A memorial turns July 4 pilgrimage
Thousands flock to a small town in Tennessee to pay tribute to a fallen soldier.
High school student Steven Goins could have done many things on this week's holiday, but he chose this: He traveled 20 miles from home to pay his respects to a fallen soldier he didn't know.
What he did know was just something he heard from a friend. Another young man from a nearby Tennessee town had recently been killed while leading a foot patrol in Iraq, and the memorial service was happening July 4.
Responding to simple impulse, Steven became part of an informal Independence Day pilgrimage here, an event that revealed the depth of widespread feeling in America in support of those who serve the nation in combat.
Polls in recent months have shown a waning of public confidence in the war effort in Iraq. But four years into a difficult combat operation, support for the troops themselves remains strong, bolstered by painful memories of Vietnam and a sober post-9/11 awareness of America's challenges in the world.
"You've just got to come out here and show that you care," says Steven. "You got to pay your respect to the armed services."
Mainly, this was a day for the small town of Woodbury, Tenn., to mourn one of its own – Lt. Frank Walkup IV. But from surrounding counties and even from as far as Kentucky and Alabama, a legion of quiet supporters also rolled in over the green hills from all directions.
In some cases, they had also lost loved ones in Iraq and wanted the Walkup family to feel embraced. In others, they were Vietnam vets with a "never again" credo against faltering in support for those who serve.
"It really means a lot to see them treated a whole lot better than we were in Vietnam," says Navy vet Mike Jackson of Louisburg, Tenn.
Now a house painter, he devotes himself to this cause in several ways. He helps organize regular care packages from his community to troops in Iraq.
In six weeks, he plans to escort one returning Iraq soldier from the Nashville airport to a welcome home celebration in Louisburg. When Mr. Jackson himself returned from Vietnam, he recalls, troops were advised not to wear their uniforms and "there wasn't any kind of reception other than just my immediate family."
On this day, while some of those paying tribute heard about the event by word of mouth, Jackson was part of an organized group known as the Patriot Guard Riders.
The nationwide group sprang up in August 2005, right around the time when Gallup polls began showing that a majority of Americans thought sending troops into Iraq was a mistake.
The group has motorcycles and a mission: Attend the funerals of those killed in action, if the families want them to. Bikers show up, often from a radius of 100 miles or so, to honor the fallen and support their families, often deploying large American flags to block protesters from the mourners' view.
Patriot Guard Riders have grown steadily in number, to more than 100,000, even as public expectations of military success in Iraq have ebbed. Members check the group's website to find out about memorial services in their area.
Jackson says the group's growth is just one sign of a changed attitude in America.
"The support of the American people [for those in service] has just gotten great," he says.
The riders were a big part of the out-of-town show of support in Woodbury, but they were hardly the only ones.
Tony Taylor, a policeman from McMinnville, Tenn., decided to come here with his father after he heard about the event from a friend.
The holiday, he says, gave the two of them an opportunity to do something to show support for those in military service, even though it meant skipping out on part of his daughter's birthday.
He sees this as part of an America changed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"You didn't see a whole lot of this before. A lot of people got self-absorbed," says Mr. Taylor, an Army vet. "After 9/11, a lot of people have thought about it."
"I'm proud to see it," chimes in his dad, who served in Vietnam, as he looks on the crowds in the streets of this normally quiet town.
If the Internet and the holiday helped enable a broader turnout, Woodbury's somber July 4 remained largely a local affair, attended by many of the 13,000 residents of Cannon County in central Tennessee.
In this town of 2,500 people, many knew Frank Walkup as an amiable young man and a natural leader who became certified as an elite Army Ranger. (See related story) He and his unit were chronicled in a Monitor story from Iraq before Walkup was fatally injured by an improvised explosive device in June.
Residents and visitors held flags in silence as they lined Woodbury's main street as cars took the Walkup family from the memorial service to the burial site.
Some in the crowd, if they didn't know Walkup personally, had a personal reason for being there.
Donna Hewell, who lives in nearby Smithville, lost a son in Iraq in 2005. "I came to support the troops and their families," she says. She's holding a red, white, and blue purse, not because it's July 4; she carries it in memory of her son.
Nor is it just military families who have made small pilgrimages.
Robert Wrather, a truck driver, came 16 miles because he sees a nation and world at risk from Islamic terrorism, and is grateful for those who guard the nation.
"If they don't stop what's going on over there, then it'll be over here," says Mr. Wrather.
So he came, he says, "just honoring a soldier."