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Governor thanks fallen soldier's family for their 'great sacrifice'

Maj. Gen. Larry Lafrenz presents a flag from the burial service for Sgt. James Holtom to Holtom's fiancee, Melissa Sewell Tuesday afternoon at the Idaho Veterans Cemetery. In the background, Maj. Gen. Lawrence Johnson presents a flag to Sgt. Holtom's father, David Holtom.
Maj. Gen. Larry Lafrenz presents a flag from the burial service for Sgt. James Holtom to Holtom's fiancee, Melissa Sewell Tuesday afternoon at the Idaho Veterans Cemetery. In the background, Maj. Gen. Lawrence Johnson presents a flag to Sgt. Holtom's father, David Holtom. Joe Jaszewski / Idaho Statesman

Melissa Sewell clutched a U.S. flag as she leaned over the casket of the man who was to be her husband Tuesday at the Idaho Veterans Cemetery.

The intimate moment followed a graveside ceremony that drew more than 400 people to honor Sewell's fiance, 22-year-old Sgt. James Holtom, one of three Idaho soldiers killed Feb. 8 by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

People huddled together in the blustery wind, holding hands or hugging. Officers gave Holtom's parents, Reyne and Dave Holtom of Rexburg, the flag that had covered the casket throughout the day. Sewell was given a duplicate. The military ceremony also featured a 21-gun salute and a lone bugle playing taps.

Gov. Butch Otter spoke briefly, offering words of condolence to the family and thanking them for their "great sacrifice." He especially talked about the loss for Idaho and for Sewell.

"I feel like I've been cheated," Sewell said through tears during Holtom's memorial service earlier in the day. "I hope something good comes out of this."

Holtom, Sgt. Ross A. Clevenger, 21, and Pfc. Raymond M. Werner, 22, were killed during a mission to clear roadside bombs in al-Anbar province with the Boise-based 321st Engineer Battalion.

Dave Holtom addressed nearly 1,000 people at his son's two-hour memorial service at Treasure Valley Baptist Church in Meridian. With his wife standing silently by his side, he spoke for nearly 25 minutes about his son, the war and the value of family.

"This country was not formed by pacifists," he said, adding that he supported his son and nation in efforts to "liberate where there is tyranny."

At the same time, he wondered out loud if the mission in Iraq is clear. "To say we're just against terrorism is too broad," he said.

Holtom praised his son for his commitment to his faith and moral values.

Sewell told the crowd she and James Holtom had wanted to set an example for others with their relationship, abstaining from sex until marriage.

Respect, she said, was the foundation for their relationship.

Holtom was known for his love of the outdoors, from shooting small game to taking his 4-wheel-drive truck out for a spin on a muddy day.

"He liked dirt," she said, and she liked that about him. "He cleaned up well."

For soldiers who have served in Iraq, Holtom's death is a painful reminder of what could have happened to them.

Sgt. Benjamin Lee, 27, of Nampa, spent 10 months in Iraq, but his unit did not experience any casualties.

"It brings to light how hard a hardship this can be," Lee said softly while standing in the church vestibule. "My daughter was born while I was gone. It could have been that my daughter would never have seen me."

Staff Sgt. Robert Bond of Boise, who helped train Holtom, spoke with tears in his eyes before the morning funeral began.

"It's really like losing a brother. He just had this way about him — a quiet confidence," said Bond, 26.

Twenty-four Idahoans have died in Iraq since the U.S. began its war on terrorism in the fall of 2001.

Holtom joins 944 other veterans, including four from the Iraq war, buried at the Idaho Veterans Cemetery.

His gravesite, located on the cemetery's towering hill, was specially selected by his family. His casket was lowered into the grave later Tuesday, after everyone had left.

Contact Vickie D. Ashwill at vashwill@idahostatesman.com or at 373-6691.

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