As I look outside at the rain and gloom, I am reminded of a different Saturday two weeks ago. It was the day of the funeral of Pfc. Justin Whitmire. He was 20 years old. You couldn’t even say that he was cut down in the prime of his life; he never even got close to his prime. As a mother, to me he was still a boy. But he was a boy who already knew about dedication, love of his country and helping others, part of the reason he was serving as a medic.On December 27, just 19 days after his deployment to Afghanistan, Justin’s patrol vehicle ran over an IED. Two fellow soldiers lost their lives in the accident. Justin had volunteered for the mission. As his friends and family said, that was typical of Justin.
The funeral service was held at Simpsonville First Baptist Church with burial at Cannon Memorial Park. Over three miles of four-lane road stretch between those two points. And for several hours that Saturday, the entire stretch was lined with people, many holding American flags. The majority of them did not know Justin Whitmire personally, yet they were drawn there to mourn his death and to show support to the family he left behind. I found the reverence overwhelming.I will admit my call to this funeral was initially motivated by the announcement that Westboro Baptist was coming to demonstrate. The hope was to form a human chain that would block the sight of the protesters from view of the family. As it turned out, Westboro never showed. I believe it had something to do with the anticipated reception they might have received. Southerners are a friendly, welcoming bunch of people – unless you try to mess with their families. In that case, you may be greeted by the barrel end of a shotgun being held by hands with an itchy trigger finger. I believe Westboro got the message loud and clear and decided to high-tail it back to the Land of Oz
The Patriot Guard was there via invitation from the family. A devout group of motorcycle riders, they assemble as a symbol of reverence and respect for those who defend our country as members of the armed services. In addition to the Patriot Guard, thousands of other riders came to show their respects. As we stood along the processional path, we watched literally thousands of bikes ride past, many with flags propped high in the air. Riders had come from other towns, even other states, all simply to show respect and support for the Whitmire family.It was anticipated that the funeral procession would begin the drive from the Church to the cemetery around 2PM. Due to the overwhelming number of people in attendance, the eulogies by clergy and family members, and the task of getting everyone assembled, it was delayed by well over an hour. Yet, no one left and no one complained. We simply stood our ground patiently knowing our purpose that day far outweighed anything else we needed to do at that moment. We were in it for the long haul.
The Patriot Guard rode first, paving the way for the hearse and family limousines. They rode slowly, solemnly and with low-idling engines. They stared at us and we stared back, finding a kinship in why we were there. As the humming of the bikes subsided, the hearse carrying Pfc. Justin Whitmire came into view. Hands went to hearts or formed a salute and tears welled in eyes. Several more limousines followed. Family members mouthed the words “thank you” as they rode by. At least 100 additional cars carrying funeral service attendees continued the trek. The thing that struck me most was the quiet. Aside from the sound of wheels crossing blacktop, you could hear a pin drop. No one spoke, no sounds of the bustling downtown were heard, no horns, whistles, sirens not even from a distance. It was as if time was standing still – Mother Earth a part of the reverent moment.As the last car drove down Main Street toward the cemetery, life fell back into a normal pace. We mourners strode back to our vehicles, some of us talking softly, some remaining silent. A huge traffic jam ensued in that small, crowded downtown. But no one got frustrated, no one blew a horn. We took our turns allowing each other to enter the flow. The level of respect stayed elevated. We had all been impacted by what we just witnessed. And I know that Pfc. Justin Whitmire was watching from above.