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Mother's final duty to soldier son: Escort his body home

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Soldier laid to rest Monday at Arlington National Cemetery
  • Spc. Stephan Mace was one of eight who died in October 3 battle in Afghanistan
  • Vanessa Adelson: "It was my responsibility as a mother to bring him home"
  • Mace gave his St. Christopher medal to fellow soldiers before he died
By Rachel Streitfeld
CNN
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PURCELLVILLE, Virginia (CNN) -- When the Army flew home the body of Spc. Stephan Mace from Afghanistan, his mother climbed aboard a small jet with the flag-draped coffin for the last leg of his trip.

Mace's flag-draped coffin is carried by soldiers on the return to the United States.

Vanessa Adelson escorted the body of her son, Stephan Mace, on the final leg of the journey from Afghanistan.

Vanessa Adelson would not let her 21-year-old son make his final journey home alone.

"I brought him into this world, and he was my baby," she said. "I thought it was my responsibility as a mother to bring him home."

Mace and seven other soldiers were killed this month in a Taliban attack on their remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, making it the deadliest battle for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since July 2008. Video Watch mother prepare to bury son »

All eight were assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson, Colorado.

The October 3 battle saw Taliban insurgents at one point surging past the outer perimeter of Forward Operating Base Keating in Afghanistan's Kamdesh district. The battle lasted about 12 hours, with the most ferocious fighting raging for about seven hours.

The base, in a valley, is surrounded by ridge lines where the insurgents were able to fire down at U.S. and Afghan troops. The facility had been scheduled to be closed within days, CNN later learned.

Three days after the deadly fight, Mace's mother attended the Dignified Transfer of her son, then returned home with him from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Since May, Mace had been on his first deployment in Afghanistan, following a childhood dream of joining the Army. He planned to continue his career in service after his Army stint by joining the Department of Homeland Security or the CIA, his mother said.

Instead, he was buried Monday in Arlington National Cemetery.

With an escort platoon and band, a horse-drawn caisson arrived with the flag-draped casket at Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery. It is a section set aside for the casualties of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mace's mother, walking with a military escort, met the procession as pallbearers lifted the casket from the platform to gently bring it graveside.

U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh was among the high-ranking officials who delivered condolences to Mace's family and friends gathered for the funeral. Although reporters and TV crews were allowed to cover the ceremony, they were held at a distance where remarks could not easily be heard.

The casket team prepared three American flags as part of the ceremony. The flag on the casket was crisply folded and presented to Mace's mother. Two additional flags were presented to his father Larry Mace, and his grandparents, John and Mary Kay Petro.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen Reuben Jones kneeled as he handed each flag to Mace's kin, and spent a few moments speaking with them.

The dead soldier's brothers, Matthew, Bradley and Christopher, also attended the funeral.

A seven-member firing party launched three volleys, a bugler played "Taps," and a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace."

Back in Mace's small, tight-knit community in Purcellville, Virginia, many found it hard to believe the solemn military procession through the center of town earlier this month was the last they would ever see of their friend.

"If I could describe Stephan, I would picture him flying through the air on a dirt bike living his life on the edge," said Sam Chapman, childhood friend and football buddy. "If more people in this country had the passion and the determination and the courage that Stephan had, it would without a doubt be a better place. He was just a great guy." Video Watch friends remember him as gridiron tough »

Mace, described as a Moto Cross champion, football player, hunter and all around fun-loving, loyal friend, was the kind of child that coaches and teachers remember. And when his body was brought back to Purcellville, the community turned out in support. Hundreds of people lined the streets, saluting and waving flags as Mace's family brought him home.

"It was great to the see the kids and the families stand there and when the motorcade crossed the crest of the hill [into town] it was just silence.... It was holy," said Purcellville Mayor Robert Lazaro. "I think we wanted to say to the Mace family, 'Thank you. We respect what your son has done for us.' "

Mace was awarded six medals for his service, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. But for his mother, the most precious is the medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, that her son wore into battle.

She gave him the medal when he was 15 and preparing for a trip to South Africa. Now, after speaking to one of Mace's friends who survived the outpost attack, Adelson knows her son reached for that medal in his last moments. She was told that in his last moments alive, Mace took off his medal and gave it to his fellow soldiers.

"That's how Stephan was," Adelson said. "Here this kid is dying, and he was more worried about the other soldiers that he took his St. Christopher off and gave it to them."

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She has also learned her son lived for about half an hour after sustaining wounds to the chest and leg. Adelson finds this detail comforting.

"I'm glad Stephan didn't die right away because he was allowed to give that one gift to his unit and give them the St. Christopher and that he also was able to feel God come to him and take him away," she said. "That he was able to ponder and have a last chance, a last moment, to think about his family and have God take him."

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