The Columbus community stood vigil silently as U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter returned home to the Columbus Municipal Airport, where tears and raindrops intermingled on the faces of supporters.
Thousands of people lined streets along Tuesday’s 4.5-mile motorcade procession carrying Hunter’s remains, according to police estimates. The escort began at the airport on the city’s north side and finished in downtown Columbus.
“He was a friend,” said Emmanuel Cain, Columbus, who was standing along Arnold Street holding a small flag as the hearse carrying Hunter’s remains passed by under a steady rain. “He grew up in the neighborhood. He was just a fun-loving kid.”
Hunter, 23, a 2011 Columbus East High School graduate, was killed in the line of duty Aug. 2 in southern Afghanistan while guarding a NATO convoy near Kandahar. His family gathered at the airport tarmac, shielded from view of the public and media during the arrival ceremony — four days prior to a public visitation and funeral services Saturday at Columbus East High School.
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He was the son of Mark Hunter of Columbus, and Kimberly and Brian Thompson of Nashville, Indiana.
About 300 local residents stood in the viewing area of the airport as a small charter jet carrying Hunter’s remains arrived at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. Local pilots honored Hunter with a missing-man formation in the air. Columbus firetrucks provided a water cannon salute of the arriving aircraft, spraying an arc of water over the plane as it taxied to the tarmac.
Motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders stood watch on the other side of the tarmac, representing cities from all around Indiana and the United States. A contingent of Columbus Police Department officers, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department deputies and Indiana State Police troopers stood guard on the tarmac during the ceremony.
Members of the military escorted Hunter’s casket, covered with an American flag, from the plane to the hearse. The only sound that could be heard came from the rotors of a Blackhawk helicopter keeping watch in the distance. It was so quiet that you could hear blocks being dropped into place next to the plane’s wheels.
Local and state police provided an escort of the procession that began from the airport tarmac and continued to Barkes, Weaver & Glick Funeral Home. All told, 210 motorcycles carrying 235 riders participated in the motorcade through Columbus.
Friends, classmates, coaches, and a large contingent of people who didn’t know Hunter but wanted to show support began gathering at the airport as early as 9 a.m., quietly leaning against the fencing at the edge of the tarmac, waiting for the plane. Some had known Hunter since he was a child, others had never met him or his family, but wanted to make sure that the family knew they had local residents’ support.
AJ Marchbanks of Columbus, who said he was Hunter’s best friend, was talking with Stephanie Diaz and her sister Jacqueline along the fence as they waited for the plane’s arrival.
Marchbanks said he and Hunter had been friends since kindergarten and had been pretty much inseparable through the years.
“We played football together. We were both into music — mostly hip hop and R&B,” he said. “I saw him right before he left (for his July 1 deployment to Afghanistan) and I had been talking to him on Facebook,” he said.
Marchbanks said he is still working through feelings about losing his best friend.
He has made a shrine for Hunter in his garage and wears a bracelet remembering Hunter that was given to him by the family.
Stephanie Diaz, who met Hunter through mutual friends in 2012, said she and her sister wanted to be at the airport to honor his life and service and to be present for him.
Describing Hunter as someone who was proud to be his own person, the sisters said he was spirited and could be silly at times — especially around little kids.
They said Hunter was confident and enjoyed life.
“It makes it a little easier to process knowing he genuinely loved what he was doing,” Jacqueline Diaz said. “He wasn’t concerned about his safety. He was at peace. He was content knowing he was making a difference, and that’s what counts.”
Kim Billingsley, a stay-at-home mom from Columbus, and Samantha Long, also of Columbus who works in a local store, stood together near the Diaz sisters, holding flags.
“He’s an American hero,” Billingsley said of Hunter, whom she did not know. “He died for his country, and we are paying our respects.”
Billingsley and Long said they had never seen a ceremony for a fallen soldier before and felt it was important to show his family their support.
“It’s nice to see a small town come together for one family,” Billingsley said.
The Columbus East family was also represented in the public visiting area where Jeff and Debbie Lane, Columbus, were remembering Hunter as an East graduate and football player.
“We didn’t know him personally, but once you’ve been a part of the East family you are always a part of the family,” said Jeff Lane, who was wearing the bright orange East colors.
Ruben Martinez was waiting for Hunter’s plane with Denise Muncy, reminiscing about what a special kid Hunter was and remembering the times he coached him in youth basketball at Foundation For Youth.
“He was a team player,” Martinez said of Hunter. “He was a special athlete — I’m always proud to see one of our kids go on to play sports — and football was his passion,” he said.
Taylor Graham of Columbus was standing back from the crowd in the public viewing area, carrying a large American flag as she watched the ceremony.
“I want to be here to support the family and support Sgt. Hunter,” she said. “I didn’t know him, but my grandfather was a Marine and this is where he would want me to be today.”
A motorcycle brigade from the Indiana State Police started the procession from the airport as the rain began to fall and the hearse carrying Hunter left the tarmac and began the procession to downtown Columbus.
Columbus firefighters in dress uniform stood at attention at Fire Station 2 near the airport, and Indiana National Guard members stood at attention in the rain and saluted as the procession went by.
Even as those along Arnold Street began to leave as the rain intensified, Jon Padfield of Columbus remained along the route, holding a flag, until the last vehicle had passed.
“I just want to honor his sacrifice,” Padfield said.