ST. ANNE, Ill., April 3 (UPI) -- A Marine honor guard in traditional dress blue uniforms saluted the flag-draped casket of helicopter pilot Capt. Ryan Beaupre, one of the first Americans killed in the war.
Hundreds of friends, family members and former Marines filled St. Anne Catholic Church Thursday to say goodbye to the fallen hometown hero.
"Everyone knows why he was there. He was fighting for us. Fighting for our freedom," said a mourner in the close-knit farm town of 1,300 some 80 miles south of Chicago.
Beaupre died March 21 -- the second day of fighting in Iraq -- in the crash of a Sea Knight helicopter in the Kuwaiti desert that killed 11 other American and British soldiers during a fierce sandstorm. He was 30.
"He's a hero in the best sense of the word," said Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who called Beaupre "a great son of Illinois." About 1,000 people attended Wednesday night's wake at St. Anne Elementary School for the standout high school runner who later graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University. Beaupre worked for State Farm Insurance before joining the Marine Corps in 1995.
"He always had a smile on his face," said college friend Timothy Lindberg. "He was just a great example of how we should live our lives."
While stationed in Kuwait, Beaupre, a bachelor, often gave up his place in line to phone home to fellow Marines with wives and families.
Townspeople gathered for a homemade lunch in the church's parish center after the red-headed former altar boy's remains were buried at the nearby Catholic cemetery.
Bernice Duby, a neighbor, said Ryan was "our favorite. He was right next door. His favorite was blueberry pie."
At least 52 Americans have been killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, with seven listed as missing in action.
Memorials may be sent to the Ryan Beaupre Memorial in St. Anne, Ill.