NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas — Jake Hixson was to be Sgt. Thomas Spitzer's best man at his wedding, but instead gave his eulogy Monday at St. Paul Lutheran Church before a crowd that spilled into a lobby, while Patriot Guard riders stood outside on a hot afternoon.
The service was followed by a motorcade along Interstate 35 that saw people waiting at an overpass to salute Spitzer and his burial at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Friends recalled Spitzer as a young man who hewed to an honor code that prompted him to volunteer for a second tour of Afghanistan's most contested province, Helmand, where more coalition troops — 951 — have died than in any other. They searched for an upside to the end of a promising life and found it in the way he lived.
“We are left here today to honor a young man who in his 23 years ... lived life to the fullest,” said the Rev. Don Ofsdahl. “He was more interested in the quality of life than in the quantity of years.”
In 2009, Spitzer was just out of Canyon High School in New Braunfels and joined the Marines with a fellow graduate, John Felix Farias. They went through boot camp and infantry school together.
Farias, an Eagle Scout and lance corporal, also was killed in action in Helmand, in 2011.
Spitzer, who wore a bracelet with Farias' name on it and saluted him in his Facebook postings, joined him and 65 other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who now rest at Fort Sam.
“Man is like a mere breath,” Ofsdahl told the crowd, citing Psalm 144:4. “His days are like a passing shadow.”
Spitzer liked to play on beaches in the Bahamas, where his father, who served in the Navy, was stationed. He was described as a popular and excellent grade school student, playing soccer and baseball, and joining the Cub Scouts.
A love of sports continued in middle school and Canyon High. Spitzer played football, baseball and soccer, and also was in the band while in middle school. He power lifted and worked at Rockin' R River Rides and Montana Mike's, a steakhouse.
It was at the restaurant where Spitzer met his fiancée, Casey Neef, who was his trainer. They were to be married April 18, 2015.
“She trained him right,” Ofsdahl said, drawing a few chuckles.
Wearing the Marine Corps' famed globe and anchor was a turning point. In some ways, Spitzer was the same guy everyone had known for his big smile and helping others, but he was different.
“When he joined the Marines, you could tell there was never a doubt about serving his country,” Hixson said.
An unidentified platoon commander described Spitzer as a leader, writing his parents, “The calmness he brought to a fight eased the stress of those around him, enabling them to fight more efficiently. He also always acted with honor. He did the right things for the right reasons.”
Spitzer's first deployment to Helmand was in 2012. Back home, he re-enlisted and joined a Marine sniper platoon before returning to Afghanistan this past March. He was promoted to sergeant the next month.
Spitzer, who volunteered to man an M240B machine gun on his final mission, was hit by small-arms fire.
“Thomas always put others before himself,” said Matthew Huffman, who delivered the second eulogy. “No only was he my point man in Afghanistan, he was my point man in life.”
Amid profound grief, those at the church were urged to embrace Spitzer's hope as a Christian of everlasting life. Some wept as a bugler sounded taps at the cemetery, a pair of Marines in white gloves holding an American flag over his casket.
“Hope is the expectation of an eternal good,” said Ofsdahl, who told the crowd that “from an earthly standpoint,” this was a tough afternoon.
“Hope,” he added a moment later, “is the very anchor of the soul.”