Friends, relatives and fellow soldiers gathered Saturday to grieve for a U.S. paratrooper killed during a firefight in eastern Afghanistan, with a major general calling him a "servant of our nation."

Sgt. Steven Checo, 22, a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, died Dec. 21 from a gunshot wound.

A funeral Mass in Spanish was held at Mother Cabrini Church, not far from where the child of Dominican immigrants grew up in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. He and his family had moved to Elizabeth, N.J., about three years ago.

"Not only has he served, but he has given the ultimate sacrifice, his life, so you and I can be free in this land of ours," the Rev. Joseph Orlandi told mourners.

Cardinal Edward Egan also offered a prayer during the Mass.

After the funeral, Checo was honored with a 21-gun salute at a cemetery in the Bronx, where his body was to be cremated, by uniformed soldiers from the 82nd Airborne. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Chuck Swannack, presented flags to his mother and father.

"He was a very dedicated, faithful, servant of our nation," Swannack told reporters after the service.

"You don't know how proud of him we are," said his brother, Erik Checo.

Checo was the 17th American killed in hostile action in Afghanistan since the war on terror began late last year.

As a boy, he had been active with a Navy-based youth group and wanted to join the military "from the get-go," said his uncle, Gilberto Checo. "That was his life."

A member of the youth group, Neglinson Garcia, said Saturday that Checo was the "peacekeeper" among his friends.

"I'm going to miss him a lot," Garcia said.