Second Lt. Michael Digby told the standing room only crowd gathered for the funeral of his friend and brother-in-law Staff Sgt. Travis Lynn Nelson Sunday that Travis was a soldier, a patriot, an American hero and "the bravest man I ever knew."

"Travis was the type of man everybody loved and likewise, he never met a stranger. He loved children to no end. You could not be sad around Travis and if you were a hug and pat on the back followed," Digby said as he delivered Sunday's eulogy at Cullman Heritage Funeral Home Chapel.

"Travis was full of the love of God, a soldier through and through," Digby said. "He loved his job and the people he served with, but the thing I'll remember most about Travis is how much he loved my sister Shelly and my niece Summer. Theirs was a special love that only a few ever find."

One week before Christians worldwide celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with family and friends, a community came together Sunday in love, tribute and respect for a fallen hero who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

A member of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky., Nelson, 41, and a second soldier, Sgt. Kenith Casica, 32, of Virginia Beach, Va., were reportedly killed by hostile fire at a checkpoint outside of Baghdad on Dec. 10 while in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Nelson is believed to be Cullman County's first casualty of the war in Iraq. Ironically on Friday, less than a week after Nelson's death, it was reported that Marine Cpl. Adam Fales, 21, of Fairview, on deployment in Iraq, died of a gunshot wound while he slept in his barracks. That incident remains under investigation, officials said.

Prior to Nelson's death, the closest connection between the death of a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq and Cullman County was Lance Cpl. Jonathan Smith, 22, of the Oden Ridge community near Eva. Smith died in June when a roadside bomb exploded near Fallujah.

On Sunday, scores of family members, friends, local veterans, state and local dignitaries and fellow military personnel crowded into the Cullman Heritage Funeral Home Chapel on Eva Road Northeast to first and foremost pay tribute to the passing of a soldier who died doing what he loved most.

Fort Campbell sent an honor guard and other representatives to assist with the funeral, which included a special musical video presentation depicting Nelson's life from childhood.

Department of Defense spokesman Brig. Gen. William Phillips said that while he never met Sgt. Nelson, he now knows after speaking to family members, friends and fellow soldiers who knew him best, that Sgt. Nelson represents the very best that America has to offer.

"The troops called him 'Old Man River,' which I know is a sign of deep respect for this superb soldier. I've learned that Sgt. Nelson loved to hunt and fish and most of all he treasured spending time with his family," Phillips said. "I know that Staff Sgt. Travis Nelson was not only a superb soldier and leader, but also a tremendous person. He is one of America's heroes who gave everything so that those he loved, other Americans and oppressed people around the world can be free."

Nelson's wife, Shelly, who currently resides in Clarksville, Tenn. with her daughter and Nelson's step-daughter Summer, age 12, issued a statement Sunday through her brother, Lt. Digby, in which she expressed her appreciation to family and friends for their love and support as well as the support she and her family have received from the soldiers and community of the 101st Airborne.

Married for just over a year, Shelly and Travis first met while he was assigned to homeland security at the Anniston Army Depot following Sept. 11 as a member of the 167th Signal Battalion in Cullman. Shelly at the time was a civilian employee at the base. The couple later married in Tennessee.

Originally from Coldwater, a small rural community just outside of Anniston where her family resides, Nelson said she plans to return home to Coldwater with her daughter and Travis, who was buried with full military honors Sunday afternoon in the Coldwater First Baptist Church Cemetery near Oxford.

From Morgan County originally, Travis Nelson moved to Cullman with his parents and siblings in 1976. He graduated from Cullman High School in 1982 and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After 10 years of active duty, Travis Nelson left the Army and enlisted in the National Guard. After Sept. 11 and homeland security assignments to Huntsville and Anniston, Travis again decided to enlist in the Army full-time and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. He and his unit were deployed to Iraq in September.

Nelson's older brother Michael Nelson said Sunday it's difficult to put into words the love and gratitude his family feels toward the many who have visited, called or prayed for them during this difficult week.

"We couldn't have made it through the week without our friends and family and our church family at West Point First Baptist Church," Mike Nelson said. "And my heart goes out to the Fales family in Fairview who suffered the loss of another young soldier this week. Our prayers are with them."

Jerry Galin, Travis Nelson's uncle, said what he'll remember most about Travis is his love of life, family, children, the military and Alabama football.

"When you don't have children of your own you tend to adopt your nephews and nieces," Galin said. "I'm so thankful we were able to hold on to Travis if only for a short time."

The names engraved on the memorial monuments at the Cullman County Courthouse and on the Purple Heart Memorial in Hartselle speak volumes about Cullman County's commitment to military service and the task of protecting this nation's freedoms and Travis symbolized that commitment, Galin said.

"We some times lose sight of the fact that this war is being fought by young men and women who love what they do and are willing to make that sacrifice without question," Galin said.

Nelson's commitment and sacrifice were rewarded during Sunday's service with the presentations of the Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, as well as special presentations of a certificate of commendation and proclamation from Alabama Gov. Bob Riley.

Members of Cullman County's legislative delegation, Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, Rep. Neal Morrison, D-Cullman, and Rep. Jeremy Oden, R-Vinemont, made the state presentations to Nelson's family.

For Morrison, Sunday's local service had a more personal meaning.

"Travis and I attended school together, although he was one year ahead of me," Morrison said. "I'll never forget that Hardy Cornett, the shop teacher at Cullman High, gave me my first whipping because Travis and a bunch of us were horse playing in shop. Travis was so full of life. He truly loved his country and we're all a lot better off because he was part of our lives."

Other survivors of Travis Nelson's family include his mother, Jeanice Galin; a brother, Dr. Shawn Galin of Birmingham; a sister, Tammi (Kyle) Bramblett of Cumming, Ga.; his father- and mother-in-law, Steve and Arlene Digby; two nieces, Bailee and Abby Nelson of Cullman; and three nephews, Micah and Jacob Digby of Anniston and Walker Bramblett of Cumming, Ga.

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