Farewells for fallen soldier In Millville, mourners honor a former altar boy.

Posted: December 13, 2003

MILLVILLE, N.J. — In the same peaceful church sanctuary at St. John Bosco Church where Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Walkup Jr. once served as an altar boy, mourners yesterday attended his Funeral Mass.

Walkup, 25, who grew up in Millville, was aboard a transport helicopter that crashed Nov. 23 during a military support operation near Bagram, Afghanistan, killing five U.S. soldiers and injuring eight others.

"I have such fond memories of Tommy, because he was always ready to serve," said Msgr. William Graham of St. Lawrence Church in Lindenwold, who was pastor of St. John's during Walkup's three years as an altar boy (beginning at age 13). "When he was scheduled to be here to serve as an altar boy, you knew he would be here. He had a very clear-cut notion of what it meant to do the right thing and how to serve. And it is in that same readiness to serve that he tragically lost his life."

Graham, who has remained a close friend to the family, officiated at the funeral and delivered an emotional homily in which he lauded Walkup and his family for their sacrifice. The rest of the Mass was punctuated with Gospel readings, psalms, and hymns that spoke of sacrifice and service.

"My hope is that this family and all those who knew Tom in any way will hear words from people who do care about what happened and who also feel strongly about the nature of sacrifice, and be healed by those words," Graham told those gathered for the Mass.

Walkup's wife, Carissa "Kit" Walkup, 24, an Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, attended the Mass along with Walkup's parents, Thomas and Patricia Walkup of Millville, and his sister, Susan Justis.

In 1996, Walkup graduated from Millville High School, where he played football on the junior varsity team. He also worked part time as a stock boy at a local supermarket.

When he was 18, Walkup decided to join the Air Force. After basic training and a stint at a base in Arizona, he was stationed at Hurlburt Field in Florida, where he became a member of the Holley-Navarre Fire Department.

Walkup met his wife while stationed in Arizona. The two were married Dec. 16, 2000. He had been reassigned last June to Florida before being deployed to Kuwait in July and then to a classified location in September.

Before the Mass began yesterday, the family received friends near the casket, where Walkup's blue service uniform and ribbons were displayed. Many of the numerous floral arrangements surrounding the coffin were red, white and blue.

Near the start of the receiving line was a photographic collage created by Walkup's sister memorializing the various stages of her younger brother's life. Nearby was a picture of Walkup and the rest of the crew of the doomed helicopter taken just before the flight on which he died.

"We worked very closely with the family to choose just the right music and readings," said cantor Sue Schwegel. "His sister and his mother wanted very much for this to be a celebration of his life."

Just before Walkup's flag-draped casket was removed from the church, cantor Jackie Buono sang "America The Beautiful," stirring even the most stoic of the 200 mourners.

The haunting words of the final verse - "O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years . . ." - seemed to culminate in an emotional crescendo for the whole crowd gathered in the church. At the end of the service, several of Walkup's military colleagues who were present wept openly.

To commemorate Walkup's service as a firefighter in Florida, his casket was taken from the church parking lot to the Barbetti Funeral Home on the back of an antique fire truck.

His burial will take place on Dec. 30 in Arlington National Cemetery during an interment ceremony for the five servicemen killed in the crash.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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