TAUNTON - As a Clydesdale pulled Sergeant Shane P. Duffy's flag-draped casket through the streets of his hometown yesterday, thousands of mourners marched behind or stood solemnly on the sidewalks, holding tiny American flags.
Just three weeks earlier, Duffy had been honored at a high school softball game here while on leave from Iraq. The coach praised his service, and Duffy shook hands with the players before watching from the sidelines, along with his wife and infant daughter, as his youngest sister, Shanon, drove in the go-ahead run.
Duffy, who would have turned 23 next Sunday, was killed June 4 in Tikrit, when his Army unit was attacked by enemy fire. Mourners described him yesterday as a spirited, fearless, caring person who looked forward to raising a family and becoming a firefighter like his father.
More than 500 people packed the pews at St. Mary's Church, and more lined the route afterward as Duffy's casket proceeded to St. Francis Cemetery.
The funeral drew scores of firefighters in dress uniform, as well as the governor, lieutenant governor, and US Senator John F. Kerry, who eulogized Duffy in a speech filled with anecdotes gleaned from family members.
Kerry recalled the softball game, and how Shanon Duffy had said afterward that words could not explain how she felt.
"There are no words for this, either," Kerry said. "There are no words for a town losing its first son in the war in Iraq, no words for knowing that after Shane headed back for his second tour he would join the 65 other young men and women from across Massachusetts, from Avon to Weymouth, and the 4,092 brave Americans who have given their lives for their country in Iraq."
Kerry described a proud soldier, a Taunton High football player who hid injuries to stay in the game, a devoted friend, a big-hearted family man, a prankster. During his leave, Duffy had kidded his sister, Kelsey, after she made mashed potatoes. "Thanks, but they just weren't as good as dad's," he told her.
Kerry also recounted how Duffy, on that leave, had joined his family to play the video game "Rock Band," one of his favorites. "Shane [played] guitar with the trademark intensity of a man who wanted to be the best in everything he did in life, and at least for that moment he was Eric Clapton," Kerry said. Duffy's wife played the drums, and he held his rosy-cheeked daughter, Mackenzie, up to the microphone to sing along. "If Shane Duffy was intense, he was also tender," Kerry said.
Shanon Duffy read from a school paper about how she loved all her siblings - Keavin Jr., a graduate student, and Kelsey, a college softball player - but especially admired Shane. They chatted online regularly when he was in Iraq, and he always tried to make her laugh. She said he left for his second tour shortly after his daughter was born, last September.
"He's only seen her 28 days, but hopefully he'll come home and get to see her and enjoy the experiences," Shanon read, through tears. A fresh tattoo - "My Brother, My Hero, Sgt. Shane P. Duffy," around a shamrock - was inked on her shoulder.
Keavin P. Duffy Jr. said his younger brother was famous for his "pick-you-up-off-the-ground I-love-you bear hugs." To other mourners, he said: "Remember this, your heart is not breaking. It is Shane on your left, giving you a chest slap and saying, 'Who loves ya? Who loves ya?' "
Jamie Duffy, Shane's widow, called him a "special, beautiful, loving man," and a "great Irishman." She read excerpts from his letters that showed him worrying about those back home, hungering for everyday details, and downplaying the dangers in Iraq. He looked forward to his leave and to the years ahead. " 'I love you honey like crazy. You mean everything to me, and I can't wait till we're back together again and starting a nice life with lots of little rug rats,' " she read, her voice wavering. " 'Your strength helps me through every day here.' "
Jamie Duffy looked up from the letters. "You were already my hero, honey," she said. "Now you're everybody's."
Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum presented Duffy's family with his Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and other service medals for Iraq and the war on terror, noting that his funeral was taking place on the 233d birthday of the Army and on Flag Day.
After the funeral, a pipe-and-drum brigade and pallbearers in dark suits and Scally caps led the way through an arch formed by a pair of Taunton Fire Department ladder trucks holding up a giant flag. As others followed from the church, the procession wound along streets lined with residents and past war memorials and a group of children waving homemade flags taped to twigs. They marched for three-quarters of a mile, until reaching a bank building where the thermometer, through the humidity, blinked 92. A row of school buses waited to carry them the other 2 miles to the cemetery. Most chose to keep walking, following Duffy's casket.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an article in Sunday's paper about the funeral service for Sergeant Shane P. Duffy of Taunton incorrectly described the battle in which Duffy died. Duffy died in Tikrit of wounds suffered when his Army unit was attacked in Sharqat, Iraq.