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Claysville mourns popular son killed in Afghanistan

As more than 1,000 mourners solemnly waited Sunday afternoon for Army Sgt. Nathan Kennedy's body to be taken from the center of tiny Claysville to a cemetery less than a mile away, baby Emily Pattison's cries cut through the whipping wind.

Emily and her uncle had met just briefly in February, when the soldier returned home on military leave to help welcome his twin sister Noelle's first child. Kennedy, 24, was killed April 27 in combat near Quarando Village, Afghanistan — a week shy of his 25th birthday and less than a month from completing his second tour overseas.

"It's a great blessing that he was able to come home when Emily was born," said the Rev. Meade Lacock of Claysville Christian Church during a funeral service for a young man described as a committed soldier, devoted family member and friend, wrestling star and good-natured prankster.

"Emily will remember him through the stories people tell, and so will we."

Claysville, a close-knit town of 700 people in Washington County, has been grieving since learning of Kennedy's death.

Kennedy's body was brought home Friday, escorted by more than 80 motorcyclists from Washington County Airport to Claysville as hundreds of people stood along the motor route to salute.

"We've never had anything like this before, nothing of this magnitude, in all the time I've been here," said Tim Hammett, president of the Claysville American Legion Post 639 motorcycle riders. He said Kennedy was the first post member to be killed in action.

Every utility pole, signpost and parking meter along Main Street was adorned with a commemorative yellow ribbon yesterday. Flags were just as ubiquitous, from a large one that hung on two fire truck ladders across Route 40 to the hundreds of postcard- and poster-sized ones held by those lining Main Street during the funeral service and procession to Claysville Cemetery.

More than 300 people — family members and friends — crammed into Post 639 for the funeral service, while hundreds more stood outside listening to the service over a public address system.

While it seems that most people know each other in Claysville, residents said Kennedy was better-known than most young people. He was a three-time section wrestling champion for McGuffey High School who won a WPIAL title and competed in the state tournament as a junior.

"He was a hard worker and a fierce competitor," said Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, a wrestling coach and official. Maggi said Kennedy was well-known as a practical joker around his teammates and coaches.

Kennedy seemed to find his niche as a soldier, those who knew him said.

"It suited him well," said Steve Nardi, 43, a science teacher at McGuffey. "He was a fun-loving kid who knew how to have a good time, but he had an ornery streak and he always stood up for his friends."

Kennedy, a third-generation soldier, enlisted about four years ago. An Army Ranger and sniper, he had recently re-enlisted and intended to train for the special forces after he returned home from his yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. He served a tour of duty in Iraq.

After the service inside the American Legion, his casket was placed on a caisson and drawn by two hulking Belgian draft horses to the cemetery. Most of those who had been standing along Main Street walked behind the horses. At the cemetery, Army Brig. Gen. John W. Miller II presented folded flags to Kennedy's grandmother Mary Lou Kennedy and his girlfriend, Lauren Fidazzio. He awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star to Kennedy.

"Credit must go to the man who was actually in the arena," Miller said, quoting President Theodore Roosevelt. "Sgt. Nathan Kennedy was a man who lived his life in that arena."

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