By Byron Wilkes / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
WAYNESBORO, Miss. -- The faintest whisper of a wind blew over as Charidy Newman lightly touched her husband’s dark coffin, hesitating before reluctantly walking away.
More than 200 people attended Sgt. Eric Newman’s funeral Saturday, which was held with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute. He was posthumously awarded not only the bronze star, but also the Purple Heart and several other medals for his exemplary service in the U.S. Army.
Eric Newman, 30, was killed when a roadside bomb exploded Oct. 14 in Akatzai Kalay, Afghanistan. He married Charidy Newman last year, and was planning to become a state trooper after his career in the military was over.
About 100 members of the crowd were Patriot Guard Riders, an organization that, with the family’s invitation, calls on its members to ride their motorcycles at the funerals of soldiers killed in action.
“It was just amazing and… very heartwarming,” said Dianne Newman, Eric Newman’s mother. “Everybody was just so kind and compassionate and they put their heart into it, everybody.”
“I know Eric would’ve been very proud.”
The Patriot Guard Riders came from all over Mississippi, including Lucedale, Gautier, Tunica and Tupelo. Many drove from the surrounding states as well, such as Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.
“We’re here to honor a fallen soldier,” said Ed Baker, who’s the head of Mississippi’s Patriot Guard Riders. “Our responsibility is to bring that young man or woman home and make sure there’s no one there to disturb them.”
Baker, a U.S. Navy Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm veteran, said that the organization has many veterans in it, but that the only requirement to join “is to care, to respect” the service of veterans and active soldiers.
“The organization was founded in August of 2005… basically by the American Legion,” Baker said. “A group of riders out of Kansas heard about a young man who was killed in action and protesters were going to show up so they said, ‘not on our watch.’
“So they put a barricade up between the protesters and the family.”
The protesters of which Baker spoke (he refuses to acknowledge them by name) are likely to be from the Westboro Baptist Church, which announced on its website late last week its members would be preaching their message at Eric Newman’s funeral. The church, founded by Meridian native Fred Phelps, is known for attending the funerals of soldiers and AIDS victims with large signs bearing incendiary messages, such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For IEDs.”
But come Saturday morning, there was no sign of the extremist church, whose members have said they believe soldiers are killed because God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
Waynesboro chief of police James Bunch said that the WBC, based in Topeka, Kan., had not filed for a protest permit as of 4 p.m. Friday, but that it didn’t necessarily have to do so.
“The board of aldermen do have to approve a parade or demonstration permit as such,” Bunch said. “For a general protest, the board does not have to approve it.
“If the protest or rally is in breach of the peace or incites a riot under the laws of the state of Mississippi, the police department can take some action.”
Either way, the WBC’s threat rang hollow, and the life and service of Eric Newman was commemorated without a hindrance.
As the long line of cars and motorcycles wound through Waynesboro to Hebron Cemetery, residents came out of their houses to see the procession. Cars pulled over and watched solemnly as car after car passed.
Witnessing the coming together of not only friends and family, but the entire city of Waynesboro was no doubt powerful, but it offers little solace to the loss of a husband, son and American hero.