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South Dakotans come together to mourn fallen soldier
Members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C., stand at attention as the casket bearing Cpl. Tanner O'Leary is carried from the Timber Lake School gymnasium Thursday afternoon in Timber Lake. O'Leary was killed in action Dec. 9 in Afghanistan. (Seth A. McConnell, Journal staff)

TIMBER LAKE - On a day when racial lines seemed nonexistent, the people of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation - Native American and white - came together to mourn Cpl. Tanner O'Leary.

The 23-year-old native of Timber Lake and Eagle Butte was laid to rest Thursday afternoon in a private cemetery on the family ranch south of Timber Lake. But family, friends and others - who in some cases traveled across the nation and world to get here - celebrated O'Leary's life in a much more public way during an honor march on Main Street and a memorial service at the school gymnasium that attracted more than 500.

From tribal officials and close friends to national politicians and U.S. Army brass, speakers praised O'Leary, who died Dec. 9 from injuries sustained in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan, as a good-hearted ranch kid who grew naturally into a soldier determined to serve his people.

Former Cheyenne River Tribe Chairman Greg Bourland said O'Leary represented the best of the warrior culture in a Native American society that enlists and serves in the military at five times the national average.

"They're the first to step forward in war time, the first to step forward in the defense of their nation," Bourland said during the memorial service.

O'Leary, a member of the Cheyenne River Tribe, was honored in ways that blended the Native American and non-Native cultures of his birth. His mother, Carmen, and sister, Tully, received an assortment of military medals that Tanner earned, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, from Brig. Gen. Keith Walker, who represented Gen. George W. Casey, U.S. Army chief of staff.

A 19-member honor guard from the 82nd Airborne Division accompanied O'Leary's remains home and through the ceremonies and onto the burial. O'Leary's cousin, Capt. Brian O'Leary, who is serving in Afghanistan, escorted O'Leary's body home from the East Coast.

Yellow ribbons were tied on roadside reflectors for miles along the highway into Timber Lake. U.S. flags flew at rural intersections and in driveways to farms along the road.

The family attended a funeral Mass at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Timber Lake on Wednesday, followed by an all-night vigil in the school gymnasium.

In that same gymnasium a few hours later, Tanner O'Leary was adopted into the Fool Soldiers, a Lakota warrior society. The adoption ceremony was led by Harry Charger, the great-grandson of Chief Charger, whose heroic leadership in saving a group of non-Native American women and children in 1862 gave the Fool Soldiers their name.

But they were anything but fools, Charger said. They were heroes who secured the release of the captives by negotiating with the Dakota warriors who had captured them in southwest Minnesota. They traded away horses and other belongings, including the moccasins being worn by Chief Charger, Harry Charger said.

They also helped the Dakotas themselves "from being annihilated" by government soldiers had the captives been kept and harmed, Harry Charger said.

"They were not fools. They were warriors," he said.

Like the Fool Soldiers society he joined Thursday, O'Leary was a warrior who served on behalf of others, Charger said.

"I look at this as a great day of healing among our people," Charger said. "Our young warrior has once more done this for us. He has done his greatest deed of all."

In an extended honoring ceremony that included song and drum and a ritual in which the entire audience joined Charger in turning to face the west, north, east and south, Charger presented a sacred lance to O'Leary's 14-year-old cousin, Jim.

Jim O'Leary will keep the lance and bear Tanner O'Leary's Lakota name, "Lance Warrior," for a year, upholding the honorable behavior of the society.

After the ceremony, Bourland noted that Natives and non-Natives had joined in seamless unity in the ceremony, moving in unison as they showed love and respect for O'Leary.

"It would be so wonderful, as God has intended us to live on this earth together, if we could do that every single day," Bourland said.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he had met O'Leary several years ago when the teenager stopped to help the senator and his staff after they ran out of gas near Timber Lake. O'Leary gave Thune a ride to a speaking engagement in Timber Lake, then helped Thune's staffer take gas back to the car and get it running again.

Thune said O'Leary's willingness to serve others that day was a small example of his much greater service to come. The enduring strength of the United States is in that type of selfless commitment, Thune said.

"As long as there are young soldiers like Tanner O'Leary in this great nation and this great state, this will always be the land of the free and home of the brave," Thune said.

Gov. Mike Rounds said that in giving his life for his country and people, O'Leary emphasized the cost connected to the freedoms that every U.S. citizen enjoys.

"Let us never forget that," Rounds said. "Let us never forget that these freedoms come with a price."

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com

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