wife appeared to hold up well during the services, but his sister, Inia Rivera, broke down at times.
"He was a real hero to us. He is the only one I know to fight for us and keep me in the safe side," said Wifredo Joubert, Rivera-Santiago's cousin.
The burial was at Kingshill Cemetery in the veterans section. From a gently sloping hill at the outskirts of the cemetery Rivera-Santiago's regiment from the 82nd Airborne Division gave a twenty-one gun salute, and taps was played. The U.S. flag covering the casket was slowly and precisely folded with each pallbearer checking the folds. Cleveland presented the flag to Carmen Santiago.
The military was represented by the V.I. National Guard, Air National Guard, Army National Guard, Jr. ROTC and American Legion members from posts 102,133 and 85.
Rivera-Santiago was one of seven paratroopers killed in a vehicle crash. All were assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based in Fort Bragg, N.C. Rivera was Infantry Team Leader of the 1st Squadron.
This was Rivera-Santiagos third deployment to Iraq since the war began in 2003. He joined the Army in August 1999 and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in August 2002.
Rivera-Santiago's awards and decorations include the Bronze Star, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Army Achievement Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Army Good Conduct Medal with two loops, the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Valorous Unit Award, the Parachutist's Badge and the Combat Infantryman's Badge.
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