Sunday, August 12, 2007

Zach Clouser laid to rest

John Action sat next to his daughter Victoria on a grassy hill overlooking a long line of American flags leading up a driveway to the Bible Baptist Church in Conewago Township.

He told his 9-year-old girl the flags were in honor of U.S. Army Spc. Zachary R. Clouser, a 19-year-old soldier from Dover Township who was killed July 18 in a firefight in Iraq.

Action decided to make the unexpected stop on his ride through northern York County because he wanted his daughter to learn about patriotism, honor, duty and the price for freedom - something he said many Americans take for granted.

“Most kids don't understand the sacrifice these young kids are making to make the world a better place,” said the 42-year-old man from Shrewsbury.

Clouser's body arrived at the church just before 9 a.m. Saturday in a hearse flanked by police cars and nearly 200 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, who came from five states to pay their respects.

Clouser's family invited the Patriot

Guard Riders after hearing that members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., were coming to protest the funeral. The invitation was quickly accepted, said member Don Chesbro, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders.

“We stand for those who stood for us. It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Westboro Baptist Church protests soldiers' funerals because members believe the military defends a country that accepts homosexuality. The Patriot Guard Riders - a motorcycle group that honors veterans and their families - did not want the protest to disrupt the funeral.

As three Westboro Baptist members arrived at 10 a.m., nearly three dozen Patriot Guard Riders hurried across the Susquehanna Trail and used American flags to shield the protesters from the church and the funeral.

The red, white and blue patriotic wall obscured signs that read: “Don't Worship the Dead,” “Pray for More Dead Soldiers,” and “God is Your Enemy.” The protesters' anti-war songs and chants were often drowned out with the signing of the National Anthem.

Before attending a funeral, each rider must pledge not to engage the protesters or do anything that would dishonor a soldier's name or family or the Patriot Guard Riders.

David Harding, a 53-year-old Navy veteran from Harford County, Md., was reminded of that pledge. Harding began shouting when the protesters were standing on American flags placed on the ground along Copenhaver Road, near the Quickel's Cemetery.

“I'd like to grab them by the neck. It is the American flag. This is my country. I did my time,” Harding said.

Chris “Cajun” Wilson, an Air Force veteran from Baltimore County, Md., told Harding and fellow riders to turn their backs, not to look at the protesters and to ignore their rhetoric.

“We are not here because of them. We are here to honor that young man and show respect for his family,” Wilson said.

For nearly one hour, under the watchful eye of Northern York County Regional Police, the three Westboro Baptist protestors taunted the riders, shouting “biker chicks” and “dummies,” demanding they repent for sacrificing and killing people.

As she stood on an American flag, Elizabeth Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church said Clouser was gone, but it was not too late to save others from “God's wrath.” She said God is angry at America for taking revenge after the [mho: 9-11: ]Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attack in New York City and for not following his “gentle and clear commandments.”

“The answer is not to lie to the family and pretend this is all good. It is a curse from God,” said the 45-year-old Phelps.

Patriot Guard Riders ignored the exchanges. Both sides left without incident, Police Lt. Mark Bentzel said.

After the protesters left, Chesbro reminded members why they were here. He said he gave a plaque to Clouser's tear- ful mother, thanking her for her sacrifice. She thanked him, saying the family felt safer knowing the riders were there, he said.

Chesbro then looked around a full, but very solemn, church and was thankful they were allowed to pay their respects in peace.

“It is very hard to ignore them (the protesters). We unfortunately fought for the right for them to do that. We hold that right dear to our hearts,” Chesbro said.

Annette, Ron and Mary Ann Sunday watched the protest and funeral procession from their front porch. They prayed for strength for the Clouser family and questioned the presence of the protesters.

“This is a time for the family to mourn, not to mix politics with it,” she said. “He (Clouser) died fighting for their right to protest.

“It's their right to protest. I don't have to agree with it.”

The family has asked that their privacy be respected and declined to discuss Clouser's death. The media did not attend the private funeral.

From the York Daily Record

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