Friday, June 23, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> A relative looks back on funeral

We turn today’s column over to Jaynie McClain of Lonoke, whose cousin, Army Specialist Bobby West of Beebe, was killed on May 30 in Baghdad.

Six and a half years ago, in January 2000, you wrote a column in tribute to your precious parents and the rest of the Greatest Generation of World War II. I wrote you the same week telling you how much your column meant to me and that I was also impressed by the Greatest Generation.

I wrote about my mom, who worked in the Jacksonville Ordnance Plant, and my dad, who landed on Normandy a few days after the D-Day invasion. I also wrote about a maternal uncle who had served in Patton’s tank battalion as a tank commander who had earned several medals, including the Bronze Star in France, and commendations for his brave service. He was a quiet kind of man who had passed away a few years prior to your column. You may recall my letter, as you printed it in your column the following week almost in its entirety.

Well, after reading your column in the Saturday, June 10 edition and the report on the funeral in Beebe of Bobby West, I wanted to again write to you. You see, Spec. Bobby Russell West was my cousin, and the grandson of the uncle that I spoke of. My uncle, Troy “Pete” West, served his country honorably and returned home to his family to live to the age of 77. Unfortunately, Bobby returned home to his family in a flag-draped casket.

Just as their grandfather, and their father who served his country in the National Guard during the 70s, Bobby and his older brother Patrick also decided to serve their country. They first joined the National Guard and later switched to the regular army after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 cemented in their minds that they wanted to defend the greatest nation in the world.

Bobby and Patrick were both on their second tours of duty in Iraq when, while Bobby was out on foot patrol on Tuesday, May 30, an IED cut short his life and ended his service to our country. Patrick was only a few miles away from his brother that day in Baghdad serving in the 101st Airborne, where he will return to in a few days.

On Wednesday, June 7, our family saw the best and the worst of this nation.

We arrived in Beebe and passed the gathered motorcycles of the Patriot Guard Riders who were assembled at the traffic light on the old highway. On the other side of the overpass as we turned in at the church I saw the little huddle of protestors noting that there were only five or six from my glance as we drove by. I was thankful to God that there were so few of them.

I was outside of the church as the rumble of the Patriot Guard Riders started coming down Highway 64 and began to come up the gravel road at the north of the church. I called to my husband and another cousin and we stood on a little rise as the State Police led the first mourners’ cars and the motorcycles into the lot. Old Glory fluttered from almost every motorcycle in some form or fashion and from many of the cars.

I began taking photos of these proud Americans (mostly veterans) riding motorcycles in a long line that never seemed to end as one after another, they continued to come down the highway. My husband joined me, and together we waved at the bike riding angels.

I would say, “Thank you” and touch my heart to let them know that we so appreciated them being there.

These men and women acknowledged us returning our waves, by saluting, by the removal of hats, and putting their hands over their hearts. My husband and I stood on that hill for the half-hour it took for all of the Patriot Guards to enter the parking area. My vision was blurred by the tears that were running down my cheeks. I have never, ever felt prouder to be an American. My husband is a veteran of Vietnam and to see these proud Americans roaring past us choked him up as well.
Bikes were parked three-wide in the church driveways and into the parking lot.

According the Pete Waddell, the commander of the Patriot Guards, their numbers were down as he had short notice and there was another funeral for a veteran in Little Rock at the same time. Otherwise, according to him, he could have had double the riders at Bobby’s funeral.

The parents of Bobby and other family members came out and greeted a few of the Patriot Guard Riders thanking them for their coming. More than one told us that it was an honor for them to come and thank Bobby for his service. As I said, most of these men are veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Iraq or Afghanistan. More than once, I heard a catch in the voice of one of these men as they told us that they were honored to be here.

As the guardians of liberty, they stood out in front of the church in the heat from 1 o’clock until the service ended at about 3 o’clock.

As we left the church driving down the gravel road, two young soldiers stood at their car in the parking lot at attention, holding a salute until the hearse and family car had passed them. Then we turned south onto the highway to a line of police officers saluting. As we made our slow progress out to the cemetery, down Dewitt Henry Drive, my husband and I were both overcome at the numbers of people coming out of businesses, gathering at the side of the road holding flags. Many held their hands over their hearts as they held the flags with the other hand.

Several of the people we passed stood there in a military salute until we passed. Even though they were in civilian clothing, you just knew that they had served their country as well.

At the cemetery, as we gathered under the canopy for the final part of the service, I looked out over the hedgerow as it suddenly began to bristle with the tips of flag poles. The tips kept coming up and then you could see the blue ensign and white stars of the flags as the Patriot Guard Riders once again silently joined us.

There were more and more flags coming up the hill from the road. The warm breeze made them flutter out as the flag bearers soon had fanned out from one end of the hedgerow to the other. They quietly formed their wall of protection for us as Bobby was laid to rest.

Under the canopy, after the presentation of the folded flags and medals to Bobby’s parents, people came up to them to express their condolences. Among the group that came through were several Army personnel.

Several of the servicemen that came through there who had been on the flag detail were also crying. You may think these guys are super-tough, but when you see a service person in uniform crying, that’s when you realize that these guys are human, too.

A big “thank you” goes to the city of Beebe, which had plenty of law enforcement available to keep from there being any sort of problem.

A special “thank you” goes to all the members of the Patriot Guard Riders, some of whom came from other states, taking time off from work to honor our cousin.

I would like to extend another large “thank you” to the citizens of Beebe who came out to the road as we passed and paid their respects. To see the groups patiently waiting out in the Arkansas heat to show their support for us and for the cause Bobby died for was so touching.

My husband is not a weeper (like me), but he was crying too.

Next: Shame on the protesters.