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Soldier's farewell
Family and friends of Matt Saltz, including his mother, Cathy, holding a blanket, say goodbye during a graveside service at Bigfork Community Cemetery on Friday. Saltz, a first lieutenant in the Army's 1st Armored Division, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Dec. 22.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Hundreds turn out as Bigfork lays to rest first Montanan killed in Iraq

BIGFORK - The American flag, quietly lifting and curling amid a dance of tiny snowflakes, hung at half-staff Friday outside the Bigfork High School gym.

Beneath those colors, beneath the icy, leaden sky, passed some 400 people, shuffling through the cold, quiet as the flag above.

They came to say farewell to Matt Saltz.

Inside, Saltz greeted each friend and neighbor, smiling out from shining family pictures. There was Saltz in his big white cowboy hat, there Saltz on a horse. There he was wrestling with a puppy, there opening Christmas presents.

There he was clowning with beer in hand, there singing karaoke, there, a decade ago, in his Bigfork Vikings football gear.

And there, at the very top, was Edward Matthew Saltz, first lieutenant, all business in his U.S. Army uniform.

He died in that uniform, three days before Christmas, when a roadside bomb ripped through his military Humvee near Baghdad.

Saltz was 27, and is the only Montana soldier to have died in Iraq.

Farther inside, on past the snapshots and the hand shakers and the funeral registries, a healthy chunk of Bigfork's winter population lined up in row upon row of bright folding chairs, subdued beneath the weight of minor chords drawn from piano and flute. The high school stage, which Saltz knew so well growing up, was draped in flowers - reds and blues and many-petaled stars white as snow.

The flute faded away, and an abrupt call of bagpipes filled the high ceiling.

Marching to the pipes, pallbearers brought the casket, wrapped in Old Glory, to rest in front of the Rev. Jan Witman, pastor at the local Methodist church.

Witman, dressed in white robes so very white they shined cleaner and brighter than even the stripes on the flag covering the casket, began simply.

"Let us pray."

And pray Bigfork did, saying goodbye to a son, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, a soldier.

Witman spoke of grief and sorrow, of loss and of promise gone unfulfilled. Then, in affirmation of a life well-lived, she spoke of celebration, of thanks and of hope and of faith.

"Surely," sang the choir, "surely the presence of the Lord is in this place."

Grandpas, grayed and bent, listened to the words alongside newborn babes, tiny bodies swaddled in fleece and rocking to the rhythm in car-carrier cradles.

"For everything," Witman read from the Bible, "there is a season Š a time to be born and a time to die Š a time for war and a time for peace."

Jesus, she said, told his friends not to grieve his pending death.

"Take courage," he is to have said. "I have overcome the world."

Saltz, having dodged death once before in Iraq, had likewise come to terms with mortality.

"I have," he wrote his parents, "made my peace with it."

Now, Witman said, it was Bigfork's time to make its peace with it.

Bigfork first came to know Saltz back when he was still in the fourth grade. Born in Helena and raised in Belgrade, his family moved onto a Bigfork cherry orchard back in 1986.

There, Saltz became known as a natural leader: captain of the football team, student body president, academic standout.

He was a trumpet player, a wrestler and, surprisingly, a grower of famous raspberries. He was a hiker, a hunter, a hard worker. He was, Witman said, a playful spirit - sensitive, optimistic, Irish.

An example of the Irish in him: After completing a six-mile run as part of a military physical fitness test, he went back to the starting line and did it again, this time running beside an Army buddy who was sick and needed the support.

Saltz knew what was important in life, Witman said, knew "how to have fun when it was time to have fun, and how to work when it was time to work."

But before all that, before the football uniforms and U.S. Forest Service uniforms and Army uniforms, Saltz was a poet, compiling a book of verse while still in the seventh grade.

On the front of the funeral program are block letters in his child's hand, spelling out a haiku of his own.

Drying flowers yearn

For the soothing water in

The sun's scorching heat

The poem, Witman said, has only gained poignancy with Saltz's death in the Middle Eastern desert, so far from home.

It is unlikely, however, he would have had many regrets, she said. He liked the Army - liked the structure and the physical challenge and the loyal camaraderie - and he believed wholly in his Iraqi mission.

On the back of the program, opposite Saltz's adolescent poem, is a selection from the Army's Leadership Handbook for the Armor Officer. It speaks of the officer's code, which, it says, "is simple and easy to remember Š Duty Š Honor Š Country."

"This is the code I will live by," the passage ends, "Duty Š Honor Š Country Š all these I put above myself whatever the cost."

That cost came due not far from the Iraqi water treatment plant he and his 1st Armored Division were ordered to protect.

Just weeks before his death, in a letter to his parents, Saltz wrote of the importance of his mission, saying, "I know I have a made a difference here."

Take that lesson, Witman urged.

Live life. Believe in your mission. Make a difference.

As she retreated beyond the casket, a handful of military men stood. Hair shorn short and buttons flashing under the gymnasium lights, they presented to Saltz's parents the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, as well as the U.S. and Montana flags that flew over the Capitol in Helena the week he died.

And then, back out in the cold and quiet snow, Saltz was buried with full military honors.

For those left behind, Witman offered this: Strap on the "full armor of God," she said, the "belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness," and, with the "shield of faith," live large, knowing the price paid by those neighbors sworn to protect.

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at mjamison@missoulian.com

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