HOULTON, Maine — To many of the more than 1,000 people who came to Houlton High School for his funeral Thursday, the handsome Marine with the chiseled jaw and sparkling eyes was simply 1st Lt. James Zimmerman, a fallen hero whom they didn’t know personally but wanted to honor nonetheless.
But to his family and friends, he was “Zimmer,” “Z-Man” and “James,” a devoted husband, son and brother, whose deep faith and patriotism walked with him every step he took in life.
A packed gymnasium was on hand for the Veterans Day funeral, including Gov. John Baldacci, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and a representative from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office. Numerous officials from various branches of law enforcement also were there, as well and current members and veterans of all branches of the armed services.
The two-hour ceremony was officiated by the Rev. Rick Carver, pastor of the County Road Baptist Church in New Limerick. Zimmerman, 25, attended the church for much of his life.
Military officials said Zimmerman died Nov. 2 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province in Afghanistan. He was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. Zimmerman’s parents, Tom and Jane Zimmerman of Smyrna, said that their son enlisted in the Marines on March 21, 2003, when he was still in high school. It was the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He attended the University of Maine, where he met his future wife, Lynel. The two married in 2008, the year that Zimmerman graduated.
He was deployed in June. His awards include the National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and NATO Medal-ISAF Afghanistan.
Several of Zimmerman’s friends and fellow Marines spoke at the funeral, characterizing him as a fun-loving guy with a “persistent smile” who challenged people to do better, to be better, and to live life to the fullest. He expressed a desire to be a Marine as a young boy, and even worked out to Navy SEAL training videos when he was in high school. Everyone who spoke pointed out that they rarely saw Zimmerman without his big smile, and one speaker referred to a photo shown during the funeral of Zimmerman holding up a telephone pole with fellow Marines. Zimmerman was the only one with a smile on his face.
Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Paradis was Zimmerman’s college roommate. He escorted his remains home.
“As cliché as it sounds, it is not goodbye, it is see you later,” he said of his fallen comrade. “Because I know wherever he is, he has got my back.”
The most poignant words came from Zimmerman’s older brother, Christian Zimmerman, and his father, Tom Zimmerman. Christian Zimmerman, the father of three children who lives in Texas, read a letter that he wrote to his brother after he died. The reading was punctuated with laughter and tears as Zimmerman walked the crowd through the memories that he vowed would stay with him for the rest of his days.
“I was very proud of you this summer. I came to your house, James, and you were proudly showing me all of the work you had done around the house,” he said, speaking of a brother who always told him he loved him when they ended a conversation. “I was so proud of you. I know we had a lot of things we talked about doing, but there never seemed to be enough time.”
He told the crowd that his brother was a wonderful uncle to his three children, never tiring of them “climbing up and down” his arms and legs or losing patience with them.
“I can only hope and pray my boys grow up to be just like their Uncle James,” he read from the letter. “As that is what they always say they want to do.”
He ended the letter by saying, “If I can be just a little bit more like you, I’d be a better man.”
Tom Zimmerman thanked everyone who came or who had offered the family comfort and solace since his son’s death. He told the crowd that on the day his son died, he knew that he’d been hit by enemy fire.
“He kept on giving commands to his men until he passed out,” he told the crowd. “I’m proud of my son.”
He spoke at length about his son’s “exuberance” and “zest for life.” James embraced the teachings of Jesus Christ at a young age, said Tom Zimmerman, and that taught him to be honest, loving, and honorable. When he was younger, his parents bought him a cow so “he could learn how to lasso.” He loved to do little things for people, like surprising his mother by showing up to church on Mother’s Day and presenting her with a bouquet of flowers.
“I loved the way he loved his sister,” Tom Zimmerman said, referring to Meagan Zimmerman Foster, a teacher at Greater Houlton Christian Academy, which is also where she went to school. “It took him a long time to get over her getting married. On her wedding day, I gave her away, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to part with her.”
“His death is a great loss to us,” he told those at the funeral. “We’ll get through it, but we’ll never get over it.”
But he asked the attendees to help him remember a son and “a life lived full throttle.”
“James’ life has inspired in me a new vigor for life, for a cause,” he said. “I pray it has done no less for you.”
After the funeral, a 21-gun salute was conducted outside the school, and a military helicopter flew over the grounds.
Interment is expected to take place next week, when Zimmerman will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.