Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jeffrey Walker laid to rest

GRIFFIN --Pike County buried a Marine on Monday.

Lance Cpl. Jeffrey D. Walker's family, friends, acquaintances and admirers laid him to rest in the veterans section of Oak Hill Cemetery.

Walker, born in Macon and killed last week in Iraq at the age of 21, is the first combat casualty laid to rest in the veterans section that is home to 26 other soldiers.

Nearly 400 people attended his funeral at a cavernous church, the Griffin First Assembly of God. A sound system played country music songs about soldiering, home or getting the most from life. People cried and sniffled quietly.

"Jeff was more than just my best friend," Zach Martin told attendees. He wore a T-shirt with Walker's picture on the front.

"He was my brother," Martin said. "He loved his family more than anything else, and it's a shame that he had to leave so soon. But he died doing what he believed in."

Walker died during his second tour in Iraq. He was struck by a sniper's bullet in Iraq's Anbar province and died May 14, according to his family and the Department of Defense. He'd spoken to his mother by telephone the day before - Mother's Day. He left behind a 5-month-old son named Conner, a large extended family and a proud bunch of folks in and around rural Pike County, just south of Griffin, where his mother and stepfather live.

"You would always be the life of the party," Walker's father, James D. Walker of Cordele, said Monday, reading from a letter he wrote his son after his death.

"Jeffrey, I never thought for one minute that I would see you come home wrapped in red, white and blue," James Walker said.

His son's body was below the pulpit, in a coffin draped by an American flag. Pride and sadness filled the room as the Rev. Riley Fenley called Walker "a true Marine" and asked the crowd for a round of applause.

No one asked them to stand up, but they did.

"Thank God for the Marines!" Fenley yelled.

A slideshow was shown on two big projection screens, and Walker grew up before people's eyes. There were pictures of birthday parties, a couple of him hanging from trees, a couple with his tongue sticking out, a few of him asleep, or at least close to it.

Retired service members - many in red jackets announcing them as members of the Marine Corps League - stood at attention as uniformed soldiers carried Walker's coffin out of the church. With about 20 Patriot Guard riders on motorcycles to escort the funeral procession, there was a low percussive rumble as a couple hundred people headed to the cemetery.

Bill Gaskin said he came from Savannah for the funeral. He said he's been to more than 20 of them, keeping up the Patriot Guard tradition of supporting families who lose a loved one in war, whether the riders know them or not. So far, the Department of Defense has confirmed more than 3,400 military deaths in the Iraq war.

Asked why he keeps coming to these funerals, Gaskin got a black leather jacket from his bike. He pointed to a yellow patch on the shoulder.

"Because it's the right thing to do," it said.

At the cemetery the ground was dry, but the air wasn't quite hot. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Marines fired a salute and played taps. The slight smell of gunpowder passed over the crowd in a steady breeze.

"Father, we commit this soul back to you and this body back to dust," Fenley said.

Two Marines took the American flag off Walker's coffin, carefully folded it and gave it to the family. Orders were read proclaiming the medals Walker had won.

After the service, Walker's stepfather, Michael Rutledge, held the flag and the awards in his hands.

"We're going to put them up," Rutledge said. "And one day they'll be Conner's."

From the Macon Telegraph

Related Link:
Jeffrey D. Walker dies 'while conducting combat operations'