I remember picking up a copy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and seeing a huge photo of a high school track teammate splashed across the front page. My first thought, Why is Kirk on the front page? Then I saw the headline.
Kirk Straseskie was the first Wisconsin casualty in the Iraq War. A few days after he died I was back in my hometown writing about his funeral for the Associated Press, where I was interning at the time.
It felt surreal how I had to write about this event as a detached reporter. I really just wanted to write, it’s impossible that Kirk is gone. Impossible.
He was a guy bursting with energy and enthusiasm for life. He was the guy who always kept the locker room loose, bounding on top of lockers and making jokes if that’s what it took. He was a fierce competitor who took winning seriously but who never took himself too seriously.
The only thing that didn’t come as a shock was the way he died. He drowned while trying to save someone else. That’s the kind of guy he was. The consume teammate.
It’s been 13 years to the day of Kirk’s funeral. I still think he’s going to walk through the high school locker room doors and crack a joke.
Beaver Dam Marine remembered
BY TIM CIGELSKE
May 29, 2003
BEAVER DAM — Facing uncertainty after Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. Marine Sgt. Kirk Straseskie wrote to his best friend, Nick Neuman, saying they might never see each other again.
Straseskie — anticipating he would go to war — told Neuman to share his feelings in the letter if he died serving his country.
Nearly two years later, Neuman read that letter Wednesday at the funeral for Straseskie, the first of two Wisconsinites to die in military operation in Iraq.
“I am not afraid to die, and I am prepared to in both my heart and soul,” Neuman read from the letter. “It is my belief that there are greater causes to live and fight for than one’s self.”
Neuman kept his composure as he read his best friend’s letter in front of more than 300 mourners at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Beaver Dam.
Gov. Jim Doyle, dozens of Marines and veterans, and scores of high school friends, teachers and coaches from this town of 15,000 attended.
The funeral took place two days after a Brookfield native, Army Maj. Mathew E. Schram, was killed about 120 miles north of Baghdad.
Schram, 36, was killed when gunmen ambushed a military convoy on a resupply mission near the town of Hadithah, according to the Department of Defense.
Straseskie, 23, drowned May 19 after leaping into a canal attempting to save four fellow Marines from a downed helicopter in Iraq.
“The dedication he showed in his final hour is something he practiced all along his journey,” said the Rev. William Key during the funeral. “Giving himself to help others was a way of life for this young man.”
Rain fell heavily on the hearse as it carried the casket up a hill and past a flag flown at half-staff. Doyle earlier ordered that all state and U.S. flags in Wisconsin fly at half-staff the day of the funeral.
A dozen Marines in military dress stood at attention outside the church, saluting uniformed servicemen and family members as they entered.
Six Marines carried Straseskie’s flag-draped casket into the church where the flag was replaced with a pall, a white cloth with the cross on it.
Gunnery Sgt. Joe Morales, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, thanked Straseskie’s family and the city for raising someone so dedicated.
Family members wore buttons with a picture of Straseskie — short-haired, tanned and holding a lit cigarette — taken while he was in Iraq. His father John, who spent 26 years in the Army and National Guard, wore his full military dress.
A portion of Straseskie’s letter addressed his father.
“Dad, I know you told me not to take chances,” Straseskie wrote. “But for me life was something for me to grab by the throat and squeeze, demanding all I could get from it. … My life was not wasted and I died for what I believe in. I ask you to take comfort in that, and do not mourn me, for now I wear my dress blues and stand guard at the gates of heaven.”
The sun shone as Straseskie was interred in a rural rolling meadow near farmers’ fields outside of Beaver Dam.
Straseskie’s stepmother Barb and his fiancee Kate Klossner buried their faces in John Straseskie’s chest as rifles fired in salute.
Straseskie’s older brother Ryan — a lieutenant in the Army National Guard’s 724th Engineer Battalion who is on emergency leave from active duty — saluted his brother’s casket as Marines folded the flag and presented it to his father.