National Guardsman Jorge Oliveira was hailed as an American hero during an emotional two-hour funeral mass Friday at the Cathedral Basilica in Newark.
Inside the church, a lone red and white flowered wreath adorned the altar as family members and friends of the solider filled the pews for the ceremony, performed in English and Portuguese. While family members, friends and uniformed officers trickled into the pews, one woman could be seen saying her final goodbye by pressing her forehead against the cold white marble casket as it rested in the aisle.
Staff Sgt. Oliveira, 33, a Newark native and Essex County Sheriff's officer, , according to officials.
Gov. Chris Christie sat in the front row alongside Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., Attorney General Paula T. Dow, Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura and New Jersey National Guard Adjutant General Glenn Rieth. DiVincenzo, Fontoura and Rieth were the only speakers during the ceremony.
Christie, who was on hand to receive Oliveira's casket when it arrived at Dover Air Force Base, eulogized the soldier as a community servant and an "American hero." The New Jersey governor said while others can fulfill the mission of the National Guard and sheriff's department, no one could replace Oliveira to his family.
"The Jorge Oliveira that will be missed the most is the son and the brother," said Christie, expressing his deep condolences for the family.
Meanwhile, Fontoura remembered Oliveira as always the "first one in and the last one out" while working as a sheriff's officer.
"Jorge Oliveira came here as a seven-year-old immigrant, was embraced by the Ironbound and was a great American," said Fontoura of Oliveira, who was Portugeuse.
Fontoura said the last time Oliveira's mother spoke to her son, she pleaded for him to come home for Christmas.
"He told her, 'Mom, there's a young man on my squad and it's very important that he gets home for Christmas, so I gave him my spot,'" said Fontoura.
At the conclusion of the mass, bagpipers trilled "Amazing Grace" as six New Jersey Army National Guardsmen carried Oliveira's casket outside. Family members, who wept quietly during the ceremony, cried out as Oliveira's final roll call was read.
Earlier Friday, thousands of police officers and members of the military flanked the entrance of the church as the funeral procession for Oliveira arrived at around 9:45 p.m.
Mourners and officers began arriving two hours before the 10:30 a.m. funeral. Officers stood at attention under the bright blue sky in the crisp fall air, wearing their blue, black and green uniforms, honoring the funeral cars that arrived at the cathedral.
Oliveira's coffin was draped with an American flag as it was brought out of the hearse, and he was accompanied by dozens of family members.
The procession wended its way from Oliveira's family home in the Ironbound, through the downtown Newark streets near the courthouse where Oliveira worked, all the way to the Cathedral in the city's North Ward.
As the escort of several dozen police motorcycles led Oliveira's casket down the street, courthouse employees and passersby could be seen waving American flags in his honor while wiping tears from their eyes. Some held their right hand over their heart.
"He'd always say, 'Buenos dias' every morning," said Beatriz Nunez, a security officer for the Essex County Sheriff's Department who worked with Oliveira. "He was always smiling, always asking us if we needed help."
For Claribel Quezada, a clerk at the Essex County Courthouse, Oliveira's funeral hit close to home. Her son, Julio Luciano, served in the Navy for four years overseas and her nephew, Carlos Bermudez, is still active in the Marines. She said she worries about her nephew's safety.
"It doesn't matter where they come from, they are all supposed to come home," said Quezada. "We lost someone over a stupid, stupid war."
She remembered Oliveira as a "true gentleman."
Officers outside the cathedral declined comment.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who did not attend the funeral because he was out of town, said in a statement that the city grieves the loss of the guardsman, "We will never forget the ultimate sacrifice (Oliveira) made to preserve our nation, our freedoms and our liberties."
Oliveira was on his third tour of duty with the New Jersey Army National Guard when he was attacked and killed, according to Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Daugherty, a spokesman for the state's National Guard.
At the time of his death, Oliveira was a detective assigned to the fugitive squad, according to Kevin Lynch, a spokesman with the sheriff's office.
Daugherty said Oliveira, a native of Bairrada, Portugal, joined the National Guard in 2003 after serving in the U.S. Army from 1997 to 2000.