One by one the mourners emerged, marching through the open field, taking their seats in the forest green velvet-draped chairs and staring at the gaping hole in the ground before them. It was a soldierly scene marked by ritual and pageantry, one already embedded deep in the nation's psyche.
The fact that it was a scene that had been played out thousands of times at Arlington National Cemetery had little meaning for the Prince family. Yesterday, under the searing sun and creamy clouds, they laid to rest one of their own, Army Sgt. 1st Class Neil A. Prince, a son, a husband, a father, a soldier.
"You hear about soldiers dying every day and you feel bad, but you're so far removed until it hits you yourself," said Prince's youngest sister, Shane Prince, 32.
Neil Prince, 35, of Baltimore, was killed June 11 by a roadside bomb in Iraq, leaving behind a wife of nearly 10 years and a 4-year-old son, Jordan.
A few hours before Prince's burial, Sgt. David J. Murray was laid to rest, just one grave to the left, in Section 60 at Arlington. Murray, a 23-year-old sheriff's deputy from Clinton, La., had been in Iraq with the Louisiana National Guard and died June 9 when a bomb exploded under his armored vehicle in Baghdad.
Murray and Prince were the 147th and 148th people killed in the Iraq war to be buried at Arlington.
Prince, who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was a month away from the end of his tour in Iraq when he died, and he had already shipped two large trunks of clothing home to his wife in Maryland, his family said.
A field artillery tactical data systems specialist, Prince had spent most of his time in Iraq cushioned from danger in the protected operations center, said his wife, Suzette McLeod Prince. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 17th Field Artillery Regiment in the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division. He made an unusual trip out of the safe zone June 11, hitching a ride with an Iowa National Guard convoy along a supply route from Ramadi to nearby Habbaniya in western Iraq, Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, a spokesman for the Guard, told The Washington Post last week.
As the convoy passed the town of Al Taqaddum, a roadside bomb exploded, halting the convoy but not injuring anyone. But as the soldiers scanned the road, three more bombs detonated, and the third went off directly beneath Prince's armored Humvee, instantly killing him and Spec. Casey Byers, 22, of Schleswig, Iowa, Hapgood said.
"Neil Prince was a guy who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time," Hapgood said in an interview Monday.
The nature of Prince's death has been especially traumatic for his wife.
"I'm angry. It's the fact that he was almost home and normally he doesn't go out," Suzette Prince said. "He went out and that was all that it took."
Prince's family emigrated from Jamaica in 1980, settling in Baltimore two years later. After graduating from Baltimore City College in 1989, Prince enlisted in the Army and served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
During a tour in Germany, he grew to like beer, and when he came home he would grab a cold one, Heineken, and watch sports on television with his father. The Los Angeles Lakers and San Francisco 49ers were among his favorite teams.
He met his wife while she was working as an Army medic at Fort Lewis near Seattle, and they married at Fort Hood in Texas.
"It's just hard to accept that he's gone and that my future's without him," Suzette Prince said. She began to cry and added, "Sometimes I want to be selfish and I don't want to hear anything else about anyone else, but that won't bring him back."
Twelve-hundred miles away, in the southeastern Louisiana town of Clinton, tears are also flowing. Sgt. Murray's death has shaken the town of 1,998, a close-knit community that has waved goodbye to a parade of young men and women sent to fight in Iraq but had not lost anyone until now.
A young man hailed as a dedicated team player with a big heart, Murray was in Iraq with the Army National Guard's 1088th Engineering Battalion and was awarded a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Good Conduct Medal.
At home, he had worked as a sheriff's deputy, patrolling the streets of East Feliciana Parish. Norwood Police Chief G. Scott Ford said Murray -- who also worked part time for Ford's department -- embodied what a police officer should be -- a chiseled cop, wearing a starched and pressed uniform, creased at every seam, yet with smudges of dirt here and there as evidence of a day's hard work.
Murray's call sign was "N4," and just before he left for Iraq, Ford told him, "There will never be another N4 until you come back and resume your duties."
Friends and family said Murray had a competitive spirit nurtured at Silliman Institute, the private school where he played football and ran track and cross country. He would run two miles every day when he got home from practice to ensure his conditioning, his coaches said.
"He was a 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' military-type guy even when he was a kid," said Silliman Principal Marvin Holland, who was Murray's football coach.
Even as they grieve, members of Murray's family take pride in the fact that he died a patriot.
"I'm proud as hell," said his stepfather, John Parker. "He did what he wanted to do, and he did it 100 percent every time, whether it was football, mowing the grass or serving his country."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Neil A. Prince.
Louisiana National Guard Sgt. David J. Murray.