UPTON — Bagpipes wailed in the background as dozens of soldiers and veterans with the Patriot Guard Riders stood in the rain outside St. Gabriel the Archangel Church Monday morning, clutching towering poles topped with drenched American flags.
A casket bearing the body of Army Corporal John M. Dawson, who was killed in Afghanistan on April 8, was carried into the church by a six-member honor guard.
Dawson, 22, died in Jalalabad after an Afghan National Army soldier “turned traitor” fired at the group of US soldiers at the provincial governor’s compound in eastern Afghanistan. Dawson was hit by small-arms fire. Other soldiers were also wounded that day.
His fellow servicemen gave Dawson’s family his personal belongings, which included a dog tag that read, “Greater love has no other than this, than to lay down your life for your friends.”
The back of the dog tag read, “In memory of an American hero.”
“You will always be our hero, John,” said the slain soldier’s father, Michael Dawson, after reciting the phrase from his dog tag. Several people wiped away tears as Dawson spoke. “Thank you for the 22 years you provided us.”
Eulogizing his son, Dawson said, “If you knew John, you knew a respectable, kind, caring, thoughtful, smart, witty, and fun kid.”
John Dawson, who grew up in Northbridge, was as an “old soul . . . old school,” Major General Steve Townsend of the 18th Airborne Corps said during the service, adding that he loved the Patriots, Bruins, flip cellphones, cigar magazines, the stock market, and conspiracy theories.
Townsend said that anytime something happened to the platoon Dawson would “scream about a conspiracy theory,” adding that one soldier joked that “only Dawson can actually make it sound real.”
Townsend shared stories he heard from soldiers who knew Dawson, including the time he entered a soldier’s room spraying silly string. The soldier was angry until he realized it was Dawson.
Then there was the time Dawson just got a new pair of sunglasses. He told everyone the glasses could see through the water and to the fish below, Townsend said. Dawson tried to demonstrate that and the glasses fell from his face into the water. His team got a good laugh.
Another soldier, who had experienced a death in his family, struggled with the omnipresent death that came from being in the Army and on the streets of Afghanistan. Dawson helped him work through it.
“ ‘I am now and forever will be a better man because of Dawson,’ ” Townsend recalled the soldier tell him.
“Some people say sports stars are heroes, some say movie stars are heroes. . . . My heroes are the 20-something year-old Americans who wear the uniform of American law enforcement,” Townsend said. “He was doing what he loved.”
The young soldier had a favorite quote, Townsend said: “It’s the journey not the destination that matters.”
Dawson was a combat medic assigned to the First Squadron, 33d Cavalry Regiment, Third Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, according to the Department of Defense. He trained for service at Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio; and Fort Campbell, Ky.
A lifelong resident of Northbridge, he graduated in 2010 from Blackstone Valley Regional Technical High School in Upton, where he was an honor student in the electrical program. He worked at Coghlin Electrical Contractors in Worcester as a co-op student.
Dawson was a member of the National Honor Society, Skills USA, and the varsity soccer team.
The Rev. Michael Broderick, formerly of St. Patrick’s Parish in Whitinsville, said Dawson was an active member of the Young Neighbors in Action. He was also cycling enthusiast who rode with the 10th Gear Christian Bicycle Group.
Broderick said that Dawson had “a mischievous sense of fun,” adding that he would often jump into pictures being taken and was “photobombing before photobombing was trending.”
He went on to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay and Quinsigamond Community College before enlisting in the Army in 2012.
“John had an instinctual desire to serve his country,” said Michael Dawson, with his wife, Rhonda, and their daughter, Ashley, seated near the front of the church. “He had a passion and desire to explore the military . . . he pursued his dreams.”
Dawson was the first US service member killed as part of the advise-and-assist mission that the US military launched on Jan. 1 called Operation Resolute Support. That mission replaced Operation Enduring Freedom, which began a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Governor Charlie Baker and his wife, Lauren, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, and state officials attended the funeral.
Dawson’s military awards include the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal with V Device, the Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, and the Combat Action Badge.
While in the Army, he initiated a blood drive that helped save more than 200 hospital patients, his father said, adding he had a strong desire to serve others.
“ ‘I want to help people,’ ” Michael Dawson recalled his son say.
He was commonly known among his fellow service members as “Doc” or “Doc Dawson.”
“You will always be loved and missed,” Michael Dawson said as he began to choke up. “Thank you for giving your life for us all.”Jan Ransom can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.