CLOVIS, Calif. – U.S. Army Cpl. Nathan Hubbard's parents laid their youngest son to rest Friday, praying his death in Iraq last week might offer him a heavenly reunion with his older brother, who died in combat nearly three years ago.
Hundreds of close friends, relatives and people simply touched by the family's tragedy attended services at Hubbard's graveside and stood sobbing in the heat as they remembered a young man cherished for his lighthearted approach to life.
Hubbard, 21, was one of 14 soldiers who died Aug. 22 when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed due to mechanical malfunction. His brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Hubbard, 22, was killed in 2004 by a roadside bomb in Ramadi.
On Friday, the family's eldest, 33-year-old Army Spc. Jason Hubbard, stood in dress uniform between his younger brothers' graves and released a dove into the air, a gesture a pastor said symbolized Nathan's ascent skyward.
"We're still numb from the first one and it's like, 'Oh, now there's a second one,"' said Jason Hubbard, who was part of the team assigned to recover bodies from the crash site. "I'm just going through the paces to get through this."
St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, where a priest performed funeral services in nearby Fresno, held so many mourners earlier Friday morning it was filled beyond its 1,400-seat capacity.
Afterward, the funeral procession to Clovis District Cemetery passed through miles of residential streets decorated with red, white and blue ribbons and lined with people waving American flags.
Nathan's parents, Peggy and Jeff Hubbard, wanted their youngest son's funeral held in the same parish where Jared's life was honored on Veteran's Day 2004, said a spokeswoman for the Clovis Police Department.
The program and the flowered wreaths were nearly identical as at Jared's services. A portrait of Nathan in his green dress uniform sat on an easel behind his casket, near where his parents and older sister, Heidi, 31, sat while the same pastor gave a eulogy.
As a military officer presented them with a bronze star, Peggy Hubbard wiped away a tear.
"Nathan is experiencing a great reunion with Jared and all those who went before him," said the Rev. Perry Kavookjian from the dais. "Peace has come to them."
Notwithstanding the family's unimaginable loss, friends who knew the soldier for his sense of humor injected the service with moments of levity.
Michael Aboujaoude, 22, who met Nathan in first grade, drew chuckles from the crowd as he performed a song he wrote to honor his friend's ability to live life at his own pace.
"No one knows what you'll do next. You won't stop till you reach the crest," Aboujaoude sang, intoning the soldier's name. "(Nathan's) still very much alive in the rafters of this cosmos, looking down on the funeral."
The crowd grew silent, though, as pallbearers escorted Nathan's flag-draped casket to rest at Clovis District Cemetery, just inches from his brother's grave. The honor guard gave a 21-gun salute, a bagpiper played "Taps" and a military officer gave Nathan's mother the flag that had covered her son's casket.
Doves flew into the air, their bodies faintly outlined by the Sierra Nevada range.
Robin Davidson, a Clovis mother who lost her son in the war four months ago, said she attended the graveside services hoping to offer the family some solace. Her son, Army Sgt. Steven M. Packer, 23, of Clovis, died when his patrol encountered a makeshift bomb in Rushdi Mullah, Iraq.
"The families need our support," she said in a low voice. "We're still going through it. We still haven't begun to go through it."