Farewell to a Marine
Wilbur schools cancel classes for fallen son’s funeral service
It began with the long, deliberate march of a lone U.S. Marine, bearing the Stars and Stripes, offering a slow-motion salute that is the hallmark of a military goodbye.
It ended with a mother grasping that flag and blowing out the flame of her middle son’s baptismal candle.
Wilbur schools canceled classes Tuesday so teachers and students could say farewell to Marine Sgt. Nathan Paul Hays.
Washington State troopers in black bow ties lined the back of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Spokane. Marines in dress uniform dotted the aisles, escorting family members to and from their chairs.
“This day is about a gaping hole, torn from the fabric of a family’s heart,” said the Rev. Mike Nelson, the Lutheran pastor who watched Hays grow up in Wilbur, a small town about 90 minutes west of Spokane.
Hays, 21, was one of seven Marines who died Jan. 9, when their KC-130 crashed into a mountain in Pakistan.
His memorial service Tuesday was a mixture of the bravado, charm and earnestness that marked the life of a small-town boy who took his patriotism as seriously as he did football and cars. Hundreds of friends and family members showed up to pay their respects.
Hays was eulogized by his big brother and his little sister.
Nathan Hays taught his sister, Kassie, to tie her shoes, change the oil in her car and “how to drive really, really fast and get away with it” - a talent the son of a state trooper relished.
Nathan Hays towered over his big brother, Patrick, and egged him on as well.
“See how fast you can get us to Spokane,” he would say. Or, “Dude, she’s hot, you should talk to her.”
The worshippers at the service cried over a slide show that documented Hays’ life. Starting with a fat baby in a diaper, they watched him grow up - changing into a scrawny imp, collarbones and ribs poking out; then a tough-guy teenager, leaning against a motorcycle.
Finally, Hays made a final transformation; into a Marine, his hat perched low over his brow, his smile tamed into submission.
Although Nelson taught Hays his catechism and served him his first communion, the pastor got to know his pupil best while driving a grain truck with him two summers ago, chatting in the field while they waited for the combine.
“I was watching this young, confident man as he started out in life,” Nelson said. “Now, this day, this week, is about profound pain.”
But Hays’ parents, Jim and Kim, along with their pastors, refused to leave it at that. They turned to their Christian faith and their belief in resurrection.
In her sermon, the Rev. Jaynan Egland told mourners that Hays’ death was not the final blow.
“It is the end of the story, it is the beginning of life, and it’s a story that never ends,” she said.
Hays knew that, Egland said. She could see it in that smile that beamed out from so many of the photographs.
A mother herself, Egland said parenthood is a series of “snatches,” big and small. A child begins to walk, and soon he is walking away.
In August 1999, three months after he graduated from Wilbur High School, Nathan Hays made the big snatch, she said. He joined the Marines.
“As painful as that might have seemed, nothing compares to now,” she said.
But “Explanations are not God’s forte,” she said. And Hays’ family was not looking for answers. Instead, they leaned on their faith.