The Day ‘Those People’ Came to My Town

On June 8, 2011, my small community lost one of its young soldiers, Private First Class Matthew England, when the vehicle he was driving hit an improvised explosive device in An Najaf Province, Iraq.

I did not know this young man; neither did most of the residents of our rural county.  But that did not matter.  What mattered was that he was one of us.  What mattered was that he was a young man who had chosen to fight for his country and fight for our freedoms.  And what mattered was that he had lost his life in that battle, and now his parents were faced with the devastating task of saying goodbye to their only son.

As soon as word spread of PFC England’s death, American flags were waving in front yards and on fence posts and mailboxes across the county, and the courthouse lawn and business windows around the area were swathed in red, white and blue.  Within days a candlelight vigil was held in memory of the young soldier, whose many honors included a Bronze Star Medal, a Purple Heart, and an Army Achievement Medal for his brave service.

His local memorial service was held on Father’s Day, and our community turned out in full force to honor this young man, to show respect and support for his family, and to grieve for the loss of yet another precious young life.  The highway leading to the church was lined with hundreds of flag-carrying residents, all standing in somber silence as the motorcade passed by.  The church was filled to overflowing, and the church parking lot was crowded with over one hundred motorcyclists, many of them members of the Patriot Guard Riders, there to show their respect for this fallen hero and to shield his mourning family from any possible distractions caused by protestors.

Protestors–in our little town?  Like everyone else, I had heard the rumors and had seen the Facebook postings about “those people” coming to town to protest at PFC England’s funeral.  (Note: I refuse to utter their name in this blog and give them undue publicity; if you’re unsure as to whom I’m referring, perhaps my friend Jamie’s description of them will help: “misguided religious zealots with no respect for others who depend on their misinformed youth to convey their message of hate.”)  And while I have always understood the importance of freedom of speech in a democratic society–even when the beliefs being expressed are so contrary to my own–I have never understood how the right to freedom of speech can take precedence over the responsiblity of human decency.  Protestors–at a military funeral?

Surely they’re just rumors, I thought; why would “those people” want to bother with our small community, so far away from any media outlets that would give them the attention they so desperately crave?

But I was wrong, and came they did.

There were only five of them in a single van with Kansas plates, and as soon as they exited that van–toting their venomous signs and spewing their hate-filled doctrine–they were immediately surrounded by a sizable mass of flag-waving locals who strongly (if not politely) encouraged them to return to the hole from whence they had crawled.  Heated words were exchanged, and several law enforcement officials stood ready to intervene if the confrontation became physical–but it did not.  Perhaps “those people” had not anticipated such a large, loud crowd in such a small community; perhaps they realized the futility of their efforts when their voices were drowned and their signs were hidden from passing cars by American flags strategically unfurled in front of them.  Regardless, after a brief encounter, they made a quick retreat to their van and a hasty exit out of town.

Most importantly, the spot they had chosen for their protest was down the road from the church, and to my knowledge the family members of PFC England were not even aware of their presence at the time–the motorcade had not driven past that location, and the protestors were long gone before the memorial service was over.  Most of the people who had lined up along the highway to show their respect were also unaware of what was taking place just over the hill.  No television cameras recorded the “event,” and the local newspaper declined to give credence to their protest by refusing to mention their presence.  If their goal was to create publicity for their message, they failed in their attempt; if their goal was to find converts to their cause, they failed in that endeavor as well.

I had considered staying home that afternoon.  I don’t like drama, and I don’t like confrontation–and I certainly didn’t want to be a part of anything that might add to the distress the family was already feeling.  But in the end, I was glad I went.  I felt blessed to be standing in the sweltering heat on the side of that highway with hundreds of others, crying for a young man I never knew and paying silent tribute not only to him but to all the young men and women who every day knowingly risk their lives to protect my freedoms (as well as the freedoms of “those people”).

And I felt blessed once more to be a part of this small community, to witness first-hand its abundance of love and support, respect and pride.  That’s what small-town neighbors do:  We share our joy and our grief; we share our heart and our spirit and our soul–and we don’t need any of “those people” trying to tell us we’ve got it all wrong.

“One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, one nation, evermore!”

–Oliver Wendell Holmes

Hundreds of mourners lined the highway as the motorcade for PFC England came in to town.

I shot this picture while riding by on the motorcycle--not realizing until I printed it that some of the protestors' signs were barely visible. The crowd did a good job of using their flags to hide the signs from passing motorists.

About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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16 Responses to The Day ‘Those People’ Came to My Town

  1. Miles Long says:

    Beautifully written. Moving words which honor this young man and celebrates small town America.

    • Thank you, Miles! I think every man and woman who chooses to serve our country is worthy of our respect and admiration. And I wish every person had the privilege of growing up in a small town where such values are ingrained in our souls.

  2. Homestead Ramblings says:

    We too had such a sad event in our small town. People came from everywhere not only to pay respects to the fallen soldier, but to add swelling numbers of protection against that particular group you mentioned. People came from states all across the country, not just nearby. The unity felt by such unselfishness was amazing and humbling and left an indelable mark. Thank you for your post.

    • You’re welcome. I’m sorry that your community has suffered the same loss (and that so many other communities have as well), but you’re right about the unity and unselfishness being both amazing and humbling. I was stunned that so many people would stand in the sweltering heat on Father’s Day–when they could have been on the lake or at a barbecue–but then I had underestimated the capacity of others to show love and respect. This was just more important.

  3. Debbie says:

    Tearful, but beautifully written. I wish I had been there to share in that Ozark County pride. This post made me feel like I was there. I can’t understand why “those people” think it’s ok for them to disrespect the soldiers and their families and friends this way. They call themselves Christians? There seems to be some kind of “those people” no matter where you go and it just makes me sick.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I don’t agree with their beliefs, but I understand their right to have those beliefs–I just don’t want them sharing them in an environment that is already so emotionally devastating. No one should have the right to increase another’s pain and grief.

  4. cooper says:

    “responsiblity of human decency” – it is sad that concepts such as ‘respect’ continue to crumble and get blown away with the wind. not every event is meant for a political statement. there is a time and place to make your voice heard and it is certainly not while a family tries to honor their dead and start the long journey of working through their grief.

    The fact that funerals such as these continue to occur across the country makes me incredibly angry. we are sending our children overseas to die in the name of business and profit; the department of defence has become little more than a general store, supplying the largest corporate lobbyists with large scale SWAT teams to take a stand in countries where oil and other resources are guarded, masked in political and patriotic fervor. Our brave men and women in the armed forces deserve better. They are pledging their lives to the protection and defence of the people of the US. It would be nice if the government had enough backbone to use them for that purpose and not a first strike force in the name corporate greed.

    • “Our brave men and women in the armed forces deserve better.”–That pretty much says it all. I pray for the day when not another life is lost in the name of politics or corporate greed, but I doubt that day will come in my lifetime. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. comingeast says:

    I love the freedoms we have in this country, but sometimes some people’s freedom interferes with someone else’s. I hate it that families can’t grieve in peace, without jerks making things even harder for them. Sure, the jerks have a right, but just because you have the right doesn’t make it right. Very thoughtful, well-written post.

    • I apologize–somehow I missed your comment when it was originally posted. I love your comment that “just because you have the right doesn’t make it right.” You are absolutely correct.

  6. Well It's just Me says:

    I’m glad that your community could all stand together to show ‘ those people’ that their actions will not be tolerated and that if the law that should have protected the families concerned has failed them then at least the community won’t. Even in England we are aware of them and the propaganda they are trying to create. The real truth is that they do not in fact have this right and are deliberately flouting the law that was passed to stop them. They have no respect for anyone so I suppose we could only expect that they would have no respect for the law in their own country.

    • A visit to their website will reveal just how twisted their thinking and logic are; the really sad part was seeing and hearing their children spouting the same venom. Even so, I could simply ignore them if they didn’t choose to “express their rights” in the most inappropriate places. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Well It's just Me says:

    You are most welcome – I like to read your posts…they are so down-to-earth and refreshingly well written…(pampr1)Pam

  8. emjayandthem says:

    This was a heartfelt and beautifully written post. My heart swells with pride when you described your townsfolk stepping up in unison to say, “not here, not today.”

    There were threats of “those people” showing up today in Grand Rapids for Betty Ford’s funeral. Thankfully, to my knowledge, the snakes didn’t come out from the rocks under which they live.

    Prayers and condolences to PFC Matthew England and his family.

    • It was a very sad but heart-warming experience … sad because of the people who attempted to disrupt a family’s mourning process but heart-warming because a community stood firm against them. I had heard of their threats to disrupt her funeral–anything to grab a little media attention–I’m glad that nothing materialized. I wonder if sometimes they announce their intentions just to get the media coverage, even if they have no intentions of actually being there.

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