By Reggie Ellis
Two days after Exeter Union High School celebrated the graduation of the Class of 2004, it memorialized a member of the Class of 2003 last Friday.
"A year ago we gathered here to celebrate the graduation of Daniel Unger," said Pastor Jack Gallagher, a Tulare pastor and friend of the Unger family. "A year later he has graduated from this life to eternal life."
The home-side bleachers of Monarch Stadium were filled to near capacity as the life of a son, a friend, a fellow soldier and a man who gave his life for his country was celebrated. A specialist in the 1st Battalion, 185th Armored Regiment, 81st Separate Armor Brigade, Alpha Company, Daniel, 19, died in Iraq during a mortar attack at about 3:30 p.m. on May 25 at Forward Operating Base Kalsu, located 25 miles south of Baghdad.
Unger's death has brought national attention to eastern Tulare County. He was featured on NBC's Nightly News and in a Los Angeles Times article for the unfortunate distinction of being the first California National Guardsmen to be killed in combat overseas. He is the third Tulare County soldier to die since the war in Iraq began. More than 800 U.S. servicemen and women have died in the war and armed occupation of Iraq.
Gallagher went on to say how Daniel collected Superman memorabilia and was often seen wearing a Superman T-shirt.
"Daniel was a super person, had super faith, had a super Savior and had a super gift of eternal life," Gallagher said. "He was a Superman for the Lord."
Marc Unger, Daniel's father, stepped up to the podium dressed in a charcoal suit and wearing a camouflage hat with US Army on the side and USA in bold red letters in front.
Like Superman, Daniel was good at everything he did. As a centerfielder for the Monarchs baseball team, his father said Daniel was lightning quick and could run down any fly ball that was in the vicinity. He ran two miles in 11 minutes in boot camp. You might say he was faster than a speeding bullet!
"When that mortar hit, who should have been the first one in the bunker?" Marc asked the crowd in true evangelistic style. The crowd shouted back, "Daniel!"
But Daniel never made it to the bunker. Daniel's duty that day was to protect two civilian Iraqi workers. According to Army officials, when everyone else broke for the bunker Daniel rushed to the aid of the two workers making sure that they made it safely to the bunker. As the two Iraqis stepped inside, Daniel was hit by shrapnel steps from the entrance.
"No one took his life," Marc said. "Daniel gave his life. He guarded those two men with his life."
For his heroic effort, Daniel was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. The Bronze Star Medal is awarded to any person who has distinguished themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, in connection with military operations against an armed enemy. The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces who are or killed in combat or die of wounds received in combat.
The awards were presented to the Unger family during the memorial service. Daniel's hero, Murray Unger, was in attendance to see his grandson receive the awards posthumously. Murray, who lives with his wife Gloria in Flint, Mich., served under Gen. George Patton and received the Bronze Star for meritorious achievement in battle as a .105 Howitzer cannon gunner in Europe and Northern Africa during World War II. During the presentation, Maj. General Jeff Gadly said, "Spc. Unger was a good man and a great soldier."
Marc Unger, pastor of the Exeter Baptist Church, said, "It's the soldier, not the preacher, who gives us freedom of religion. It's the soldier, not the reporter, who gives us freedom of the press. It's the soldier, not the lawyer, who gives us a right to a fair trial. It's the soldier who keeps us free."
Chaplain Ron Climer of the Fresno Probation Department also spoke about Daniel. Climer said Daniel had a lot of success ministering to troubled youth because he always saw the good in people. He said Daniel had touched many people's lives.
"Grief is the price we pay for love," Climer said. "Today our grief is great, but only because our love was great."
Climer said those who knew Daniel knew of his faith in God and Jesus Christ and should be comforted knowing he has gone to a better place.
"Our tears are for Daniel's family, loved ones and for you and me," Climer said. “These are not tears for Daniel. He has gone to a place I'm looking forward to going."
Dr. Fermin Whittaker, executive director of the California Southern Baptist church who emigrated from Panama, said Daniel wrote him several e-mails about the mortar attacks where shrapnel and rounds zipped past his head. "I am American by choice. I support those who stand and fight for our freedom. I ask that you find someone who is in the military in Iraq and send them an e-mail today."
Mrs. Trista Mayoral read a letter from her husband, Capt. Stephen T. Mayoral of the US Army. Mayoral was Daniel's commanding officer at Camp Kalsu in Iraq. He wrote that Daniel was everything that a commander wants in a soldier. He wrote about how Daniel chased six insurgents through a deep-water canal and helped apprehend all of them and about his heroics on May 25. After medics were unable to revive Daniel following the fatal mortar attack, Mayoral wrote that the camp's flag was lowered to half-staff and that he ordered a 12-gun salute and played TAPS.
"He was a proud and professional soldier," the letter read. "I will never forget your son and he will be a part of my life forever."
Following the memorial service at the stadium, a funeral procession took Daniel's flag draped casket to Exeter District Cemetery where he was laid to rest with full military honors. Maj. Gen. Thomas Eres, adjutant general of the California National Guard, presented the folded flag from the coffin to Daniel's mother, Lynda, followed by the playing of TAPS.
"I understand Daniel was quite a baseball player," Eres said. "Well, Daniel played in the bottom of the ninth and knocked a grand slam homerun. He served with the highest standard expected of the Armed Forces."