Saturday, April 14, 2007

Derek A. Gibson laid to rest

EUSTIS -- Lynn Broadway never met Army Pfc. Derek Gibson.

But, a military mom herself, Broadway, 48, stood on the shoulder of Bay Street, waving a small American flag Friday in honor of the fallen Eustis soldier.

"We all should be out here, the whole town, thanking him," Broadway said as the funeral procession for Gibson rolled past toward Greenwood Cemetery. "We lost one of our kids."

Gibson, 20, was killed April 4 in Baghdad when an explosive device detonated near his vehicle during combat operations. He is the 133rd Floridian to die in Iraq since the war began.

The soldier's service at Bay Street Baptist Church drew an estimated crowd of 700, including many who did not know him or his parents, Jerry and Janet Gibson of Eustis.

More than 70 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a flag-bearing group of motorcyclists, lined the entrance to the sanctuary.

"Anything to support one of our troops," said Randy Clark, 58, of Merritt Island, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War.

Inside the church where a photo of Gibson in his uniform was projected on a large screen above the altar, ex-Marine Harold Rogers wept in a pew with his son, Rodman.

"It's something he needs to learn and know about," Rogers said, explaining why he brought the 9-year-old to a stranger's funeral. "Freedom's not free."

Army Maj. Gen. Michael J. Diamond, deputy director of the United States Central Command, eulogized Gibson as a "superhero . . . who died for a just cause."

His words drew "amens" from a congregation that included Lake County Sheriff Gary Borders, Eustis police Chief Fred Cobb and a military-honors unit from the 164th Air Defense Artillery Brigade in Orlando.

State Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, praised Gibson's sacrifice, saying the soldier who had dropped out of high school found purpose serving his country.

The Rev. Mark Douglas relayed condolences from Gov. Charlie Crist and spoke for family members and friends too distraught to speak for themselves.

The church's Celebration Choir belted out "Amazing Grace" and a medley of Christian rock songs, which prompted the pastor to say to Gibson's mother, "Janet, you asked for upbeat."

Ron Gibson, an architect and a minister, recalled his nephew's "Cheshire grin" and love for fishing.

He said he believed that, if heaven truly had a River of Life, his nephew would have a line in it.

"But," he told the congregation somberly, "this is not the homecoming that we prayed for."

A mischievous youth who dropped out of school at age 16, Gibson worked for his father's construction company and earned his high-school-equivalency diploma before he went off to boot camp.

He was deployed to Iraq in October and assigned initially to Camp Prosperity in the Green Zone, a secure military compound in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in Baghdad. He was then transferred to Camp Falcon, a more dangerous area in the Iraqi capital.

"We're awfully proud of him," his older brother, Dustin, 25, said in his eulogy.

At the cemetery, Diamond presented Gibson's parents with an American flag and posthumous honors. The Eustis soldier received the Bronze Star for meritorious service, the Combat Infantry Badge for valorous service and the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat.

His former girlfriend, Jessica Goforth, 18, of Sorrento, with whom he enlisted a year ago, wept and kissed his coffin. She has been serving with the Army in Afghanistan.

She wore Army fatigues.

"He turned into a good man -- no, a great man, a wonderful man," Goforth said.

From the Sentinel

Related Link:
Derek A. Gibson dies of injuries from I.E.D.