A few weeks ago, my sister and her fiance lost a dear friend to the war in Iraq, SSG Paul Pabla. My sister, who, along with her fiance, is in the Air National Guard, was shaken in several ways. First and foremost, by the loss of a friend whom she'd known for years. Secondly, by the loss of a fellow brother-in-arms. Thirdly, because she is in public affairs for the Guard, she had to field questions from media about his death, about when his services would be, about the type of person and soldier he was. Becca had to take off her grieving friend hat and replace it with her professionally-speaking without attachment one. I can't even imagine how hard it would be to have to describe a close friend in terms such as, "He was a caring person ... he was a dedicated soldier."
Becca told me about his funeral and, coming from a small town in Indiana where you are loyal to your own, there was of course of very large and proud service for him. The service was held in the high school auditorium, and it was filled to near-capacity, more than 900 people. But what made the event so unfathomable by Huntington standards was the notoriety it gained.
The protesters from Westboro Church in Kentucky took it upon themselves to drive up to Huntington to protest the war, to protest the military's allowance of gay enlistees, to protest Sgt Pabla. When Becca told me about it, I felt physically ill. How can these people call themselves Christians for doing what they do? And beyond that, from what Becca told me about Paul and from what I read of him myself after looking up information about the events surrounding his death and funeral, these protesters were barking up the wrong tree. Had they taken a moment to get to know the soldier whose funeral they were spitting on, they would have found a good, caring, loving Christian man who was serving his country and doing so with pride.
Then Becca, who, along with her fiance, is a Harley rider, told me that the Patriot Guard was also on hand. Now, the Patriot Guard is a collection of bikers from all across the country who put out a notice when a soldier falls in Iraq and then converge upon the funeral to protect the family from these putred excuses for people from Westboro. The Guard block the family and funeral-goers from the protesters. They stand shoulder to shoulder and use American flags to create a wall between the two sides. They send riders up and down the street on bikes to drown out the noise of the protesters' ugly opinions.
Then Becca told me about the funeral procession, how it wound through town and into the country, and how all along the route were small flags planted into the ground and people from the community watching, applauding, honoring. In the country, farmers got off their tractors and stood by the road with their hands over their hearts.
She had me in tears. But she also made me wish so fervently that I'd been there. As a former journalist and current aspiring photographer, the idea of that day, that event, those elements made for a perfect alignment of amazing photo ops. The story those scenes could tell. I only hope the local paper got it right.
Which reminded me of this story tonight, and the fact that I'd wanted to tell it.
I periodically check in on my former employer, the Herald Press, and see what's going on in my former hometown of Huntington, Indiana. And today I happened to see an article about Sgt Pabla's funeral, and the fact that the Patriot Guard has made a memorial tribute video to him. Wow. The video itself is moving and beautiful, but seeing the photos that I had only imagined in my mind ... someone DID get it right. The images are lovely and heartbreaking and uplifting and full of pride and sorrow.
I'm so very proud of my little sister and all she's done and is doing, but the fact that she is bound to these two groups - the National Guard and the loving, giving community of bikers - make me intensely proud of her. She's got such a big heart, and I know that if and when the day comes, she, along with her fiance, will ride their bikes to a fallen soldier's funeral and they will do their part to keep the day focused on patriotism and heroism and love. And they won't let those rat-bastard Westboro bigots take away from the fact that a mother has lost her child, a country has lost a patriot, freedom has lost a defender.