FORT HARRISON - It took several months of pushing, but finally, Chris Dana was ready.

The 23-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, who served with the 163rd Infantry Battalion, Montana National Guard, agreed to see a counselor for post-combat stress.

Members of his family, concerned for months about his change in behavior, believed they were starting to get through to him. Their son and brother promised to seek the help they all knew he so desperately needed.

Dana canceled that appointment. He began screening his calls. He stopped showing up at drill with the National Guard. He quit his job at Target, cleaned his car and the trailer he shared with a friend. And then, on March 4, he shut himself into his bedroom, put a blanket over his head, and shot himself.

Dana was remembered Friday morning at the Cathedral of St. Helena as a gentle man, a kind soul, and a reflective individual whose brave and selfless service to his country set him apart.

"Isn't it remarkable - the journey of our lives," The Rev. Kevin O'Neill told the funeral crowd, estimated at 550 by church officials. "We don't have all the answers, but we reach out, and Chris did. How can a quiet man have so many people here today? He wasn't apart from others - he was a part of others."

Even through Dana's sadness, O'Neill said, there was happiness, mercy, and compassion. He stepped outside his comfort zone to pursue something that few thought he was capable of doing.

Shy and quiet though he was, Dana became a soldier. His service ribbons sat two rows deep upon his chest. The flag draping his coffin sang of his commitment to honor and duty.

Proof of his valor filled the cathedral. Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger attended the service, along with Maj. Gen. Randy Mosley, the adjutant general of the Montana National Guard. Command Sgt. Maj. Bob Bennett was there, and retired general Gene Prendergast.

Throughout the cathedral, service members of all stripes came to pay their respects. Friends and family sat with open hymnal books. The light beamed warmly down, filling the giant stained-glass windows with color.

"He was a man of honor, among men of honor," O'Neill said. "When one takes one's life, one is apart from themselves - not a part of themselves. Yet even when we move apart from ourselves, we will never be apart from God."

The procession moved from the cathedral to the Veterans Cemetery at Fort Harrison. Police officers blocked traffic to let the funeral procession pass. The hearse moved through the city with flags mounted on its hood, one of them reading "veteran."

In four years of war, Helena has lost three other soldiers. Capt. Michael McKinnon was killed in Iraq on Oct. 27, 2005. Cpl. Philip Baucus, a 28-year-old Marine, died in Iraq on July 29, 2006. Sgt. Scott Dykman, 27, was killed by an IED on Dec. 20, 2006.

But unlike the others, Dana made it home in November 2005. He enjoyed a surprise celebration with his family at a downtown restaurant. He bought a Pontiac, a cell phone, and returned to his old job at Target.

Dana wasn't physically wounded in battle. Yet his injuries festered below the surface. One of his brothers, Matt Kuntz, said Dana seemed to be melting from the inside.

His mother, Lisa Kuntz, said he was in terrible pain. His father, Gary Dana, said his eyes had lost their shine, reflecting his slow withdrawal from the joy of living.

"He just didn't have that glimmer in his eyes," Mr. Dana said earlier this week. "There's a look in people's eyes. There was something back there that was bothering him. You can look into a person's face and see it."

The sky stretched deep and blue west of Helena. Soldiers stood at attention as the crowd gathered at the VA Cemetery. Two cavalrymen rode in on horseback, their swords drawn high. A burial detail removed Dana's coffin from the hearse and placed it on a stand facing the family.

O'Neill presented Dana's mother with a gold cross. The day before, during the open-casket viewing, the relic had hung in the white satin lining of Dana's coffin. Dana's brother, Cam, squeezed his mother's shoulder.

The crowd closed in around the family.

A rifle squad fired a 21-gun salute.

A lone bugler played Taps.

Mosley, the state's top officer, received the three-sided flag from Dana's coffin. He took a knee at Kuntz's feet, his cap pulled low upon his brow.

"On behalf of a grateful nation," he began, passing the flag before standing to salute. He repeated the somber exchange with Dana's father.

"It was a wonderful service," Dana's father said after the ceremony.

"I'm doing a little better," Dana's mother said. "I'm getting there slowly."

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 447-4086, or at mkidston@helenair.com

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