In a far corner of a Cherry Hill cemetery, amid the doleful strains of Taps and sharp reports of a rifle-team salute, the U.S. Army posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart yesterday to Maj. John Pryor, an Army Reserve surgeon killed in Iraq.
Pryor, 42, of Moorestown, head of the trauma unit at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, was mortally wounded Christmas Day when a mortar struck near his quarters in Mosul.
He was also father of three young children, who sat at the graveside among hundreds of mourners at Colestown Cemetery. Lt. Gen. Eric Schoonmaker, surgeon general of the Army, knelt before Danielle, 10, Francis, 8, and John Jr., 4, and presented each with a folded American flag and a set of their father's medals and awards. He spoke quietly to the youngsters, who listened solemnly, without tears, while relatives behind them wept openly.
"He chose to give his life to protect his family and my family," Schoonmaker told everyone. "We will never forget him."
The Army also awarded Pryor the Meritorious Service Medal and the Army Commendation Medal, among more than a dozen decorations.
The flag from his coffin was given to his widow, Carmela V. Calvo, who sat with their children and her husband's brother and parents. Four helicopters flew over the grave, the last one peeling off in "missing man" formation.
Earlier in the day, more than 1,300 mourners had filled the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia for the funeral. They heard the Rev. Damian McElroy, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Pryor's home parish in Moorestown, deliver a eulogy tinged with sorrow, but also with recollections of joy.
"We called him by many names - John, Johnny, JP, Baby John, Dr. John, Maj. Pryor," McElroy said. "He was known by many names, and blessed by many friends."
Pryor was serving his second tour as a reserve officer in Iraq when he was killed while stationed with a risky frontline surgical hospital.
The tear-stained faces in the cathedral included uniformed officers from every branch of the military, as well as staff from emergency medical services throughout the region.
McElroy said Pryor was a beloved son, husband, father and friend who from his earliest days near Albany, N.Y., as a Boy Scout, through his service as an emergency medical technician and later as an accomplished surgeon, took to heart the old scouting Order of the Arrow creed to help others and live selflessly.
"In John's mind," McElroy said, "you never waited for others to do what you could do."
McElroy recalled how Pryor rushed to New York City to offer his services as a surgeon on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Initially, he was asked to wait in a room at St. Vincent's Hospital with hundreds of others doctors.
"John didn't wait to be called," McElroy said. He went outside, flagged down a passing ambulance, hitched a ride to Ground Zero, and began to act."
Pryor met his future wife in medical school in Grenada. He was a casual everyday student who was brilliant on exams. She was a star pupil who struggled with big tests. They married in 1985, did their medical residencies in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to Philadelphia in 2001, a year after their second child was born.
She described him to others as her "one and only."
A dedicated doctor, Pryor also loved to snuggle in bed with his children, watching cartoons and surrounded by the remnants of the pizzas they loved to share.
"He had a personality that would light up a room and light up others emotionally and intellectually," McElroy said. "He was a great teacher . . . but without haughtiness. He was approachable."
In 2004, Pryor made the difficult decision to join the Army Reserve.
"He was concerned about the soldiers and wanted to save lives," McElroy said. In addition to getting basic weapons training, Pryor took the trouble to learn Arabic.
His first tour of duty in Iraq lasted four months.
He returned to Philadelphia energized but also "guilty that he was living his life in comfort and wasn't over there saving lives," McElroy said.
To love, to serve, and not to count the cost - that was how colleagues remembered Pryor.
So, few were surprised when he shipped out again on Dec. 6, although many of those closest to him wished he hadn't. In a letter he left to be read posthumously, he asked for their understanding and forgiveness.
Outside the church, Dr. Iris Reyes of HUP's emergency medical department said medicine was more than Pryor's profession, it was his calling. And he imparted this message to his students: "You're not going to [the hospital] to work. You're going there to serve."
"He mastered everything that he touched," said Rear Adm. Kenneth J. Braithwaite II, vice chief of information for the Navy, who came from Washington to attend the funeral. "We've lost a lot of people in this war. Each death is a sad loss to the nation. But the special gifts that John possessed makes his loss seem that much sadder."