Never in my life have I attended a funeral that was heavily guarded -- by city police, Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the Patriot Guard.
My young friend Derek, killed in Iraq on June 23, was buried today. As promised, members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, were present. They were kept out of the boundaries around the church to protect mourners from their vile spewing of hatred.
On each corner of each of the church's parking lots, Oklahoma City police cars were positioned to enforce the boundaries and as a sign of respect.
Motorcycle squads from the Oklahoma City Police, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the Patriot Guard passed by the front of the church in progression before the beginning of the service. Huge American flags streamed from the rear cycle of the Patriot Guard's squad and yellow ribbons were tied on all of the motorcycles. The reverberations from their engines was palpable, resonating in the chests of all within the immediate vicinity.
Derek, who was like a nephew to me and the closest I will ever have to a son of my own, was well loved by all who knew him. That was apparent from the packed congregation at South Lindsay Baptist Church this morning.
Before the family was seated, members of the Oklahoma Army National Guard filled the left front section of the sanctuary. Other sections were filled by church members, Derek's pals and school mates, friends and other loved ones of the family.
Here's the newspaper story on the metropolitan newspaper's web site this evening:
By Jay F. Marks
A hero was laid to rest this morning as hundreds of people at South Lindsay Baptist Church mourned the loss of Army Spc. Derek Alan Calhoun.
Calhoun, 23, was the last of four Oklahoma soldiers killed in Iraq in a three-day span last month.
Pastor C. Wayne Childers said Calhoun's family joined the church at 3300 S Lindsay in Oklahoma City 6 months before he was born.
"Derek was not just another soldier,” Childers said. "He was one of ours.
"He was a Southside boy.”
Childers said the church's congregation gave Calhoun a standing ovation after he got his orders for Iraq.
"That's how much we respected and loved this young man,” he said.
Calhoun, an armored tank driver, died in Baghdad on June 23 after a Humvee he was riding in struck a bomb.
He is the 62nd service member from Oklahoma to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since the ongoing war on terror began in October 2001. Nearly 4,000 Americans service members have died in that time.
Several times during the funeral, the congregation rose in one motion, spontaneously, out of respect for Derek and his service. In all honesty, there was little that was serene or peaceful about this service; how could there be? But there was respect and love overflowing; memories happy and sad and proud and painful. His uncle, my partner for more than six years, put together a slide show of photos chronicling Derek's life. Many of them were photos I took early in Derek's life; others were at family gatherings I attended. I could relive those days all over.
Despite three songs by a soloist, two preachers giving homilies and eulogies, a message from an Army representative, the photo presentations and the painful wailing of those assembled, the service seemed to end in relatively short order.
The trip to the cemetery, however, seemed endless. Before the hearse and family car were prepared to depart, two motorcycle officers cleared a path for a federal van which tore down the street at a high speed. That was alarming to witness; I couldn't tell if it was the Guard leaving ahead of the family to prepare their positions at the cemetery or if there had been an arrest of the Phelps gang. I want to think it was the Guard.
I was in about the middle of the procession. From that vantage point I could see that the line of cars covered nearly three miles. At every single intersection along the route, a patrol officer or trooper blocked traffic, giving this hero clear way to his final mission.
People from the neighborhood around the church lined the streets for several blocks, holding large American flags, standing with hands over their hearts, for the full length of the procession. Even miles down the road people who had been working in their yards stopped, stood at attention and knew a hero was in their midst.
At the cemetery, mourners were greeted with the Patriot Guard which circled the grave site with huge American flags. Veterans stood in formation to honor their fallen brother and the Army National Guard were in place for their role.
There was the playing of Taps, a 21-gun salute, the presentation of the flag to his mother and father, and the presentation of many medals, a posthumus promotion from Specialist to Corporal, and his dog tags. A bagpipe player ended the ritual by walking off away from the assembled while playing Amazing Grace.
Family and friends held on to each other and sobbed uncontrollably. Derek's uncle asked for me and we spent many minutes folded into each other, crying to the point of not being able to breathe as others passed through the line before the casket to pay their respects to the family.
Finally, with grief exhausted for a time, the family gathered to watch the lowering of the casket. They graciously included me in this final goodbye, and invited me to join them back at the church for lunch.
The memorial which started at 11 a.m. ended about 3:30 p.m. I'm grateful to say there was a limousine at the door to take the exhausted family home. They would not have been able to drive themselves.
Derek, my dear boy, you are loved beyond measure here where we are missing you, but what greater measure of love you are receiving in heaven today. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.