Dozens of Cape Fear residents held flags up and down the airport road leading to the Wilmington International Airport hangar where Sgt. Thomas Jefferson "T.J." Butler's body came home to his family Wednesday (Oct. 10.)
Jayne Emma traveled from Hampstead to hold a flag beside the road as a hearse carrying Butler's remains passed the flags and supporters. Her son graduated from Topsail High School, where Butler graduated, and is now a Marine with an assignment to serve in Afghanistan. Emma said she wanted to show support for Butler's family.
The Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club created in 2005 in response to the Westboro Baptist Church practice of picketing military funerals, lead the procession from the airport.
The civilian support group Step Up for Soldiers also held flags along the route.
"Our young soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice, and when that happens, the entire family suffers," said Step Up for Soldiers president Thomas Russell.
He said he opposed the stated plans from the controversial Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church to protest the funeral on Friday (Oct. 12). Westboro Baptist says it protests military funerals because it believes deaths of U.S. servicemen in war are God's wrath for America's acceptance of homosexuality. The church is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination. The group says it also plans to picket the funerals of Sgt. Donna R. Johnson of Raeford, NC and SFC Angel A. Rivera Jr. of Fayetteville, NC.
As of Wednesday afternoon (Oct. 10), Lucy Crockett with the Wilmington Police Department said the church had not filed an intent to picket form with the city. In some past instances, when Westboro has notified local media of a planned protest, it doesn't attend. In August, Congress passed restrictions on protests at military funerals, despite a Supreme Court ruling that protects the free speech of a group that does it. "The Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012" says protests at military funerals cannot occur within two hours before or after the funeral. Protestors must be 300 feet away from the grieving family.
"They bring that issue to a military death," Russell said of the church's focus on homosexuality, "and it has nothing to do with the military death."
The Rev. John McLaughlin, pastor of St. Jude's Metropolitan Community Church in Wilmington, came to the airport to support the family. He said clergy with Wilmington's Ministerial Roundtable plan to line Market Street in support of the family near Butler's burial site in Wilmington National Cemetery on Friday. A Facebook group with more than 12,000 members called Human Wall for Fallen Soldier is organizing a human wall around First Baptist Church in downtown Wilmington on Friday to shield the family from any possible protests. A human wall in July to protect an Army soldier's funeral in Columbia, Missouri brought out thousands of residents to surround the church where his funeral was held.
Of Westboro Baptist's possible protest Friday, he said: "They're speaking nothing of God. These people's eyes are not on God. We will pray for them as well that they will understand the harm they are doing and seek forgiveness. There is real evil in the world, and it's embodied in their speech."
Some supporters were concerned the Westboro protest would overshadow Butler's war sacrifice.
"We talked about this in small group last night, and I can't understand how a church can do this," said Hampstead resident Charlie Baker, who was standing among the supporters, holding an American flag. "You watch them bring out the casket and you watch a mother and her baby cry, and you can't be happy about that."