The song 'Stairway to Heaven' streamed across Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, where hundreds of people had gathered last Tuesday afternoon to mourn the death of 21-year-old Army Private First Class Alejandro José Pardo.
The song ended, leaving a heavy stillness that was disturbed only by the fluttering of American flags -- until commemorative shots, fired into the air, shattered the silence.
Then, on behalf of the President, Brigadier General Mark Stammer presented Pardo's mother, Kate, with the folded American flag that had been draped over Pardo's coffin as it returned home to Porterville.
After the somber graveside ceremony, classmates from Granite Hills High School's Class of 2009 cheered up as they remembered A.J. -- as he was known to his friends and family -- and his warm smile, good personality, and love for "marvelous mischief."
Pardo died July 8 in Afghanistan after his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device. He was the fourth person from the Porterville area to die in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to The Fresno Bee.
Pardo was known for, "his big ol' smile, and him always trying to make everyone around him smile," said classmate Edna García. "And he always did it -- that was him."
After completing his military service, he hoped to attend culinary school and open a restaurant -- called Alejandro's -- in Chicago, near his beloved Cubs baseball team, said classmate Nicole Rafanan.
Pardo was also remembered as a brave solider during the mass at Holy Cross Church earlier that morning.
At the end of the service, Brigadier General Stammer presented Kate Pardo with her son's military honors: The Bronze Star Medal, which recognizes bravery and heroism, and the Purple Heart Award, awarded by the President to service members who were injured or killed while serving in the military.
He described Pardo as "a steadfast, rock solid, and determined team player."
"What I've learned about A.J. Pardo has inspired more pride in me in our country than words can describe," Stammer said. "A.J. was an encourager -- one who could lighten the mood at any moment and shoulder the task of any assignment."
Following the funeral, active service members, local law enforcement, and veterans groups -- including the Patriot Guard Riders, the American Indian Veterans Association, the American Legion Riders, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- formed a flag line outside the church.
They stood silently, holding high the country's flags, to honor Pardo and his family. They saluted, and then accompanied the procession to the cemetery.
Sam Salinas, who played on Granite Hills' varsity football team with Pardo, was moved by the solemn ceremony for his friend and Grizzlies teammate.
"A lot of people are sad here that he is gone but the life that he did live was very happy," Salinas said. "The only memories that I have of him are good memories -- his laughter, his smile, his caring attitude."
One of Salinas' favorite memory of Pardo was from their last football game of their senior year. They had lost the game, and Salinas asked Pardo if he would join him on one final, commemorative run down the field.
"We sprinted as fast as we could, the whole 100 yards," Salinas recalled. "Even though we lost, and this was our last year, and everything was sad -- we still had some happy thoughts, and we were just happy that we got to play."
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