Hundreds of people traveled from across Southeastern North Carolina to line Market Street wearing red and holding American flags Friday (Oct. 12) to honor Sgt. T.J. Butler.
The 25-year-old father was killed in a suicide bomber attack in Khost, Afghanistan on Oct. 1.
The largest part of the human wall to show support for Butler and his family stretched along Market Street in front of Wilmington National Cemetery and in a half moon shape in front of First Baptist Church on the corner of Fifth and Market streets.
Some in the crowd came out in reaction against reports that the controversial Westboro Baptist Church group – which is known for picketing military funerals – were coming to Wilmington. Westboro believes the death of military servicemen and servicewomen in war is God's retribution for America's acceptance of homosexuality. But despite sending media notices of its intent to protest the funeral, the group did not apply to picket and were not seen along Market Street.
Wilmington resident Danielle Bashaw started the Facebook group Human Wall for Fallen Soldier, attracting about 13,000 followers in a week, to support Butler's family, who she's known since the fifth grade and partially in reaction to the threat from the church group.
"It struck something in me that that’s not how we treat our military,"she said of Westboro's protests. She was holding a large American family and standing on Market Street with other supporters. "That’s not how we honor our military, that’s not what you do for somebody who gave their life for you. So I had it in my mind that I was going to do what I could to change that."
Families, supporters and veterans drove from Smithfield, Greenville, Jacksonville as well as Wilmington to stand in support.
Smithfield residents Sam Runyon, his wife Velma and his daughter-in-law came to show their respect for Butler. Runyon's son, Christopher, is serving in the same unit as Butler in Afghanistan. But his son did not witness the bombing, Runyon said.
"We're here to support the family. We've got a long tradition of military service in our family with his brother, me, his grandfather, his uncles - all the way back to the Civil War," he added.
Heather Graff brought her three children from Greenville. Her husband was serving two miles away from the place where Butler was killed.
“With my husband being in the Army, it’s important for me to have them see what’s going on and be able to understand how to support the military and what the possibilities are," she said, "and for them to be here with me to support the family in the time of their loss.”