7:32 a.m. Here’s the procession schedule
Law enforcement and motorcycle groups will escort the remains of Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, 23, of Columbus, today from Columbus Municipal Airport to the Barkes, Weaver & Glick Funeral Home.

Limited public viewing will be available at the airport, 4770 Ray Boll Boulevard, so organizers are recommending that members of the general public pay their respects along the route — south on Central Avenue, west on 25th Street and south on Washington Street.

Here are key times for today’s procession:

9:30 a.m.: Motorcyclists wishing to be in escort group must check in at airport.

10:40 a.m.: Military aircraft carrying Hunter’s remains scheduled to land at airport, with a water-cannon salute by the Columbus Fire Department as the plane taxis in, followed by a brief ceremony.

11 a.m.: Procession leaves airport for 4.5-mile trip to the funeral home at 1029 Washington St. Length of time for the procession will depend on the travel speed of the vehicles involved, but it’s expected to take about 30 minutes.

A range of emotions are likely to surface today throughout Columbus during the solemn homecoming of U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter.

The remains of the 23-year-old soldier, killed in the line of duty Aug. 2 in southern Afghanistan, are expected to arrive on a military plane at 10:40 a.m. today at Columbus Municipal Airport.

As the plane taxis in to the airport, a water-cannon salute to the aircraft will be conducted by the Columbus Fire Department, followed by a brief ceremony.

With limited areas for public viewing at the airport, thousands of people are expected to line the streets of Columbus to show their support during the 11 a.m. motorcade escorting the remains of Hunter, who was the son of Mark C. Hunter of Columbus and Kimberly Thompson of Nashville, Indiana.

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Hunter, a 2011 graduate of Columbus East High School, was 32 days into his first deployment when he was killed during an attack on a NATO convoy near the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar.

From the airport, the 4½-mile procession will briefly travel west on Arnold Street to Central Avenue, then south to 25th Street, west to Washington Street and south to its destination at the Barkes, Weaver & Glick Funeral home, 1029 Washington St.

Hunter’s commitment to the military began with his April 8, 2014 enlistment in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 504th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

During his three years and four months in the Army, Hunter was recipient of more than 10 military honors: Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Noncommissioned Officers Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, Basic Combat and Skills Badge, Basic Marksmanship, Qualification Badge (Expert), German Parachutist Badge (Bronze) and Overseas service bar.

Posthumously, Hunter was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Bronze Star, NATO Medal and Combat Infantryman Badge.

When Hunter’s remains were returned to the United States from Afghanistan on Aug. 4, Vice President Mike Pence, a Columbus native, and Second Lady Karen Pence joined Hunter’s family at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to witness the arrival. Military representatives who also participated included Gen. James McConville, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army; Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Green; Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy; Maj. Gen. Michael Kurilla; and Army Sgt. Maj. Dan Dailey.

Hunter’s military funeral, which will be 2 p.m. Saturday at Columbus East High School, will follow four hours of visitation when people who both knew and did not know Hunter will have a chance to express their condolences to his family.

However, Jonathon Hunter “was more than a man in a uniform,” said Brea Hunter, a cousin.

In a statement released by the Hunter family a few days after his death, he was described as “one of the sweetest, most generous, outgoing, God-loving people we know.”

The overwhelming support Hunter’s family has received makes it apparent how many lives he touched in a positive way in the community, said his mother, Kimberly Thompson.

“The thing with Jonathon is the entire community lost a son,” she said.

That loss has prompted support in a variety of ways.

For example, a quilting group in Brown County is making a special quilt for Thompson in honor of her son. Thompson said she is humbled and honored by that gesture — and the many others from those in and around Bartholomew County.

“I appreciate everything this community is doing to give him a true hero’s welcome,” Hunter’s mother said.

As he awaits Saturday’s service, the father of the fallen soldier said he plans to read every letter sent to his South Mapleton Street home written by local children.

That includes 300 written by students at St. Peter’s Lutheran School, as well as 130 more from students at Northside Middle School.

Since father and son had long been fans of the University of North Carolina’s basketball program, Mark Hunter said he was especially touched when he received a letter of condolence from the Tar Heels coach, Roy Williams, who was informed of the death by Manchester University head coach and Columbus native Gerad Good.

“The fact that Coach Good would reach out to me so quickly tells me all I need to know about your family and how incredible your son must have been,” Williams wrote in a letter dated Aug. 9. “I cannot imagine, as a parent, experiencing what you feel.”

Hunter said such sentiments have been shared with him repeatedly over the past few weeks since his son’s death.

“They keep telling you a parent should never have to bury a child, but I never listened much to that before now,” Mark Hunter said. “It is so extremely hard to do. But what gives me the most comfort right now is knowing my son died for what he believed in.”

Impact on friends, family

As a child, Jonathon expressed a willingness to do whatever his elders asked, said Theola Hunter, a grandmother.

His cousins loved and adored him, especially for his willingness to play with children younger than himself, the grandmother said.

He was also a man who shared his father’s passion for classic rhythm and blues music mixed with soul, said Stephanie Diaz, a friend.

One of Diaz’s treasured memories was joining Hunter after she found him singing and dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” while in a shopping aisle at a local pharmacy.

“Jon’s joy was so contagious, he could light up a room and lift people’s spirits in seconds,” Diaz said. “All the customers and employees applauded as the song came to an end.”

Another friend knew Hunter as someone who could be counted on to carry out the most important of responsibilities. That’s what prompted Eric Hunt to ask Natalie Pegram, the mother of his son, if Hunter could be their child’s godfather.

“I told him I didn’t have a single doubt he was making the right choice,” Pegram said. “Jon truly was the best guy.”

Sonya Stretshberry has supervised several high school volunteers at the Bartholomew County Public Library, but she said Hunter will always have a special place in her heart.

“I called him my ‘good child’ because he always did what he was told,” Stretshberry said. “Even if I told him he had to go clean up a mess, he would always smile and say ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

Her memories are that of a highly intelligent young man who managed to be smart, respectful and endearingly goofy at the same time, she said.

“Even when he was having a bad day, Jonathon smiled and talked to everybody, no matter who they were,” Stretshberry said. “And if you felt sad, his smile would make you smile.”

While Jonathon Hunter volunteered at the Bartholomew County Humane Society, he displayed an “endearing, warm and open personality,” shelter manager Jane Irwin said.

That prompted shelter officials to allow Hunter to spend time with families expressing interest in adopting a dog or cat, Irwin said.

But what most impressed Irwin was his ability to see what chores needed to be done and do them without being told, she said.

The thoughts and depth of knowledge Hunter expressed during conversations seemed far beyond the teen’s years, she said.

“At the moment I met him, I just knew that God had given Jonathon something extra,” Irwin said.

Although it will likely be said that Jonathon Hunter’s ultimate sacrifice made him a hero, the shelter manager has a slightly different assessment.

“It was the wonderful qualities Jonathon already had — and his desire to use them in service of his country — that makes him a hero,” Irwin said.

Assistant managing editor Kirk Johannesen contributed to this report.

How to help

A social media fund drive is underway to provide financial assistance for Whitney Michelle Hunter of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Sgt. Jonathon Hunter’s wife of just over nine months.

More than $25,000 toward a goal of $50,000 has been reached through donations by about 500 people. To participate, visit gofundme.com/support-for-sgt-jonathon-hunter

Paying respects

Besides today’s escort of Sgt. Jonathon Hunter’s remains, more opportunities will occur this week for people to pay their respects.
7 p.m. Friday: Sgt. Hunter will be honored during the Columbus North/Columbus East football game at the John Stafford Athletic Complex in Clifty Creek Park. A moment of silence will be observed during the pre-game ceremony before Hunter’s father participates in the coin toss.
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday: Visitation for Sgt. Hunter will be be held in the Columbus East High School gymnasium, 230 S. Marr Rd.
2 p.m. Saturday: Funeral service at Columbus East begins for Hunter with full military honors.
Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.