Gunnar Hotchkin: A War Hero

Gunnar_Hotchkin

Written by Andrea Vaughan

Gunnar Hotchkin, of Hinsdale, Illinois, was killed in Afghanistan on June 16th, 2010. He was part of a volunteer detail that searched out roadside bombs to secure areas for the ground troops. He and another soldier died when a bomb was detonated from a remote site as their armored tank rolled over it. He was 31 years old.

Taylor Vaughan (my son) and Gunnar were swim buddies and although there was a three year age difference, Gunnar and Preston Bokos (Gunnar’s best friend) took Taylor under their wing when they were seniors and Taylor was a freshman at Hinsdale Central High School.

I have been to many funerals but none is more intense, tragic, brutal and beautiful than a military burial with full honors. Gunnar was brought home to Midway airport on Thursday afternoon. Preston said that the airport was temporarily shut down when the plane landed. Fire engines lined in a row and shot spray over the plane while the firefighters saluted. His casket was carried off the plane by his fellow paratroopers, followed by a short memorial service. A police caravan escorted the casket to a funeral home in Hinsdale.

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When I think of Gunnar, I remember a handsome, slightly goofy kid who clapped his leg when he laughed, a bit of a prankster with a smile on his face. After his wake and funeral, I learned about the man he had become. He got married, adopted his step-daughter and had two sons. He did a  bit of modeling and worked for a home construction company that went bankrupt when the economy soured. He joined the army at age 30 as a way of supporting his family. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, became a paratrooper, earned ten medals and the Purple Heart. He had been in the service for about 18 months.

During the wake, the funeral home was surrounded by American flags and a volunteer detail of military vets who believe it is their sacred duty to keep the area safe from any potential protesters.Their Harley’s were parked in the driveway. They stood at attention as people came in to pay their respects. Gunner’s casket was closed and draped with the American Flag. An officer stayed by Gunner’s wife and his parent’s side throughout the entire two days. His dad is wheel chair bound, recovering from a traumatic stroke. He can’t talk, but he knew what was going on. Toward the end of the evening, a ceremony was performed in front of the casket. The motorcycle vets, in pairs, walked to the casket and slowly saluted him. There wasn’t a sound in the room.

The service on Friday was held in a church a block from downtown Hinsdale. Again the vets formed a line as mourners entered the church. There were many state and local dignitaries there. The governor spoke as did Gunner’s commanding officer from Fort Bragg. His final comment, “Today, Gunner has a different set of wings.” The last song sung was Battle Hymn of the Republic. Flags were flown at half mast.

As the casket was carried by his fellow paratroopers, the bag pipers were playing Amazing Grace. Again, the vets led the way as the funeral entourage wove their way through town. Every intersection along the fifteen mile journey was blocked off with  firemen and their engines, police and their cars, standing in line and saluting. What few cars were going the opposite direction stopped and turned on their lights. A few folks got out of their cars.

Once at the grave site, the vets once again formed a circle around the mourners. The same paratroopers began the slow, precise folding of the flag. Gunnar’s commanding office presented the casket flag to Erin, Gunnar’s wife. Additional flags were presented to his three children and parents. Watching this part of the service was like watching a scene in slow motion. So Precis. So somber. So Real. Then came taps and the 21 gun salute. The minister spoke a few words. Each of us put a rose on his casket. We said goodbye.

At the reception, I sat next to a young paratrooper who had gone through training with Gunnar. That is when I learned what kind of soldier he had become. He talked about their first jump at 1500 feet – of course, Gunnar was the first one out of the plane. How he always gave 110%. Then he talked about what Gunnar was doing in Afghanistan. How important and difficult a job it was.

Gunnar died serving his country. It seems only appropriate a few days before the 4th of July, that we remember Gunnar and give our thanks and prayers to the men and women oversees. I hope he is the only war hero I will ever know. What I do know is that it was an honor and a privilege to have been a small part of his solemn return home.

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