Sailor remembered as 'defender of freedom'

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Town gives Texan a hero's farewell

By Mark Wrolstad / The Dallas Morning News

ENNIS – Among his last words from the Middle East to his mother, Tim Gauna said he was "in dangerous waters."

On Wednesday, the young Navy seaman killed in a terrorist explosion in Yemen was laid to rest in tranquil fields.

The 21-year-old, eulogized as "a defender of freedom" and "the best America has to offer, a true national treasure," received a hero's farewell in the town where he grew up and dreamed of attending the University of Texas and playing professional baseball.

"Freedom is not free and never has been," said Rear Adm. John Costas of the Naval Reserve Readiness Command in Fort Worth. "Freedom is won by those willing to put themselves in harm's way so this great nation can live in the warm glow of liberty."

Adm. Costas told about 500 mourners overflowing Mr. Gauna's funeral at the Church of God in Ennis that "his spirit lives on" in the resolve and commitment of his fellow shipmates and countrymen.

"Tragically, some are called away too early in their young lives," he said.

Mr. Gauna was one of 17 American sailors – including three Texans – killed Oct. 12 by a blast that shattered the hull of the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer.

The explosion wounded 39 others in the worst U.S. military loss to terrorism since 1996, when 17 Air Force personnel died in a bombing in Saudi Arabia.

During the service, punctuated by the shrieks of the sailor's mother, Sarah Gauna, Adm. Costas walked near the flag-draped casket to present her with two posthumous awards for her son – the Navy Achievement Medal and the Purple Heart.

"I just want my son back," Ms. Gauna cried. "I just want Tim."

Mr. Gauna, who was born in Dallas, was a 1997 graduate of Ennis High School and lived the last few years in the tiny town of Rice, about 40 miles southeast of Dallas along Interstate 45.

Friends and eulogists remembered him Wednesday as a kind, fun-loving, respectful young man who was quietly religious and was earning the chance to go to UT through his Navy service.

Like other victims, Mr. Gauna was in the ship's mess hall when the bomb detonated in a small boat next to the Cole, said fellow seaman Eric Baker, his best friend aboard the ship and one of three shipmates attending the funeral.

"We had so much in common," said Mr. Baker, who is from Arlington. "He was energetic. He loved to have fun."

Two large framed photographs of Mr. Gauna stood near the church's entrance and next to his casket, ringed by a dozen floral arrangements and his Ennis baseball cap and jersey, No. 21. He died exactly a month before his 22nd birthday.

People stood along the auditoriumlike sanctuary and spilled out the doors into the entryway, where a photo collage of Mr. Gauna's life was displayed – baby pictures, riding a tiny bike, attending a wedding and family celebrations.

Crystal Carrillo, Mr. Gauna's cousin, tearfully told mourners how the family had clung to hope while he was listed for more than a week as missing and presumed dead.

His remains were returned to Ennis on Monday night.

"That's what we've been waiting for," James Gauna, an uncle, said before the service, "for him to be brought home so we can bury him."

Sobbing, Ms. Carrillo said she loved her cousin so much that "I would've traded places with him."

She described a dream in which she saw her cousin.

"He wasn't crying. He was smiling," she said. "I took it as a sign from God, letting me know he's better off."

Pastor Russell Mills drew comparisons between Mr. Gauna's death in the line of duty and Christ's crucifixion.

"He loved us," Mr. Mills said of Mr. Gauna, who started attending the church as a teenager. "He loved America, and he was protecting all of us. You see, Jesus Christ did the very same thing."

Lt. Cmdr. Rich Stoglin, a Navy chaplain, concluded his remarks by having Mr. Gauna's three shipmates stand and by invoking a Navy saying:

"So long, shipmate. Fair seas and following winds. Vaya con Dios."

The funeral procession drove past U.S. flags at half-staff as it crossed town to the cemetery.

At one street corner, an older woman working as a school crossing guard removed her ball cap and placed it over her heart while the cars passed.

As mourners crunched through dry autumn leaves to reach the gravesite, a Navy color guard carried the casket to its final resting place along a line of cedars.

The sailors ceremoniously folded the flag from the casket. Ms. Gauna clutched the flag to her face and wept.

"I'm so sorry, Tim, I wasn't there to take care of you," she cried, supported by her husband, Enrique Esquival. Her two other sons and two daughters embraced and sobbed.

A seven-member Navy rifle squad fired three volleys in salute. A Navy bugler, standing in the distance beneath an old oak, played taps.

But a mother's agony still echoed.

"I love you, Tim. Please! Why? Oh, why?"