Justin Buxbaum’s expansive smile and good nature. His willingness to help others and also have fun.

These are recollections family members say they want to hold onto, as they bid goodbye to the 23-year-old South Portland soldier killed in Afghanistan on Memorial Day.

Buxbaum’s body was flown to Portland Monday, where his large, extended family – mother, grandparents, aunts, uncles and about 20 cousins – gathered for his wake and two funerals.

A public funeral, with full military honors, was set for Wednesday morning at Holy Cross Church in South Portland, where an estimated 1,500 visitors were expected.

Gov. John Baldacci ordered flags to be flown at half-staff Wednesday. The Thomas Banquet Room was to open for a reception after the South Portland funeral.

The public gathering was followed by a private funeral on Chebeague Island late Wednesday afternoon, where Buxbaum was to be buried.

Buxbaum, who was a U.S. Army Specialist, was remembered by family members as a favorite cousin, the standout son, a kid well-liked by everyone.

“Justin just had this amazing smile that could light up a room,” said Kristen Buxbaum of Yarmouth, one of Justin’s aunts. “There always was a little bit of mischief to him, too.”

“Justin was pretty much the nicest guy you could know,” said Chris McCollom, Justin’s 22-year-old cousin.

The two grew up spending summers together at the home of their grandparents, Donald and Cheryl Buxbaum, on Chebeague Island, where Donald helped pilot the island ferry.

“Justin was always happy, always smiling,” McCollom added. “He just was an all-around good person who never had a bad word to say about anyone.”

Just like the annual summer gatherings of his childhood, Buxbaum’s extended family came together this week on Chebeague Island.

But this time their task was a somber one – to bury Buxbaum in the tiny island cemetery off North Road.

On Monday, the family drove to the airport to meet the military plane that was transporting his body. Laurie Wood, Justin’s aunt, said the family wanted to welcome him home, as they would if he were still alive.

State police vehicles and the Patriot Guard Riders accompanied the hearse from the airport to the Conroy-Tully Funeral Home on Broadway.

“We are trying to focus on all the wonderful memories we have about Justin,” Wood said.

Most of those memories center on the summer family reunions on Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. The island is where Justin learned to play golf with his grandfather, swam at the beach with his cousins, waved flags at local parades, and pedaled his bike along the narrow roads.

Heather Buxbaum Brand of Michigan, another one of Justin’s cousins, said her favorite memory was the piggyback races the older cousins had on the beach at family reunions.

She, McCollom and Buxbaum also liked to go to the Maine Mall together, just to window shop and hang out.

On Chebeague, the islanders knew the Buxbaum kids by first names.

“The island was like your family. You can pretty much walk the entire island, and everybody knows you,” said McCollom, who now lives on Little John Island. “Everyone looked out for each other.”

While Chris lived year round on Chebeague as a child, Justin and many other Buxbaum cousins visited in the summer, staying at the home of their grandparents.

Justin, the son of a single mother, Julie Buxbaum, grew up in Portland. He moved with his mother and brother, William, to South Portland as a teenager, graduating from South Portland High School in 2004. He was slim and small but athletic, playing football and running track and field in high school.

Family members said Justin had a sharp eye and quick reflexes, whether he was playing golf on the island’s nine-hole course or throwing rocks on the beach.

Both McCollom and Brand also recalled Justin’s sincerity. As older teenagers, the three would sit for hours together, just talking and dreaming about the future.

“Justin wanted to do something positive with his life,” McCollom said. “He thought the military was a good way to build his career and go on to college. He wasn’t nervous about it. He looked forward to it.”

Wood said Buxbaum enrolled in the Army National Guard as a high school junior. He was called to active duty within months of graduating from high school. He served twice in Iraq. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Afghanistan.

Buxbaum was killed from a bullet wound to the abdomen in a “non-combat incident,” according to the U.S. military, which is investigating his death.

Wood said that Justin saw the military as “an honorable and secure pathway to college.” He talked about becoming an elementary school teacher and having a family of his own.

Wood described Justin as a young man who handled responsibility well. He was his mother’s right-hand man.

Julie Buxbaum worked hard to raise and support her family. She worked at a local child care center, Wood said.

She and William moved to Georgia last winter, in part because they could not afford the high heating bills in Maine.

“Being the oldest son of a single mom, Justin did some of the caretaking of his younger brother,” Wood said. “It was just the three of them. Justin knew he had to help take care of himself and very often be responsible for his younger brother, William.”

Wood, who teaches English at the high school, said Justin’s maturity and sense of duty at home carried over to his school work.

“Justin was the hardest-working kid. He never hesitated to visit me in the classroom, or e-mail me with questions about his work,” she waid.

“He spent hours devoting himself to academics,” she said. “He had so much potential. He saw the Army as a way for him to achieve the important things he wanted in life.”

Army Spc. Justin Buxbaum was awaiting a care package from his aunt, Beth Copp of Windham when he was killed in Afghanistan May 26. Copp is gathering items for care packages for everyone in Buxbaum’s unit. Donations will be accepted at the Windham Wal-Mart Saturday, June 28.With a single mother, Justin Buxbaum, left, would often help his mother, Julie Buxbaum, care for his younger brother, William.


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