AUSTIN, Texas — On Memorial Day, Patrick Hefner will return to tiny Hico for a ceremony honoring the only resident of rural Hamilton County to die in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: his son, Lance Cpl. Shawn Patrick Hefner.
Gov. Rick Perry, in a tribute Saturday to 96 Texans killed in combat, described the fallen Marine from the 8,500-resident town in his own way.
"Your son was a good devil dog," whispered Perry, leaning in close to Hefner's parents.
It was one of dozens of personal thanks Perry gave military families crowded onto the Texas House floor, where lawmakers from both chambers gathered for an emotional Memorial Day tribute that provided a solemn start to what's likely to be a long and lively final weekend of a divisive legislative session.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, who retired from the Army after being seriously burned in the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon, helped read off the 96 names of Texans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Families of some of the fallen service members, including the Hefners, were then called to the speaker's podium to huddle with Perry and receive a Texas flag and proclamation.
"It can be no easy thing to balance the admiration of your fallen warrior and a life that continues to unfold one challenging day after another," said Perry, speaking to the entire chamber. "Please know the people of Texas generally appreciate the service of your sacrifice."
Several lawmakers wiped away tears as the names were read. The ceremony lasted nearly two hours and was mostly subdued, save for a short applause when Perry opened his remarks by recounting U.S. soldiers killing Osama bin Laden earlier this month.
From the gallery above the House floor, the family of Sgt. Fernando de la Rosa took up several rows, many wearing a bookmark-sized picture of the 24-year-old pinned to their shirts. De la Rosa was killed in Afghanistan in 2009; in his hometown of Alamo, along the Texas border, the city library is named after him.
"It was a tremendous honor," Mary Calderon, de la Rosa's aunt, said of the family being invited to what was its first trip to the Capitol. "We're all here because some went to war for us."
Closing the ceremony was Lt. Col. Deon Green, stationed at Fort Sam Houston, signing "Amazing Grace" to the chamber. She cleared her throat and wiped her eyes before stepping up to the podium.
"I may need a little help singing this," Green began. "Because as the people I serve with know, thereby the grace of God go I."