Saturday, May 05, 2007

Marlon Harper laid to rest

The young son clutched a box of tissues to wipe away the tears.

The young daughters clutched their mother's hands.

And old leather-clad patriots from wars past held tightly to U.S. flags and offered still-crisp salutes to a fallen warrior.

Army Staff Sgt. Marlon B. Harper was buried Wednesday at Pensacola Memorial Gardens, a day after a memorial service in Baltimore.

Staff Sgt. Harper, 34, was killed April 21 in Baghdad after engaging enemy combatants who were using small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. He joined the military in 1993 and was on his third Mideast and second Iraq tour.

"He was an outstanding young man, and he has an outstanding family," said Mae Jordan of Pensacola, who has known Harper's in-laws since 1998. "It's a family committed to the military."

Staff Sgt. Harper is survived by his wife, Stacy Harper, twin 10-year-old daughters Jennifer and Jessica, and a 12-year-old son, Dominic.

Stacy Harper and her children moved from Fort Hood, Texas, to Pensacola last year when her husband was deployed to Iraq so they could be in the same town with her parents, retired Army Command Sgt. Major Melvin "Walter" Babbs and his wife, Pat.

On Wednesday, a private charter plane carrying the sergeant's remains in a silver, flag-draped coffin arrived at Pensacola Aviation Center. His family returned to Pensacola late Tuesday.

Awaiting the plane were about 40 members of the local chapter of the Patriot Guard, a nationwide organization of motorcycle enthusiasts who attend funerals of slain warriors -- at the invitation of their families -- to ward off potential protests and to pay respect to U.S. troops.

Most -- although not all -- members of the Patriot Guard are military veterans. Many wore black leather vests, filled with old unit patches, Purple Hearts and declarations of freedom and military brotherhood.

Although many served in Vietnam, all declined to talk about their own military experiences, insisting that the focus remain on Staff Sgt. Harper and his family.

"We're just going to stand here silently with our flags to honor this soldier and his family," said Patriot Guard "ride captain" Harold Horton, 57, an Army veteran.

The Patriot Guard split into two single-file lines on the tarmac, then marched behind a six-person military honor guard to meet the plane. Behind them walked Stacy Harper and her children.

All watched in silence as military personnel removed the casket, then marched past the family and Patriot Guard to place the casket in a waiting silver hearse.

Then, the Patriot Guard members hopped onto their motorcycles to lead a procession to Pensacola Memorial Gardens on Pine Forest Road.

Along the route, cars stopped, and a few folks ventured out of their cars in traffic to stand with their hands over their hearts.

An Escambia County prison road crew stopped work on W Street and bowed their heads as the procession went by. A man in shorts stood with his hand over his heart outside of Crazy Joes Used Tires on Mobile Highway.

At the entrance to Pensacola Memorial Gardens, a few more well-wishers waited. Some held flags, others bowed their heads and offered silent prayers.

Christy Langford, 56, attended the short burial ceremony, even though she had never met Staff Sgt. Harper or any of his family.

"I just wanted to show my respect to him," she said. "He died fighting for our freedom. It's the least I can do."

At the cemetery, the Patriot Guard stood at attention, while the family moved underneath a green canopy that shaded Staff Sgt. Harper's burial site.

The military honor guard removed the U.S. flag from the casket, folded it slowly and precisely into a triangle, then inserted it into a wooden case, which was presented to Stacy Harper.

Pastor Hattie Bishop of Pensacola recited a reading from the Book of John.

"Let not your heart be troubled," she read, "Ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also."

A few words, a few hugs, a few tears.

And it was over.

But Staff Sgt. Harper will not be forgotten. Not by his family. Not by the soldiers he commanded and loved. Not by a grateful nation humbled by his sacrifice.

"He gave his life to our country," said Patriot Guard member Sam Wimberly, 58, an Army veteran. "He and all of our fallen heroes deserve our respect and our gratitude."

Nearby, a veteran stood at attention, patches covering his black leather jacket.

Read one patch: "All Gave Some, Some Gave All."

From the Pensacola News Journal

Related Link:
Marlon Harper remembered

Related Link:
Marlon B. Harper dies of 'wounds from contact with enemy forces using a rocket propelled grenade and small arms fire during combat operations'