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Family, Friends Mourn Soldier Killed In Afghanistan

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NEW YORK — A young U.S. soldier who was killed in afirefight in Afghanistan was mourned Saturday with a 21-gun salute,tears and prayers in both Spanish and English.

Relatives, friends and soldiers gathered to grieve for22-year-old Sgt. Steven Checo, a Fort Bragg paratrooper inthe 82nd Airborne Division, who died after being hit by gunfire Dec.21.

A funeral Mass was held in Spanish for Checo, the child ofDominican immigrants, at a church not far from where he grew up inthe Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.

The family moved to Elizabeth, N.J., about three years ago.

Checo's mother, Arelis Checo, sobbed as she entered the church. Tearful mourners filed into the pews around her.

Fellow soldiers carried Checo's flag-draped coffin into the service.

"Not only has he served, but he has given the ultimate sacrifice, his life, so that you and I can be free in this land ofours," the Rev. Joseph Orlandi told mourners.

After the mass, Checo was honored with a 21-gun salute at theWoodlawn Cemetery and Crematorium in the Bronx by uniformedsoldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.

A bugler played taps, and Major Gen. Chuck Swannack, commanderof the division, presented flags to his mother and father.

Checo's body was to be cremated.

"You don't know how proud of him we are," said his brother, Erik Checo, who described Steven Checo as "the life of theparty."

As a boy, Checo was active with a Navy-based youth group in theneighborhood. Family and friends said he had always wanted tojoin the military.

"He was a very dedicated, faithful, servant of our nation,"Swannack told reporters after the service.

Neglinson Garcia, a friend of Checo's from high school andanother member of the youth group, said Checo was the"peacekeeper" among his friends.

"I'm going to miss him a lot," Garcia said.

Cardinal Edward Egan, who offered a prayer at the service, saidCheco's mother and sister were taking the death especially hard but leaning on their extended family for support.

"The family is a strong, big family," Egan said as he leftMother Cabrini Church after the service.

The young paratrooper was the first U.S. combat death inAfghanistan since August and the 17th American killed in a hostilesituation there since the war on terror began late last year.