FAIRHAVEN — Lance Corporal Brendan Mathieu, a 25-year-old Marine veteran of the Afghan war, stood silently near the war memorial in this seaside town Thursday afternoon, his 1-year-old daughter bundled in a stroller and his military bearing made even more impressive by the dress-blue uniform and white gloves he wore.
“I know exactly what he was going through,” said Mathieu, a mortarman who was wounded by a roadside bomb in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Before him, the black hearse carrying the body of another Marine lance corporal from Fairhaven, 19-year-old Matthew R. Rodriguez, passed slowly in a long, police-escorted motorcade before a solemn crowd of thousands from New Bedford to Mattapoisett.
Rodriguez died Dec. 11, also in Helmand province, in what the Pentagon described as “combat operations.” The Marine Corps said his death is under investigation.
He had followed the example of his father, who also served in the Marines, and became engaged to a Fairhaven girl after he completed boot camp. His fiancee’s father, a family friend said, called him the “smiling warrior.”
On Thursday, the motorcade met his flag-shrouded coffin at New Bedford Regional Airport, where a small charter jet had brought the remains from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Dozens of relatives and a few hundred others, many of whom did not know Rodriguez, watched a precise, timeless ritual as the casket was removed in chopped, measured steps from the belly of the plane to the back of the hearse.
“He’s the same age I was when I went in,” said Ralph DeBalsi, a 66-year-old Marine veteran who lives in New Bedford.
DeBalsi, ambushed and shot in the arm during the Vietnam War, said he was uncertain whether he would drive to the airport and watch the transfer of the coffin. But the spirit of the Marine Corps, a brotherhood to those who serve and have served, drew him.
“It’s real sad, that’s all I can say,” offered DeBalsi, wearing a jacket with “Semper Fi,” the Marine Corps motto, scripted on the breast. “They tell you to go, you go.”
Many people, like DeBalsi, had come to the airport simply to pay respects to a fallen warrior.
“He laid his life down for his country; it’s the least I can do,” said Shawn McKee, 34, who drove to New Bedford from Middleborough. “You don’t have to know him to want to say thank you.”
Tiffany Tranghese, a 27-year-old from New Bedford, stood by herself at the airport, a flag in hand, and also said she had never met Rodriguez.
“It’s just a heartbreaking story for someone so young,” Tranghese said. “I just wanted to show respect for his family. I’m a registered nurse, and I started working with vets at the VA when I graduated. It’s just really important that we honor them. I couldn’t do what he did.”
Chantelle Sylvia, 37, of New Bedford, whose son attended Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School with Rodriguez, said the fallen Marine had been a role model. “It was his outlook on life,” said Sylvia. “He wasn’t afraid of what he was facing.”
On the drive from the airport to a funeral home in Mattapoisett, traffic was blocked on Interstate 195, fire trucks stopped in salute on overpasses, and construction workers doffed their hardhats.
In Fairhaven, hundreds of townspeople held their hands to their hearts, others lifted miniature flags in a brisk wind, and a crowd of students from Fairhaven High School packed a small slope to watch the procession.
From there, the motorcade passed Rodriguez’s home in Fairhaven before continuing to the funeral home a few miles away, where an informal honor guard of flag-holding veterans lined both sides of a long driveway.
A wake will be held Sunday at Saunders-Dwyer Funeral Home, and a funeral is scheduled Monday at First Congregational Church in Fairhaven.
After those services are completed, after the words of mourning are uttered, Rodriguez’s name will live on at the airport that received his remains. Near the spot where his coffin was carried, an aviation-theme playground with slides and brightly colored toy planes has opened recently.
Rodriguez’s mother, Lisa, a member of the Atlantic Aviators club, pushed to build the area for youngsters full of energy and fascinated by planes. In an event foreseen by no one, the place has been renamed the Lance Corporal Matthew R. Rodriguez Memorial Playground.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@