ORANGE-Three hundred mourners bid a tearful final farewell last Thursday to Army Staff Sgt. Thomas E. Vitagliano, as the fallen soldier's compatriots somberly laid him to rest with full military honors.

Vitagliano, 33, a former Marine who had lived in West Haven and Orange, was killed Jan. 17 when a car bomb detonated near his position in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, but not before he saved the life of a fellow soldier.

As the morning sun hung overhead, West Haven police, city and fire employees waved flags and stood at attention as Vitagliano's military-and police-led cortege ceremoniously passed through the city's snow-laden streets to Holy Infant Roman Catholic Church in Orange.

"He touched a lot of people," said Lt. Col. John Whitford of the Connecticut National Guard after watching six uniformed Marine reservists carry Vitagliano's flag-draped casket inside the church for a Mass of Christian burial.

Though the family has grieved privately since learning of their loss last week, they found the strength Thursday to publicly share their love for "Tommy," their "idol," during a eulogy delivered by Deacon John Hoffman of Orange.

"Tommy … my heart aches when I think of all the plans that will never be," Hoffman read on behalf of Vitagliano's father, G.T. Vitagliano. "(But) my pride in who you are cannot be hidden even in my heartbreak."

Inger Lise Severine fondly recalled her son's lighthearted penchant for persistently teasing her and his ability to make her happy when she was sad.

"I thank you for trying to make this a better world, and for making me better because you loved me and I loved you," she said through Hoffman.

Vitagliano's fiancee, Nerina Giolli, who was to marry him in March, said she knew when they first met that their lives would be forever entwined.

"I would give anything to look into your incredible eyes again," Giolli said. "I find comfort in knowing I am your greatest love, as you told me, and (that) our unbreakable bond will not end."

Hoffman also gave voice to Vitagliano's brother, Eriq Vitagliano, who recalled "never admitting it" but always having enjoyed others mistaking him for his sibling.

On behalf of the entire family, including Vitagliano's sister, Tammy Ronan, Hoffman noted the irony of the family name's meaning: "filled with life."

"You are a free spirit who truly … gave your life for what you believed in most," Hoffman said.

The military also praised Vitagliano for fulfilling his patriotic duty by presenting his family with four posthumously awarded medals - the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge.

During the service, Orange First Selectman Mitchell Goldblatt, said Vitagliano's unit commander in Iraq, Col. Gary Patton, e-mailed fellow mourner Gen. Paul Izzo via Izzo's BlackBerry device, which he read aloud.

"He wanted the family to know … (the unit) was 'sorry we can't be with you at the funeral today,'" Goldblatt recalled. However, Patton wanted them to know that Vitagliano died while saving the life of one of his fellow soldiers.

According to Hoffman, Patton said Vitagliano was investigating a taxi abandoned at the side of the road when he realized it was a car bomb and pushed a fellow soldier out of harm's way. That unnamed soldier, he noted, is in serious condition but alive. Another soldier, Pfc. George Geer of Cortez, Colo., also was killed in the explosion.

Vitagliano is the 23rd person with Connecticut ties to die in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2002.

After the Mass celebrated by the Rev. Peter Dargan and Bishop Peter Rosazza, Vitagliano was entombed at St. Lawrence Garden Mausoleum in West Haven.

After a bugler's rendition of taps and a military volley, Marine Corps reservists presented both Severine and the elder Vitagliano with folded American flags. Vitagliano's paternal grandmother, Elena Vitagliano, then rested her head against her grandson's silver coffin as family members each laid single red roses as their final goodbye.

The gesture brought Florida resident and Marine Reserve Capt. Shane Cote, who served with Vitagliano in the mid-1990s, to uncontrollable tears and a near loss of words.

"He's going to be missed," he said.

The family of Army Staff Sgt. Thomas E. Vitagliano wish to thank the Amity community for its outpouring of kindness during this difficult time.