By Sandra Chereb
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Three members of the Nevada National Guard shot in a rampage at an IHOP restaurant were remembered by their colleagues Sunday who offered tributes of the victims' selflessness, humor and sense of duty.
More than 700 people, many in uniform, hugged and cried in a wind-swept hangar, marking their final farewell to Lt. Col. Heath Kelly, Master Sgt. Christian Riege, and Sgt. 1st Class Miranda McElhiney at the headquarters of the Nevada National Guard.
As the ceremony drew to a close, a soldier conducted the "last roll call," calling out their names three times, receiving no answer.
Four Nevada Guard helicopters did a flyover after a 21-gun salute and the playing of "Taps" to conclude the 90-minute ceremony.
Kelly and Riege were promoted posthumously after Tuesday's deadly attack that left five people dead, including the gunman, and seven injured. Authorities said Eduardo Sencion, 32, had a history of mental problems and had been on long-term medication before he stormed the IHOP with an assault rifle, shooting 11 people before taking his own life in the parking lot and ending the eight-minute rampage.
The loss of the Guard members, gunned down while having breakfast, took an emotional toll on Nevada's tight-knit military community, which has seen thousands of soldiers and airmen deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade. Tuesday's death toll on domestic soil matched the number of Nevada Guard members lost in foreign combat over the past 10 years.
Two of the injured were also Guard members. Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Mock, 32, and Sgt. Cait Kelley, 25, attended Sunday's private service for their fallen comrades.
Despite their own wounds, they lent assistance to others, helping to tend to the injured in face of danger and chaos.
"If it weren't for their quick action, they wouldn't be here and others wouldn't be here tonight," said Brig. Gen. Frank Gonzales.
Gov. Brian Sandoval, speaking on the same day the nation remembered those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack a decade ago, said Sept. 6 brought "universality of grief" to the capital city.
Carson City's tragedy, he said, became "a painful reminder of the nation's loss that day."
"Three of our best have died this week," he said. "We gather here to ensure death will not triumph over their good names."
Brig. Gen. William Burks said a soldier's sense of duty is always to serve others. But Sunday, he said, was an "opportunity for us to rally together as family. A Guard family."
"Today is a day to swap stories," he said _ to laugh and to heal.
Gonzales, at times choking on his words, recalled his anger and bitterness when he heard of the casualties inflicted during an innocent act of having breakfast in a family restaurant.
His own sense of sacrifice and duty, "That fell apart for me," when confronted with the "terrible nature of humanity," he said.
"The emotions went hot and heavy," he said. "It all hurt when you don't understand why."
The selflessness of Mock and Kelley, Gonzales said, "made me believe I can believe in humanity."
Lt. Col. Kelly, a father of two, was an avid student of military history and big supporter of "all things LSU," having family ties in Louisiana. A decorated field artillery officer, he was a "battle-tested warrior" who became commander at the Guard's Joint Force Headquarters in Carson City. He served in Iraq in 2004-2005 while on active Army duty.
A no-nonsense soldier, his stern facade would melt when he talked about his family.
McElhiney was an administrative sergeant who had been in the Guard for 13 years. She baked birthday, wedding and graduation cakes for anyone who asked, and often brought cupcakes for her colleagues to celebrate promotions and special occasions.
She once tried to entice a dieting colleague to have a treat, joking that her lemon ones were "diet" cupcakes.
She also had tiny feet, said Master Sgt. Thomas Sauls.
"She had the smallest feet of any soldier I've seen in my life," he said. Her boots had to be special ordered and he teased her, saying he didn't know they came in children's sizes.
Riege, a father of four, was a fitness buff who earned several nicknames _ "The Rig," "Big Rig" "Rig Stone," "The Riginator," said Master Sgt. Paul Kinsey.
Riege, 38, was also a skillful chess player, who once snookered Kinsey into a match while on a training mission, playing on a makeshift board with various sized bullet casings as chess pieces.
Fighting tears, Kinsey said of his friend, "I can understand why God took him."
Private funeral services were held over the weekend in northern Nevada for Kelly, 35, and McElhiney, 31. Riege's body was flown to Nebraska at his family's request for private services there. Riege's military occupation was armor crewman, and he served in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He had also served in the Navy.
One other person died in the shooting: Florence Donovan-Gunderson, 67, of South Lake Tahoe. Her husband, retired Marine Wally Gunderson, was among the injured.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press