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Westboro protesters were not missed

It was going to be a hot day and I had other plans in the shade. Initially I wanted to turn down a request to report on the funeral of a 28-year-old soldier who died last month while serving with the Army in Afghanistan.

I couldn’t think of a valid excuse not to be present when a man who sacraficed his life for our country and the freedoms we enjoy would be honored.

Journalists are told from the first day of training not to pick sides, but I have covered too many funerals of military personnel not to feel some kinship.

The funeral service of Sgt. Michael Joseph Strachota at St. Joseph Catholic Church in downtown Pine Bluff, we were told, would involve members from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. Westboro has a reputation for the extreme, picketing the funerals of military personnel who died in combat, and I have encountered them before. One of their protests in another city almost turned into a riot.

The picketers didn’t materialize that Saturday afternoon to disrupt the funeral. It was a smart decision on their part. The crowd that continued to swell before the service did not appear to be in the mood for Westboro protesters.

Hundreds of motorcycle organization members and counter-protesters, many holding American flags, lined West Sixth Avenue in front of St. Joseph in two rows and on the 16 steps leading to the front doors of the church as the honor guard soldiers carried Strachota’s flag-draped casket to his widow and son.

Had the protesters arrived, anything they might have said would have been drowned out by the engines of almost 250 motorcycles parked nearby. The dozen or so uniformed police officers didn’t appear to hold the Westboro group in high esteem.

Doug Odom, state captain of the Patriot Guard Riders, indicated the Strachota family asked the organization to be present at the funeral to counter any Westboro pickets and to provide an escort to the cemetery at Grapevine.

Two women outside the church questioned picketing the funeral of a soldier killed in combat. The older of the two made it plain she considered any funeral pickets “a bunch of nuts.” No one seemed to disagree with her.

Charles “Cooter” Failla of White Hall materialized out of the crowd with a large cardboard box in his arms, then began to hand out 3- by 5-foot American flags to anyone who didn’t have one. Dozens quickly formed a solid line of flags in front of the church.

Men and women wearing jackets and shirts identifying them as members of the Patriot Guard, Purple Heart Riders, Christian Motorcyclists Association, ABATE and Combat Vets Association stood at attention or saluted as the hearse carrying the soldier’s body approached and a bell began to toll.

The flag lines stood in solomn rows as the flag-draped casket was carried up the steps to the church door, where it was met by Lauren Walden Strachota and her son, William Michael Strachota.

With a heat index in excess of 100 degrees, a number of those who had stood in the sun for almost two hours appeared to suffer from heat distress. They were escorted to a nearby ambulance. Each was replaced in the lines by another volunteer who held the flags.

The crowd was dressed casually. Many said they decided to come out that sunny Saturday because they did not want Strachota’s casket met by protesters.

I was offered an opportunity that day to be a witness to an act of compassion for a fallen soldier and his family.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.