Staff Sgt. Craig W. Cherry knew the local Salvation Army headquarters well. He had once lived in the building just behind it and was married in its chapel less than a year ago, just a few days before his third child was born.
But Friday, as the clouds that had threatened rain gave way to sunny, brilliant blue skies, Cherry's family, friends and colleagues returned to the brick building surrounded by lush greenery for his funeral.
The irony was not lost on Salvation Army Capt. Richard White, who had married Craig and Donna Cherry, as he gave the eulogy.
"This day is a very humbling experience for me," White said. "Eight months ago, Craig, Donna and I stood where the casket is and shared that marriage ceremony. Who would've known that eight months later we'd gather here again to say goodbye to Craig?"
Cherry, 39, of Winchester, was killed Aug. 7 in Ghazikel, Afghanistan, when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb. Also killed were Sgt. Bobby E. Beasley, 36, of Inwood, W.Va., and an Afghan interpreter. Both soldiers were assigned to the Virginia Army National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, Winchester. The battalion is part of the 1st Brigade, 29th Infantry Division (Light), based at Fort Belvoir. The incident is under investigation.
More than 200 people attended Cherry's funeral and the burial services that followed at Winchester National Cemetery, where more than 2,300 unidentified Civil War soldiers are laid to rest. Cherry had a military-style funeral, complete with a gun salute, presentation of his medals to his family and musical accompaniment by the City of Winchester Pipes and Drums.
Donna Cherry, 32, said her husband, an information technology specialist at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, was "one of them," a term she uses to describe the kind of person she connects with. Both had been married before, and neither was looking to do so again, she said. But when she met Craig at a Home Depot four years ago, she knew there was something special about him.
"Something just clicked between us," she said as she stood outside American Legion Post 21, where people had gathered after the services.
Two weeks ago, Craig called from overseas and asked her: "Am I still considered 'one of them'?"
"And I said, 'Yes, you are,' " Donna recalled with a laugh.
Her father, sister, brother and sister-in-law are in the military, and she knew the risk her husband faced. When his unit was called to active duty March 1, Craig Cherry could have retired, but he chose not to after conferring with the soldiers he led, she said.
"They all agreed they felt safer with him coming," she said of her husband, who had almost 20 years of military service. "Those were his brothers."
Others remembered Craig for his infectious smile and sense of duty to his family and country.
The Winchester community came out in force to honor him, with several people holding flags or saluting the hearse as a police escort led the funeral procession through the town's silent streets.
The deaths of Cherry and Beasley just weeks after they crossed the ocean sent shock waves through this Shenandoah Valley community, which has a long military tradition and is still mourning the loss of another local soldier in Iraq last summer.
Since their arrival in Afghanistan on July 14, the 570 soldiers in the Guard unit have been conducting "presence patrols" in villages, recovering weapons, setting up traffic checkpoints and watching for Taliban activities that could interfere with presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 9, which U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai is expected to win.
"When something like this happens, there are no words," said state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester).
White agreed. "When Craig left for active duty, I assumed he would come home someday," he said. "You say to yourself, 'How could this be?' "
Cherry and Beasley, a tight-knit duo, died fighting for what they believed in, said Chaplain Joel Jenkins, who called Cherry a "soldier's soldier."
"They would have it no other way if they felt the rest of us would be safe because of their service," he said. "They have come back to us to remind us to pray for their brothers."
In addition to Donna and their infant son, Cherry leaves behind a teenage son and daughter from a previous marriage.
Beasley will be buried Monday in Martinsburg, W.Va.