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FUNERAL FOR 21-YEAR-OLD LEXINGTONIAN
Lexington Herald-Leader (Kentucky)
FAMILY PUTS ASIDE POLITICS IN REMEMBERING COMLEY
By Andy Mead
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
One by one, Marines in dress uniforms stepped forward yesterday to give a final, formal, white-gloved salute to Lance Cpl. Chase Johnson Comley.
The Marines' Hymn played softly as his flag-draped coffin was slowly taken from Calvary Baptist Church for a military burial at Lexington Cemetery. Comley, a driver for an amphibious assault vehicle battalion, was killed by a suicide bomber last weekend while conducting combat operations near Amiriyah, Iraq.
The funeral was a variation of a ceremony that has been repeated somewhere in the state at least 28 times since the Iraq war began.
But, in a departure from the norm in Kentucky -- one of the reddest of red states -- some of Comley's relatives, including a few sitting in the front pews, have spoken out strongly against the Bush administration and the war that took the 21-year-old Marine's life.
The pros and cons of U.S. involvement in Iraq were not discussed among family members who gathered last week to grieve and to prepare for the funeral, said John Whitlow, a cousin. Some family members opposed and some supported the war before Comley's death, and Whitlow said he didn't know whether that had changed.
"As you can imagine, we're not talking about what divides us right now," he said.
Nor was it a major topic as 900 people gathered in the church yesterday for a service punctuated by laughter and tears as speakers remembered the popular graduate of and athletic standout at Sayre School, a small private school in downtown Lexington.
But on Friday, Comley's grandmother, 80-year-old Geraldine Comley of Versailles, described herself in an interview as a former Republican stalwart who is "on a rampage" against the president and the war.
She said she would like nothing better than to join Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier who has been holding a peace vigil outside President Bush's ranch in Texas.
"When someone gets up and says 'My son died for our freedom,' or I get a sympathy card that says that, I can hardly bear it," Geraldine Comley said.
She said her view, developed before her grandson's death, is that Bush pushed for war because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate the first President Bush, and to get control of Mideast oil.
"And it irritates me no small amount that Dick Cheney, in the Vietnam War, said he had 'other priorities,'" Geraldine Comley said. "He didn't mind sending my grandson over there" to Iraq.
Geraldine Comley's daughter, Missy Comley Beattie, also was critical of Bush and the war in a column she wrote for Friday's Herald-Leader.
Beattie didn't attend the funeral because she was in New York caring for her husband, who recently had surgery. But she spoke about the war and her family in an interview.
"I've never seen my father cry, but I've heard him cry this week," she said. "And he will look at the picture of Chase that's on their hearth and say 'George Bush killed my grandson.'"
Whitlow, who is Beattie's son, said that Mark Comley of Georgetown, Chase Comley's father, has long opposed the Iraq war. Mark Comley spoke briefly with reporters last weekend but couldn't be reached later.
Whitlow said he could not speak for Chase Comley's mother, Cathy Comley of Wilmore, who hasn't made any public comments since her son's death.
But Geraldine Comley, on her rampage, welcomed the chance to talk about her feelings.
She said "it broke my heart" when Chase Comley joined the Marines, but he told her that recruiters said he probably would be stationed in Hawaii or Japan.
"I think he really felt he needed the discipline," she said. "He was running around with a bunch of youngsters and thought this was how he was going to mature."
Geraldine Comley said her husband Victor, 85, a former Nicholasville city commissioner, didn't want the minister at Chase Comley's funeral to say that he died fighting for freedom for Americans.
But William Browning Van Meter, who was one of Chase Comley's best friends at Sayre, did touch on "dying for freedom" during the service.
After Comley and Van Meter graduated in 2002, Van Meter joined the Army and served in Korea. He said he blamed himself for Comley joining the Marines.
"No matter what you think of the war ... it would be irrational to think that Chase died for any reason other than you and I and our freedom, because the bottom line is that's what Chase believed he was fighting for," Van Meter said.
Most of Van Meter's remarks were, however, considerably more light-hearted.
"Chase was beautiful, funny and, most important, wilder than hell," Van Meter said.
He talked about a three-day trip he and Comley took to Las Vegas. Or, at least, what he remembered of it.
"I don't remember how we got there, what we did or how we got back," Van Meter said. "But I know I had three great days there with my best friend."
Robert Comley, an uncle whom Chase Comley always called "related one," remembered a little boy who was fearless and whose signature phrase before a daredevil stunt was "Hey, watch this."
On either side of Chase Comley's flag-draped coffin at the front of the church were large, framed photo collages that showed his progression from smiling baby to serious Marine.
There also was a Kentucky state flag from the General Assembly; a large April 12 photo of Comley, in silhouette, holding an automatic weapon against an Iraqi sunset; and his framed No. 12 jersey from the Sayre Spartans baseball team.
Scott Sutton, who was Comley's baseball coach, said when he looked for the catcher's jersey to give to the Comleys, he couldn't find it at first.
"I have to tell you, my first thought was, 'Chase, did you turn that uniform in?'"
He described Comley as someone who was sometimes late for practice because he was with a girl.
Sutton also talked about the times he spent with Comley at home plate, when the rest of the team was on the field. "It was then that I realized what a big heart he had, how much he loved his family," Sutton said.
Except for the balcony, Calvary Baptist, a large church on East High Street, was filled for Comley's funeral.
Mourners included Mayor Teresa Isaac, former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. and former U.S. Rep. Larry Hopkins.
At the end of the service, as the Marine Corps hymn played and the coffin rolled down the aisle, the laughter was gone. All that could be heard was sniffling and crying.
And, at the cemetery, after Comley's coffin was placed in the shade of a large ginkgo tree, "dying for freedom" was revisited.
"Someone once said the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance," Navy Chaplain Emory Lussi said. "That's not so. The cost of freedom is right before us."
Then, there was a 21-gun salute, taps was played and Marines slowly folded the flag on Comley's coffin.
That flag was handed to his mother. Another went to his father.
When it was over and the Marines moved away, Cathy Comley, her eyes swollen from crying, walked slowly forward and kissed her son's closed coffin.