By Sam Karlin
BATON ROUGE, La. (Reuters) - Police officers from across the United States were among several thousand mourners gathered at a church in Louisiana's state capital on Friday for the first of three funerals for policemen killed this week by an Iraq war veteran.
Baton Rouge police officer Matthew Gerald, 41, a veteran of the U.S. Marines and U.S. Army who also served in Iraq, had been on the force only a few months before his death on Sunday.
"His end of watch came too soon but he served well," Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie said as he fought back tears near the officer's flag-draped coffin.
Gerald and two colleagues were killed and three were wounded by Gavin Long, 29, a black former Marine from Kansas City, Missouri, less than two weeks after the police killing of a black man in Baton Rouge on July 5. The shootings were the latest in a series of deadly encounters that have sparked debate over policing and minorities in the United States.
Friday's mourners at the Healing Place Church included a police contingent from Dallas, where five officers were killed on July 7 by another black former U.S. serviceman.
"We felt it was very important to come support Baton Rouge today," said Christina Smith, a deputy chief with the Dallas Police Department.
Funerals for the other slain officers - East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Deputy Brad Garafola and Officer Montrell Jackson of the Baton Rouge Police Department - will be held on Saturday and Monday, respectively.
The officers were gunned down in what Louisiana officials have described as a calculated attack by Long. The shooting rattled a city already grappling with protests after the fatal police shooting on July 5 of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man confronted by officers while selling CDs outside a convenience store.
Police said Long had intended to kill as many officers as possible before a SWAT team marksman fatally shot him. One wounded sheriff's deputy remains in critical condition, while another left a Baton Rouge hospital on Thursday after surgeries to repair serious arm injuries.
On Friday, the commander of the city's police academy recalled asking Gerald, a married father of two children, why he wanted to be an officer.
"I have served my country, and now it’s time to serve my community," Gerald answered, according to commander J.D. Leach.
Hundreds of officers lined a long walkway as Gerald's casket was carried to a hearse after the service, saluting the fallen policeman.
(This version of the story was corrected to remove "unarmed" in reference to July 5 shooting in paragraph four)
(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott)