My Tribute to a 20 Year Old Hero

Today my family had two monumental ‘firsts’:  My son played his first organized church league basketball game and about 2 hours later my kids saw their father cry for the first time.

Yes, today was one of those days I’ll never forget but when I woke up I didn’t anticipate it being anything other than a normal Saturday.  It was truly one of those days that couldn’t be scripted and events happened that seemed to be divinely controlled and culminated in a situation that I was wholly unprepared for.

I had heard a couple days ago on the radio how a local 20 year old Army PFC Justin Whitmire had died after Christmas when his jeep ran over an IED in Afghanistan.  His funeral was scheduled for today in my home town of Simpsonville, SC and I remember thinking how my family should go to the grave ceremony to pay our respects.  Unfortunately, the radio announcer stated that the services were the same time as my son’s first basketball game so I dismissed this idea.

After the basketball game today something (or Someone) put an idea in my head to make a trip to Lowes and pick up some lawn care products I needed.  The trip caused us to go through Main Street in Simpsonville and we noticed a huge gathering of people blocking the road that caused us to take a detour.  As we continued our trip I put 2 and 2 together and realized this must be the people leaving the funeral service.  After we left Lowes I decided to take the long way home to avoid the traffic through downtown and crossed Main Street about 2 miles down the road from the church but to our surprise that road was blocked by police and there were large crowds here too.  As it turned out, the ceremony was much later than had been reported and we still had time to see the motorcade processional!

So we parked the car and walked to the edge of the road to find that we were still 15 to 20 minutes away from seeing the procession.  Even though we were over 2 miles from the church site, the road was lined shoulder to shoulder with people as far as I could see left and right. 

I’ve encountered emotions from seeing flag draped coffins on TV countless times but when one is about 10 feet from you, the emotions are far different.  I was fighting back the tears as soon as we walked up and saw not only the hundreds of American flags but the vast diversity of people lining the streets which were comprised of varying ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and races.  We didn’t care about our differences; we were united in our purpose in being there – to pay respect to a hero and his family who had paid the ultimate price while protecting our Freedom.

When the motorcade approached I couldn’t fight back the tears anymore and I can’t recall a time when they flowed so freely.  When my kids (7 year old son and 10 year old daughter) looked at me they began to cry and it hit me that this was the first time they had seen their father cry so they knew something terrible must have happened.  I can’t choose the times my kids see my emotions but I couldn’t have scripted a better moment for them to learn about what makes their father abandon decorum and let his emotions take over. 

The sight of a flag draped coffin containing a man who wasn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol but gave his life to protect the Freedoms that we all take for granted every day.  The site of his family riding in trailing cars crying because they will not be able to do what I was doing at the time (holding my son).   The thoughts that must have been going through this hero’s mind as he signed his enlistment paperwork knowing that his country was involved in two theatres of war and knowing that he surely would see combat duty. 

I watched the movie Taking Chance many years ago and if you have not seen this movie then you owe it to yourself to rent it.  It is a movie adaptation of a true story chronicling Lt. Col Trobl escorting PFC Chance Phelps’ body back to his home town for the funeral.  It is an incredibly moving story and if you have never witnessed a procession of a fallen military hero, it is the closest thing.  Here is the trailer.    

My son and I play ‘army’ a lot around the house either with Nerf guns or with his army men and as we walked back to the car after the processional was over I reminded him that the man in that flag draped coffin is what a real army man looks like.

I give my utmost thanks to all the men and women who have served their country in uniform and my prayers go to all the families who have had to bury their sons and daughters after they paid the highest sacrifice. 

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13 

Here is the video I took of the procession as it passed and it speaks far better than any I could ever do with my fingers on a keyboard.   

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