By Celine Klosterman
OTTUMWA — If Staff Sgt. Joseph Hamski had his way, his family and friends wouldn’t mourn his death for long.
“We’d all be sitting around in the backyard with a beer in our hands, telling goofy stories about him,” said his mother, Mary Ellen Winston.
He was a happy man who laughed often, Father Bernie Weir told about 350 people in his funeral homily June 4 at St. Mary of the Visitation Church. Staff Sgt. Hamski’s life lasted just 28 years, but was lived with dedication, devotion, loyalty and service, the pastor said.
The day of the funeral, people and U.S. flags lined the streets from St. Mary of the Visitation Church to Ottumwa Cemetery about three miles away, Fr. Weir said. Also present were about 137 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationwide group of motorcyclists who gather to show support for fallen troops.
An explosive ordnance disposal specialist, Staff Sgt. Hamski died May 26 after enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
“He had trained people how, as much as possible, to keep others safe,” Fr. Weir said. “There was no question that countless lives had been saved by his actions.”
The priest prayed that violence would claim no more lives. “No more war, war never again,” he said, quoting Pope Paul VI.
Offering words of comfort, Fr. Weir said it’s vital to remember that the Lord is a God of resurrection. “While we have gathered in grief, we also have gathered here in the church because of our belief in Christ, his resurrection and the promise of salvation.”
Such beliefs help keep Winston going. “My faith has seen me through many things; this is another one,” she told The Catholic Messenger.
She said it was a miracle that her son was able to become the man he did. At 3 days old, he suffered meningitis and spent an extra week in neonatal care. “God saw fit to have him come through that unmarred.”
Joseph Hamski went on to receive his first Communion and the sacrament of confirmation at St. Mary’s, where he was an altar server and his mother has been a religious education coordinator and cantor. As a teenager, he participated in a Christ in Others Retreat.
He was a quiet student, a National Honor Society member and a trumpet player with a good work ethic, said Steve Hanson, who was associate principal at Ottumwa High School when Joseph Hamksi was a student there. Computers interested the youth, who briefly studied at Iowa State University after graduating, noted Hanson, who’s now superintendent of the West Liberty Community School District.
In the Air Force, “Joseph grew into his manhood,” Winston said. “He went in at 19, as a kid, not knowing what the heck he was doing. At his graduation from basic training, I couldn’t believe the change in him. He stood tall and proud, which he never really did before. He acted like someone with a purpose.”
He went on to win several awards for his service, according to Lt. Col. William Kale III, Staff Sgt. Hamski’s squadron commander.
But personal challenges lay ahead. While serving in Iraq in 2007, the airman lost his father, John Hamski, who had battled multiple sclerosis. Winston said she thought her late husband’s sufferings tested her son’s faith. “But Joseph was able to deal with it and get past it.”
Two years after John Hamski’s death, Staff Sgt. Hamksi had reason to celebrate. In January 2009, he married his wife, Christina, whom he met while stationed in South Korea.
Though their time together didn’t last as long as hoped, “they loved deeply and completely while they were together,” Fr. Weir said. “This was their time of joy. Now, sadly, Christina and Joe’s family and his friends are starting their time of mourning. In time, while it seems impossible now, there will once again be a time of dancing,” he said, alluding to Ecclesiastes 3:4.
For now, Winston takes comfort in knowing her son lived the way he was raised. “He lived a good, Christian life, a life of self sacrifice.”