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