Marvin R. Sprayberry Jr. replays the news of his son's death in his mind over and over again, trying to absorb it.
"He just keeps saying, 'I want my son back home. I want him back home,' " said Orion Sanders, 41, of Tehachapi, Calif., a friend of Sprayberry's. "It just hasn't sunk in."
Yesterday, Sprayberry watched as his son, Army Sgt. Marvin R. Sprayberry III, 24, was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. His wood coffin was placed at the end of a growing row of Operation Iraqi Freedom casualties, marking the 61st such burial in Arlington's lush green hills.
On May 3, Sprayberry, a Bradley fighting vehicle mechanic, drowned in a canal north of Baghdad. Sprayberry and his crew -- part of the 1st Infantry Division's 4th Cavalry Regiment, based in Vilseck, Germany -- were leading a convoy of Humvees in Balad, Iraq, when one of the vehicles trailing behind them stalled.
"They were going to turn around and check . . . and see what was wrong," said Martha Schmidt of Bakersfield, Calif., the soldier's 91-year-old great-grandmother.
They never made it.
Sprayberry and his crew veered off a road, and the ground beneath them collapsed, sending their Humvee tumbling into the canal. Three men riding with him, 1st Lt. Christopher J. Kenny, 32, of Miami; Sgt. Gregory L. Wahl, 30, of Salisbury, N.C.; and Pfc. Lyndon A. Marcus Jr., 21, of Long Beach, Calif., also died in the accident.
Yesterday, a haze hung in the air as six soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry, "the Old Guard," carried Sprayberry's casket from a silver hearse to a sunny patch at the cemetery's southeastern end.
In the front row of velvet green chairs sat Sprayberry's wife, Nadja; her mother, Elvira Uselman; his mother, Caryn Funkhouser; his stepmother, Lynn Sprayberry; and his father.
The family members sat quietly, wiping their faces with tissues, as Psalm 23 could be heard through the breeze. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . .
In keeping with traditional military honors, a seven-member firing party fired three rounds into the warm, muggy air. A lone bugler, standing in the shade of a pin oak, performed taps.
A grieving Marvin Sprayberry Jr. shuddered after Brig. Gen. Louis W. Weber leaned over to present him with a folded American flag. His son was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star for valor.
Family friends in Tehachapi, a city of 6,200 perched high in the mountains above the Mojave desert, said the community was ravaged by the news of the young man's death.
"I can tell you from this end there's been a huge outpouring of people interested and showing their support," Sanders said. "We're real proud of him and everyone in his unit."
Sprayberry was bright, witty and loving and had a strong presence, said Margy Young, 53, a neighbor and close friend.
"We always called him 'Marvelous Marvin,' " Young said. "He was the type of kid . . . you could have 15 kids in the house, but when he got there, it was, 'Marvin's here.' "
Sprayberry was 5 feet 6 inches tall "on a good day," Young joked. "He was little but mighty."
He joined the Army after graduating from Tehachapi High School in 1997. The next year, he was sent to Germany, where he met his wife, said Schmidt, his great-grandmother.
Sprayberry had said that he wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Young said.
Although his father might have preferred to have buried him closer to home, he honored his son's wish, Young said.
"His father loved him in life and in death and wanted to be there for his kid," she said.
R. Sprayberry III