Saturday afternoon was a time for mourning and remembrance as hundreds attended the burial service for Army Pvt. Thomas Edward Lee III at Chattanooga National Cemetery.
"He was just a great kid," said Wayne Hobbs, of LaFayette, Ga., Pvt. Lee's uncle "From the time he was 10 years old, he was like the man of the house. He took care of everything."
Pvt. Lee, 20, of Dalton, Ga., died May 29 in Mosul, Iraq, from wounds suffered when an explosive device struck his vehicle. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas.
According to Mr. Hobbs, Pvt. Lee was enthusiastic about his military career.
"That's all he talked about. He did anything and everything he could to get there," he said.
Police cars led the funeral procession to the cemetery while dozens of local Patriot Guard Riders followed on their motorcycles.
When the burial service began at the cemetery's pavilion, the Riders circled the structure, each holding an American flag.
Although some of those in attendance did not know Pvt. Lee personally, many felt a need to be at the service.
"We're just here to honor and support," said Pam Clark, who attended the service with her friend George Johnson.
Nancy Reynolds also said she did not know Pvt. Lee, but she decided to attend because of her close ties to the Army.
"I'm an Army mom, and my son is 20 years old just like Pvt. Lee was," she said.
Ms. Reynolds' son, Gabriel, is now at home after Pvt. Lee's unit replaced her son's group in Iraq in January.
"I just feel for that family, and I just lift them up in my prayers," Ms. Reynolds said. "My son had some close calls over there, but he made it back safe."
The burial service included a gun salute and the release of several doves.
Earlier, a funeral service was held at 11th Avenue Baptist Church in Dalton.
"We can be triumphant because Tommy died living his dream," said the Rev. Mark Seay, who led the service. "All he ever wanted to do was be a soldier and serve his country, and he did that so valiantly and so proudly."
Pvt. Lee was remembered as a rambunctious blonde-haired boy named "Tommy" who grew up playing G.I. Joe and telling his family he was destined to become a soldier.
Mr. Seay said Pvt. Lee "gave his life for our freedom." He said, like the G.I. Joe motto, Pvt. Lee is "a real American hero."
Before the service started, veterans groups displaying American flags lined the street and sidewalks leading to the church in Dalton. Attendants mingled outside in the sun and grew solemn, placing hands over hearts and saluting, as Pvt. Lee's remains arrived by motorcycle in a bronze urn bearing his name.
Members of the military honor guard escorted the American flag and the urn inside for the service.
Family members including Pvt. Lee's mother, Shirley Lee, sisters Ashley Lee and Katie Lee, and fiancee Misti Beasely, huddled close in front pews, across from a large framed portrait of Pvt. Lee in uniform. Sunlight filtered in the church's back windows as more than 100 family members, friends, residents and fellow servicemen and women gathered to honor the life of Dalton's fallen soldier.
"Today is the day to honor Tommy and the life that he lived," Mr. Seay said. "We gather to think about all of the things this young man achieved in his life."
"Arms of An Angel" played as Terry Roberson approached the podium and spoke of Pvt. Lee's bravery.
"Tommy loved his family, he loved his friends, he loved his country, he loved his God and he died for that reason," he said.
At the request of Shirley Lee, Mr. Seay recognized other soldiers who died or were injured in the same explosion that claimed Pvt. Lee's life. He said the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion was a respectable time to honor a fallen soldier.
"We don't realize it when we watch the news, but each of these numbers ... is a Tommy," Mr. Seay said.
A recording of bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" accompanied attendants exiting the church.
"He's in a better place," said David Drain, Pvt. Lee's stepbrother. "We've had our bad times (and) we fought, but it just made us stronger. He was a great guy."
Pvt. Lee is the 19th person with Tennessee Valley ties to die in service since the war in Iraq began in 2003.