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Vermont remembers fallen hero

MORRISVILLE, Vt. -- Christopher Merchant graduated from Peoples Academy in 1991, returned to work there as a custodian, and dreamed of being a teacher someday.

But there was something else he had to do first. He did a stint in the Army and returned to civilian life. When the Vermont National Guard's Task Force Saber was deployed to Iraq, he signed up to serve again.

Yesterday, more than 200 family members and friends gathered at Peoples Academy to mourn the death of Merchant, 32, recalling the fallen soldier as a man of honor and integrity who put others before himself.

Merchant was killed March 1 in Ramadi, when the observation post where he was stationed came under attack by insurgents. Two soldiers from New Hampshire were injured.

''May you rest in peace. You deserve it," his widow, Monica, said during brief remarks at the beginning of the funeral Mass.

The Rev. John Hamilton of St. Norbert's Church in Hardwick said Merchant's selflessness was evident during childhood, when he would step forward to take the blame for his siblings' mischief.

Hamilton urged those in the audience to look for strength from their faith in God. ''We can feel the full weight of our loss and yet not be crushed by sorrow like those who have no hope," the priest said. He had specific words for Merchant's family, telling his son and three daughters, ages 9 to 14, that their father ''loved you more than you can even imagine."

Governor James Douglas said Merchant was a man who wanted peace and who thought that by going to war now, he might help provide it for his children. Merchant was ''humble in his service but strong in his heart," and possessed ''a quiet but generous power" shared by many Vermonters, Douglas said.

The ceremonies began and ended outside the school, with a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps before the service and a bagpiper playing afterward as the casket was loaded into a hearse. A Guard spokeswoman said Merchant's remains were to be cremated.

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