Pierce County buried a hometown hero Sunday.
U.S. Army Spc. Joseph T. “Joey” Caron was remembered as a man of many facets and talents who possessed one driving force: protecting freedom for family and friends.
He was a courageous paratrooper, a prankster, a protective and attentive brother. He would give a fellow soldier his last drink of water; put on a proud smile and confident glare as he took off on a trough assignment; assume the persona of Forrest Gump and earn belly laughs with his on-the-mark portrayals of the aw-shucks movie character, friends and family members said.
And he was very much loved.
An estimated 500 people attended funeral services for the 21-year-old soldier at Washington High School, from which the Parkland native graduated in 2007.
Less than three years into the Army duty he long dreamed of, Caron died April 11 from a bomb blast while on foot patrol in Afghanistan’s Arghandab River Valley. He was a member of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team.
On Sunday, he was eulogized by a commanding general, a machinist’s mate 3rd class, an acting police lieutenant, a classmate, a karate instructor, a high school principal, a platoon sergeant and many others.
“If it wasn’t for the Joeys in the world, we wouldn’t have a lot of the freedoms that we do,” said karate sifu Cliff Lenderman, who presented Caron’s family with his black belt Sunday morning. He was among many who reverently called the young soldier a hero.
The Army posthumously awarded Caron the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and other medals. His casket, borne by six fellow paratroopers, passed through a Patriot Guard Riders honor line of some 60 American flags. And he was buried with military honors, including a 21-gun salute, at Mountain View Memorial Park.
Fittingly, the service began in the gymnasium at Parkland’s Washington High – home of the Patriots.
The gym was packed with family and friends, many of them in the uniforms of the United States Armed Forces or area law enforcement agencies.
Caron was named for his grandfather, Joseph, a Vietnam veteran who worked for Pierce County’s Law Enforcement Support Agency for three decades. Caron’s grandmother, Martha, remains a LESA employee.
Between them, his grandparents have supported local police agencies for some 60 years. In honor of their service – and of their grandson’s – mourners included Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor and Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell, both in uniform.
Caron’s flag-draped casket sat in the center circle of the school’s red, white and blue wrestling mat, honoring his membership on the varsity team.
A squad of red-shirted, gray shorts-clad wrestlers circled the casket, then broke into a series of jumping jacks, shouting out these letters in unison: P-A-T-R-I-O-T-S. PATRIOTS!
Then, suddenly silenced, they knelt on the mat, their heads bent in tribute.
Caron “put the defense of our values…above his own comfort” and “led the life of a true patriot,” Washington High School Principal James Hestor said a few minutes later.
“He was a fearless warrior, afraid of no one or no thing,” said Sgt. 1st Class Reggie Fox, Caron’s platoon sergeant.
Asked to take on a difficult task, a rough assignment, Caron never said he couldn’t, Fox added. “He’d just put on that proud smile, give you that confident glare” and go do it.
South Hill Calvary Chapel youth pastor Phil Spagnolo remembered Caron’s sense of humor with this story: Once, “with a gleam in his eye and a rumble in his stomach” he vowed to take on a whole box of Krispy Kremes.
Caron accepted Jesus as his savior and was baptized in the hot tub of family friends.
“He emulated Jesus,” Spagnolo said, quoting Scripture: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Caron loved his family, too. A slide show depicted his life as he grew from baby to boy to young man in Parkland. From wrestler to paratrooper, laden with armor and munitions in an Afghan desert, stopping to play and pose with local kids.
His humor peeked through photographs in which he smooched the progressively larger fish he caught.
“He was fun loving. He was funny,” said his mother, Tani Hubbard, “He loved his family. He loved his animals,” including four dogs, two at his dad’s house and two at her house, Hubbard said.
Holding a single red rose at the conclusion of the graveside service, she remembered the fun her son had doing a credible imitation of Forrest Gump, recreating his movie routines about shrimp, peas and carrots, and how life is like a box of chocolates.
Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of the Army’s 8th Airborne Corps and of Fort Bragg, N.C., where Caron was stationed, recalled the soldier’s serious attention to duty.
“He was “an extraordinarily confident and courageous paratrooper,” who earned and wore the maroon beret of the 82nd airborne because he wanted to be and do something special, Helmick said.
“America really is fortunate to have men like Joe Caron who are so willing to serve their country,” he added.
Caron also was a competitive person who “didn’t like to lose,” said his cousin, Navy Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Adam Shepard. “And even when he did, he came back a second time and always got that win.”
“I’m very proud of you Cuz. Thank you for everything you’ve done,” Shepard added. “I love you and will miss you.”
In addition to his mother, Caron is survived by his father, Jeffrey, brother, Josh, sister, Cassie, and a number of other relatives.