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Grand Island Guardsman laid to rest

MASTER SGT. EDWIN GARRIS: "As soldiers go, he was the type who always wanted to be where the fight is."

News Staff Reporter
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Dennis C. Enser/Buffalo News
Above, a hand touches the casket of Pfc. Benjamin C. Schuster on Monday during graveside services with military honors in Forest Lawn. Right, mourners cling to each other as they say goodbye to Schuster, a National Guardsman from Grand Island who was killed Feb. 25 in Iraq.


He didn't have to go to Iraq.

But it was just like Pfc. Benjamin C. Schuster, his family and friends said, to volunteer to go.

And in doing so, the 21-year-old Grand Island soldier paid with his life.

"Ben is and always has been my hero," said Brandan Jones, who grew up with Schuster, in delivering a eulogy Monday honoring his lifelong friend.

More than 400 people packed St. John Lutheran Church in North Tonawanda to say farewell to the National Guardsman who died of a gunshot wound Feb. 25 in Ramadi.

Lt. Col. David Zysk told the grieving crowd gathered in the church about how the fearless young man had signed up with the military knowing full well the dangers he would be facing.

"He joined the National Guard after Sept. 11, after the war in Iraq, after the impacts of the war started to hit here in Western New York," Zysk said.

Several months ago, Schuster asked about being deployed to Iraq, even though his unit, the Buffalo-based 2nd Battalion, 101st Cavalry Regiment, wasn't being called up, Zysk said.

Officials at the Guard's state headquarters would later tell Zysk that Schuster called "a couple of times a week" until he was selected to serve with a Pennsylvania unit that needed an extra man.

"His plan was to go serve and be a veteran," Zysk said.

After the service in the church, a seemingly endless line of cars lined up to travel to Forest Lawn for a graveside ceremony with military honors, amid the final resting places of dozens and dozens of World War I and II servicemen.

"As soldiers go, he was the type who always wanted to be where the fight is," Master Sgt. Edwin Garris said of Schuster. "He didn't want everyone else to do it for him."

Questions remain about exactly how Schuster was killed, but Garris said that's not what's important.

"What matters is that this kid volunteered and did whatever he was asked," Garris said. "Unfortunately, he paid the ultimate price."

A friend, Tiffany Scott, 21, of East Amherst, tearfully recalled the last time she saw Schuster. It was at her birthday party Feb. 2, right before he was deployed.

"I told him I would be so scared to go to Iraq," she said. "He said he was going so I wouldn't have to."

At the snow-spotted cemetery, Schuster's brother, parents and other relatives each carried a long-stemmed rose as they watched the solemn, outdoor honor guard presentation. Several of them winced as the explosive sounds of the 21-gun salute broke the midday quiet, followed by the stirring bugling of taps.

Two helicopters flew low overhead, and two Guardsmen, one who grimaced to hold back tears, meticulously folded the red, white and blue flag draped over Schuster's silver coffin. Andrew M. Davis, 22, wearing his brother's dog tags around his neck, stoically accepted the flag.

Schuster's family also was presented two awards for the fallen soldier: a U.S. Army commendation and the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross.

As the graveside service concluded, the family members piled their roses on top of Schuster's coffin.

A friend also left him a pack of Marlboro Lights.

Many paused to look at the gleaming, silver marker that will cover his grave: "Pfc. Benjamin C. Schuster 11-8-1984 - 2-25-2006."

Davis thanked mourner after mourner, exchanging handshakes and hugs, standing strong as his distraught and overwhelmed parents were guided to their waiting cars.

Davis hoped, more than anything, that the public would remember that his little brother went to Iraq because he truly wanted to serve his country - "that he volunteered," Davis said.

The family was deeply moved by the number of people who came to say goodbye to Schuster, Davis said.

"To not see the end of the line of cars was probably the best thing," he said, trying to smile.