People turned out by the hundreds, huddling beneath umbrellas amid pelting rain that washed over their shoes and made puddles of mud where bare earth was exposed, as they waited for the escorted motorcade that carried the remains of Army Spc. Jeffrey White Jr., 21, to Pacific on Saturday April 14.
White, who was killed April 3 when an IED exploded near his vehicle in Afghanistan, is the son of Paula and Jeffrey White Sr. of Catawissa. He is a 2008 graduate of Pacific High School.
As residents learned of the return of White’s remains, a procession to line the streets to show respects was planned.
Flags were placed on both sides of the approximate three-mile route, from the city limits on East Osage, North Forth Street and west to Bell Funeral Home, 709 West Union.
Umbrellas often offered little protection from the wind whipped rain as clusters of people huddled in groups, many holding hand-lettered signs that read “Our Hero” and “We Love You Jeffrey,” lining the route as did more than one thousand 3-by-5-foot flags on 10-foot poles, spaced along the route.
Larry Eckhardt, Little York, Ill., who provides flags for military funerals, brought a thousand flags for the procession.
Along Osage, Fourth and Union streets, mourners lined the route. The largest crowds were assembled near the flag staging area in the Route 66 Business Park and The Third Rail parking lot on the opposite side of the street.
“It was just hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Ruth Muehler, who said she ended up soaking wet even though she was able to stand under a store canopy for much of the wait.
In front of the funeral home on West Union Street, more than a hundred mourners clumped together under brightly colored umbrellas for more two hours, waiting to show their respect as the soldiers’ remains and his family returned. Some unfurled flags they had brought from home.
Cardinals shirts and hats were everywhere. White was an avid Cardinals baseball fan and had planned to attend the opening day game with his family on Friday April 13. In his absence, his mother, Paula, father, Jeff, and brothers, Michael and Kyle, were given the honor to raise the team’s championship banner as a memorial to Jeffrey.
In addition to Eckhardt’s flags, another group flags on long poles was provided for members of the 66-motorcycle honor guard that escorted White’s remains and his family from the Lambert International Airport to the funeral home.
When they arrived on Union Street, bikers edged their motorcycles past the funeral home and lined them in neat rows in the Tri-County Senior Center parking lot, then walked to an accompanying truck and took the large flags, one by one, to stand at attention on the curving drive of the funeral home, some saluting, other with hands over their hearts, until the coffin was carried inside.
The bikers were members of two biker groups but some individual bikers just wanted to participate.
“I’m not part of any club or anything, I just wanted to be here,” one biker said.
“I’ve known Jeffrey since he was this big,” a second biker said, cupping his hands approximately 14 inches apart. “There was no way I wouldn’t be here.”
Among the crowd of several hundred, a lone member of the military, dressed in blue dress uniform, stood respectfully in sharp contrast to bikers in black leathers and head bands, carrying the flags back to the truck.
“Keep flags upright and unfurled until you reach the truck,” one biker chanted.
Unwilling to immediately disperse, the crowd lingered in the dank air and drizzle to honor the fallen soldier.
A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 18, at the First Baptist Church of Villa Ridge at 51 Highway M in Villa Ridge, with burial to follow at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, St. Louis.