Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Gary Johnston laid to rest

WINDTHORST - Only the flutter of flags and the tolling of a bell could be heard Saturday morning as family and friends, neighbors and sympathetic strangers gathered to bid a final farewell to their fallen hero, Marine Sgt. Gary Johnston.

No protesters from Westboro Baptist Church appeared, eliciting a collective "at ease" from scores of North Texas law enforcement officers and nearly 100 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, motorcycle enthusiasts who arrived to provide an honor escort for Johnston's funeral.

Westboro members have staged anti-war protests at veteran's funerals since the beginning of the Iraq war, claiming the deaths are God's punishment on America for its tolerance of homosexuals. In response, the Patriot Guard has come at the invitation of grieving families to create a buffer between them and Westboro followers.

Mourners began arriving at little St. Mary's Catholic Church more than an hour before the service. They were greeted by the sight of veterans, some in American Legion caps and others in motorcycle leathers, lining the church walkways and drives with American flags.

Having heard rumors that protestors might raise their placards (Westboro targeted the funeral on its website) there was a palpable tension in the air. Uniformed sheriff's officers, police and first responders from Archer, Clay and other nearby counties plus Texas Department of Public Safety troopers stood by as Windthorst parents led their children by the hand into St. Mary's.

Suddenly a long black truck appeared; on its trailer were a full-size replica of the Liberty Bell and 6-foot faux stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. A slight man dressed in black emerged, unstrapped the bell and with quiet dignity, began the toll.

Once every minute for an hour. Once for each of Gary Johnston's 21-years on earth. Seven times for a life well lived. With each toll the frost-covered farmland surrounding the church grew more hushed.

The tribute is provided by the Associated Conservatives of Texas; David Hall, the man in charge, said it was the 92nd soldier's funeral to which he has brought the unique memorial.

St. Mary's quickly overflowed into its parish hall where floral tributes flanked big screen TV's connected to cameras in the church. Mourners listened to Sarah McLaughlin's "In the Arms of an Angel."

Father Ivor Koch prayed for peace - in the world, here at home and in the hearts of all those assembled. He spoke to Johnston's family and the assembled congregation about how, despite their grief, Gary's death was the fulfillment of his life.

"Greater love hath no man than he who would lay down his life for his friends," said Kock. "Gary gave his life for all of us. There is no greater love."

Johnston's sister Sabrina spoke of how her big brother had always lived his life to the fullest and stood in as her protector many times.

"Whenever I would fall he would pick me up, wipe my face and tell me 'It's ok,' " she said, a sob flooding her voice. "He was my best friend. He was my hero. I will miss him every day."

Sgt. Gary Johnston was killed Jan. 23 near Fallujah in al-Anbar Provence, Iraq. He was a field radio operator, promoted to sergeant in January. He would have turned 22 in May.

From the Record News

Related Link:
Gary Johnston honored, remembered by comrades

Related Link:
Gary S. Johnston killed during combat operations