When the gunfire ceased briefly at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb last week, witnesses said they heard a woman's voice call out in warning: "He's reloading -- Get out!"
On Wednesday, the Rev. James E. Kruse said he can't help but believe that voice belonged to lifelong parishioner Julianna Gehant, a 32-year-old Army veteran who was among five killed on Valentine's Day in the university's Cole Hall.
"Soldiers are not taught the way of cut-and-run, but soldiers are taught to help in a time of need," Kruse told about 350 mourners at Holy Cross Church in Gehant's native Mendota. "I can't help but believe that today we bury a hero."
Memorial services for the victim drew hundreds of family, friends and colleagues from across the country, as well as Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria and Monsignor Glenn Nelson, pastor of the Newman Catholic Student Center at NIU. Dozens of American flags brightened the snow-covered Holy Cross Cemetery, where Gehant was later laid to rest with full military honors.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Arnold Justice, who became close friends with Gehant at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., was among those who traveled several hours to pay his last respects. He said he was still struggling to understand how someone who had served her country for more than a decade could die under such tragic and inexplicable circumstances.
"To spend that long fighting for somebody's freedom, and then to lose it to somebody you were fighting for -- it's unbelievable," he said. "Her heart was so big."
Gehant's military service began in 1994, when she enlisted in the Army while still attending Mendota Township High School. She spent more than 10 years on active duty, including time in the war-torn Serbian province of Kosovo in the late 1990s before leaving active duty in March 2007 and joining the Army Reserve.
At the time of her death, Gehant had recently earned the rank of sergeant first class and was studying at NIU to become an elementary school teacher.
Justice said being in a classroom was Gehant's "calling" and that she had demonstrated a natural gift for education while teaching an interior electricity course at Fort Leonard Wood.
"There's no doubt she would have been an outstanding teacher," he said. "She was a great instructor. She had a good rapport with the (soldiers). She was motherly."
Family members did not speak at Wednesday's services, but friends said Gehant had never married after the untimely death of her fiance several years ago, and she had no children.
While Kruse acknowledged that there are "hard questions" surrounding the school shooting, the priest encouraged mourners to "roll away the stone of grief in our hearts" by finding comfort in each other and God.
"You are not alone today," he said. "And Julie was not alone that day."