Members of a U.S. Army color guard drape an American flag over the casket of Sgt. Michael J. Strachota outside St. Joseph Catholic Church inb Pine Bluff on Saturday. Strachota, who was killed June 24 in Afghanistan, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
A motorcycle makes its way toward St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff on Saturday, followed closely by a hearse carrying the casket of U.S. Army Sgt. Michael J. Strachota. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
Members of a U.S. Army color guard escort the casket of Sgt. Michael J. Strachota into St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff on Saturday. Strachota, 28, was killed June 24 while serving in Afghanistan. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
An onlooker salutes Saturday outside St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, where funeral services were held for U.S. Army Sgt. Michael J. Strachota. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
Nearly 250 motorcycles were on hand Saturday for the funeral of U.S. Army Sgt. Michael J. Strachota. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
U.S. Army Sgt. Michael J. Strachota was posthumously honored by the United States Army with a presentation of the Bronze Star Medal during his funeral service Saturday afternoon at St. Joseph Catholic Church.
U. S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Terry made the announcement that Strachota had earned the Bronze Star for his service to Operation Enduring Freedom at the conclusion of prepared remarks in which he paid tribute to Strachota’s service and his respects to the family that Strachota leaves behind.
The medal was handed to Strachota’s widow, Lauren Strachota, by members of the military honor guard who had escorted Strachota’s casket into the sanctuary.
“Thank God Michael Strachota lived,” Terry said. “Our lives have been made better and safer thanks to his being here. Michael J. Strachota will never be forgotten. We are here to honor his service. A few days ago we marked our nation’s Independence Day and remembered the sacrifices of those who have fought to keep us free. Only a small percentage of Americans serve in the armed forces, but Michael was one of those brave Americans. Michael was a soldier’s soldier. In the book of Isaiah the Lord said ‘who shall I send?’ Michael answered that call and said, ‘here I am, send me.’ Michael clearly understood the costs associated with freedom. He knew that freedom is not free.”
Terry read from a letter sent to him by Col. Mark Simerly, commander of the 4th Sustainment Brigade, under whom Strachota served, summing up the sentiments of those with whom Strachota worked, lived and fought in Afghanistan.
“Michael was well liked,” Terry read. “He was known to many as ‘Money Mike’. He was always smiling and served as a brother to many of those in his unit. He reminded everyone that every day is a new day. He had a great sense of humor and would remix the words of his unit’s marching cadence just to cheer them up.”
Terry thanked Michael’s family for their sacrifice.
“No words that I could say can fill the hurt that you feel,” Terry said. “With time and the company of good friends and family the pain will ease and you will remember Michael for his devotion to his country and to his family. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten. We recognize the service of Sgt. Michael J. Strachota to his nation.”
Strachota grew up at St. Joseph, receiving his baptism, first Communion and confirmation at the church, according to church officials who watched as he grew from a small child to a confident man.
Deacon Noel F. “Bud” Bryant delivered the homily, reflecting upon Strachota’s devotion to his God and to his country.
“We have many symbols to remind us that we are one people in this country,” Bryant said. “One of the most important is the American flag, the flag under which Michael so proudly served. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
“Our forefathers realized that these were self-evident truths,” Bryant said. “A gift from our God. At home and abroad the sacredness of human life is forever under attack by a world that thrives on darkness and evil. Michael was a soldier. A soldier does not primarily exist to take human life but to protect it. Regardless of the specifics of why Michael decided to join the Army, he voluntarily gave up his own freedom to protect the freedom of others.”
“On June 24 on a road in Afghanistan, Michael gave up his own life to protect the lives of all of us,” Bryant said, his voice wavering with emotion. “As a baby boy, Michael was brought right here to be baptized. From that moment on he was protected by Christ the shepherd.”
Bryant said Strachota went on to receive his first communion and confirmation at St. Joseph in 1992 and 1999, respectively.
“By that time Michael was a teenager and somewhat rebellious but he grew out of it to become a loving husband and father and a sergeant in the U.S. Army,” Bryant said.
“Michael expressed his love for his family in interesting ways,” Bryant said. “He had tattoos on the inside of each forearm, one reading ‘family’ and the other reading ‘first.’ Family first. What a statement that is. Michael and many other young men and women have sacrificed so much for the life, liberty and happiness of others.
“When Michael entered the valley of the shadow of death in Afghanistan that day he was not alone,” Bryant said. “Christ never left his side. His family made sure of that. Jesus the Good Shepherd went ahead of him to prepare a place for him in his Father’s house.
“Michael was so looking forward to coming home,” Bryant said. “He did come home, but to a different place.”
Sgt. Michael J. Strachota had planned to return to the U.S. in time to help celebrate his son’s third birthday on July 5. He had delayed his scheduled R & R in order to be with his family.
In a sad irony, Strachota’s casket arrived at Grider Field in Pine Bluff on a military aircraft on July 5.
Immediately before the funeral’s start, Strachota’s family was ushered into the sanctuary via a side door and escorted by funeral director Adam Robinson down a side aisle to the front of the church and then outside.
Robinson personally escorted Lauren, who held William in her arms, as Michael’s father and stepmother, mother and stepfather, brother and sister-in-law, grandparents and other relatives followed behind.
Once outside they would witness the military honor guard transfer the casket from a hearse up the church steps and into the sanctuary.
As the casket was carried inside, the clergy were there to meet it.
“I will now place a white covering known as a pall over the casket,” St. Joseph pastor Rev. L. Warren Harvey said. “The pall is a reminder of our baptismal garment, a sign of Christian dignity, and a sign that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Michael was baptized in this church.”
The casket was transferred to the far end of the sanctuary by funeral director Scott Robinson and an assistant, followed by the family.
As Adam Robinson escorted Lauren down the aisle, William held her hand and walked just ahead of his mother, his head looking back at her, his eyes locked on hers.
The sanctuary, which was already half full 30 minutes before the start of the service, had full pews as it got underway.
A burial service with full military honors was held at Clement Cemetery in Grapevine immediately after the funeral.
Strachota was killed June 24 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and assigned to the 96th Transportation Company, 180th Transportation Battalion, 4th Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary).
Staff Sgt. Robert A. Massarelli, 32, of Hamilton, Ohio, who served in the same unit, was also killed in the incident that took Strachota’s life, according to the Department of Defense.
Strachota is survived by his wife, Lauren Strachota and son, William Strachota, of Fort Hood, Texas; mother, Linda Baxter of Star City; father, Patrick Strachota of Pine Bluff; brother and sister-in-law, Matthew and Katie Tole of Pine Bluff; grandmother, Betty Bradshaw of Pine Bluff; and grandmother by marriage, Donna Baxter, of Star City.