On July 13 in Wanut, Afghanistan, 9 soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team were killed when attacked by enemy forces. Two of the 9 were from North Georgia where I live and work and one of the two, Cpl. Matthew Phillips spent many years in Gainesville, Georgia going to school and beginning a life. The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team has a long and continuing legacy of service to this country (www.173rdairborne.com).
Last Wednesday in the sweltering summer heat, Cpl. Phillips’s body was returned home to allow his family to prepare for his funeral to be held on Saturday, July 26 at Coal Mountain Baptist Church. It was raining when the chartered flight arrived at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville, Georgia. In the hours before the landing, people started to gather.
The motorcade from the airport would include Patriot Guard Motor Cycle Escorts, honor guards from local city and county sheriff and police departments, honor guards from the active duty military and retired military. It was a sea of red, white and blue. Our radio station, WDUN, had placed reporters along the 25-mile route from the airport to Ingram Funeral Home in Cumming, Georgia.
While we were covering this as a news event and carrying it live on my show, we are part of this community. Some of us had worked with Matthew’s mother when she was a teacher before her death 5 years ago; we knew his father or we went to school with Matthew. So even though we were reporting what we saw, we wanted there to be an outpouring of support for this family and we weren’t quite sure if we were going to be able to maintain our composure.
The plane touched down about 9:30 am and the process began. The casket was lowered by the Army Honor Guard and made its way to the waiting hearse. The Gainesville and Hall County Fire Departments had hung large American flags from their ladder trucks and the family paused to pray around Matthew’s casket before the motorcade proceeded. Throughout the journey — fire trucks, bucket trucks, pick up trucks, minivans, SUVs and wagons pulled by children displayed all sizes of American flags.
When the motorcade began with sirens and motorcycle engines going out the gate of the Airport. And then you began to see the people. Along the stretches of roads with businesses, rural areas and town squares, people came out of their businesses, homes and brought their families to stand at attention quietly and thank the family for the sacrifice of Cpl. Matthew Phillips.
There were grandparents turned out to show respect. There were moms and dads and children too young to really know what they were doing but their parents hoping it would instill a love of country. There were old soldiers and young soldiers and men of all ages with flags in one hand and the other hand over their hearts as the motorcade passed. There were people of all ages and backgrounds there to pay their respects to a fallen hero.
Before arriving at Ingram Funeral Home, the last place the motorcade crossed through was the City of Cumming town square. In the final moments all the sirens fell silent, the crowd was hushed standing in silent attention with hands over hearts. At that moment, it began to rain again as if the city of Cumming, Georgia was crying at the return of their fallen son.
The funeral on Saturday was more of the same. The young widow, Eve Lamb Phillips, seemed too young to be mourning the death of a husband. His father, Michael, and his aunt, Mary, were poised silently behind the flag-draped coffin at graveside. But throughout the church, at graveside and in the streets surrounding Coal Mountain Baptist Church were people that knew Matthew or knew of his service. Either way, the city of Cumming, Georgia let the Phillips family know that they appreciated their sacrifice. Brig. Gen. Tim Crosby said in his eulogy, “As a soldier, he will live in our hearts forever.”
So what is the cost? There is much discussion of Afghanistan and our role there. Cpl. Phillips himself expressed to his father and others in emails that he was where he wanted to be — serving his country in Afghanistan where he believed that evil lived in our enemy. Matt Phillips was not a man without other options but he joined the Army and got into a unit which he knew would be deployed. There was not guarantee of peacetime for this soldier — only service and great risk.
During our live broadcast, I received an email from a friend of mine. Her daughter and my son were friends in high school. She reminded me that Matt Phillips had dated Jessica for awhile and that she was sure that Matt had been at our home a time or two when he was a teenager. We are the house where teenagers hang out — at least until my last child gets out of high school. During most holidays and summers some of those now young men and women come back to see us and I am sure I will hug them a little tighter the next time they come around.
Matt Phillips had a nephew born the day that he died in Afghanistan. Initially, the baby was going to be named after Matt’s dad, Michael — but after receiving the news about Matt’s death, this baby will be named for his hero uncle, Cpl. Matthew Phillips.
Matt will not be forgotten and neither will any of the others who gave their “last full measure of devotion” in service to a cause greater than themselves. These men and women have not died in vain and we cannot allow a minority tell us that what they died for was not worthy.
Godspeed, Cpl. Matthew Phillips. Rest in Peace.