The widow of U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathon Hunter found herself seated in a white sport-utility vehicle, three positions behind the hearse during Tuesday’s motorcade procession through Columbus.

In the three weeks since her husband, a 23-year-old Columbus native, was killed in the line of duty Aug. 2 in southern Afghanistan, Whitney Michelle Hunter said she has often felt like she was walking about “in a mist.”

But while accompanied by her casualty assistance officer and a cousin, the 24-year-old widow rolled down her window Tuesday to see thousands of people lining the streets of Columbus to share in her grief.

“Phenomenal,” Whitney said Thursday in an interview, describing her reaction to the scene along the 4.5-mile route.

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“It broke my heart, but in the best way possible,” she said. “To look into the eyes of people I don’t even know who were genuinely impacted by my husband’s death, it was both overwhelming and absolutely beautiful.”

Married just more than nine months to Jonathon, “He was my hero,” Whitney said, describing the 2011 Columbus East graduate as the love of her life.

“He made me a better woman,” she said.

North Carolina roots

The daughter of Tim and Robin Stewart was born and raised with two siblings in the Fort Bragg area northwest of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her father works for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. and her mother for an eye care clinic, but many other family members have extensive military backgrounds and strong ties to the military base, she said.

Whitney said she knew by age 6 that she wanted to become a nurse — and stuck with that dream.

By the time she graduated from Pine Forest High School in Fayetteville in 2011, Whitney already had sufficient training to become a certified nursing assistant.

Five years later on May 7, 2016, she graduated from the nursing school at Methodist University in Fayetteville.

Sensing a connection

That evening, she went out with friends to celebrate her milestone at one of Fayetteville’s dance clubs.

When she saw her future husband for the first time, she was immediately impressed by Jonathon’s handsome looks and warm demeanor, she said.

“I hate to be cliché and say it was love at first sight, but that has to be what it was,” Whitney said.

While both were near enough to each other on the dance floor, Whitney reached out to Jonathon and asked for dance, she said.

As they began talking that evening, she said she felt an instant connection. From their first conversation, she and Jonathon discovered they could make each other laugh so hard that they’d cry.

“You always pray you will find someone who you can genuinely be yourself with,” Whitney said. “From the very beginning, we brought out each other’s best and most goofy side. That is something I will always treasure.”

For the next three or four weeks, they would socialize together either with his friends or hers. But when Whitney found herself thinking of Jonathon as her best friend, the relationship began to turn into something more serious.

Romance in the air

One of their first romantic dates was to Sunset Beach at Fort Fisher Air Force Recreational Center, located on an ocean peninsula south of Wilmington, North Carolina, where they watched the sun rise.

While love was blooming, Whitney could also see that Jonathon was a good and kind human being who possessed several other outstanding qualities that she attributes to his father, Mark Hunter of Columbus.

“Jonathan was curious, compassionate and passionate,” Whitney said. “Whether it was as a soldier, a family member, a son, a friend, or as a husband, he was very steadfast in making sure things were done the way they needed to be done. He was one of the greatest persons I’ve ever known.”

When Jonathon knew he wanted Whitney to be his wife, he first met privately with Tim Stewart to ask permission to marry his daughter. That was Aug. 27, 2016.

A short time later, he took Whitney to one of her favorite restaurants in downtown Fayetteville, and later suggested that they go for a walk in Fayetteville’s Festival Park.

When they found themselves in what Whitney had told him was her favorite part of her favorite park, Jonathon got down on one knee, pulled a ring from his pocket, and proclaimed that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

“Of course, I said yes,” Whitney said. “We just loved each other so much, and we both knew that’s what we wanted.”

Only a few close family members and friends were invited to the Oct. 15, 2016, wedding on Sunset Beach. She called it the best day of her life.

Life as newlyweds

But instead of planning an immediate honeymoon, they chose to wait until after Jonathon would return from his as-yet-unscheduled deployment to Afghanistan.

Soon after the wedding, the young couple moved in with her cousin and her husband, Jason and Bonnie Owens, where a strong bond began to form between Jonathon and Jason, who serves in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. It was Jason’s influence that directed Jonathon toward seeking at least a 20-year career in the military, she said.

In mid-December, Jonathon took his bride on her first trip to Columbus, which she said reminds her of her own hometown.

“Columbus is just a genuinely good and caring city, and I feel this community had a big impact on the type of person Jonathon turned out to be,” she said.

The first life obstacle they faced together was the death of Whitney’s grandmother in January. While the experience emotionally shook her up, it was Jonathon who was able to offer her the right mix of strength and compassion.

“He never sugar-coated anything,” Whitney said. “If I needed to hear something, he’d say it, but he assured me he was always going to be there for me regardless of what happens.”

Although Whitney knew that Jonathon would eventually be deployed overseas since the night they met, it wasn’t until late February that the couple learned he would be sent to Afghanistan in the summer.

Separated by deployment

Once Jonathon arrived in the Middle East in early July, the couple communicated with each other daily on FaceTime with their iPhones.

During one of their last telephone conversations, Jonathon told his wife he expected to be sent back home earlier than expected, which initially caused Whitney to get excited.

But that excitement was tempered after Jonathon told her that he hoped to attend Ranger School, a 61-day combat leadership course. She realized such a commitment would require her husband to train in several different locations including Georgia, Florida and Utah.

A few days later after falling asleep the night of Aug. 1, Whitney was awakened by a nightmare that left her “with an overwhelming sense of doom.”

Nevertheless, she went ahead with a scheduled Aug. 2 job interview, with her iPhone close by as she anticipated her usual noon phone call from her husband. But it didn’t come.

As each subsequent hour passed, she kept expecting her iPhone to go off and to hear Jonathon’s voice. But it wasn’t until after she returned home following a late-afternoon workout that the phone finally rang.

It wasn’t Jonathon. It was, instead, every military spouse’s worst nightmare.

The call

“No wife should have to find out over the phone that her husband had died,” Whitney said.

Her life dramatically changed in an instant after that Aug. 2 telephone call.

Two days later, she was in Dover, Delaware, where her husband’s remains were returned to U.S. soil at Dover Air Force Base in ceremonies also attended by Vice President Mike Pence, who shared a hometown with Jonathon, and top military officials.

It was then that she Whitney learned that Jonathon was in the top 10 percent of his division, qualifying him for Ranger School.

Paying respects

She returned to North Carolina for the next two weeks, attending funeral services for Army Specialist Christopher M. Harris, the other soldier from Jonathon’s unit who was killed in the same ambush.

But also back in her North Carolina hometown, Whitney was wrapped in the comfort of her family and friends at Fort Bragg.

She arrived in Indiana this past Monday with her cousin, Bonnie, in time to see the next-day military flight land with her husband’s flag-draped casket at Columbus Municipal Airport.

Minutes later, the motorcade procession accompanying Jonathon’s remains began its route through Columbus.

“There’s not a single thing I would have changed,” Whitney said of the procession. “He deserves every ounce of respect he received, and Columbus made it happen. It’s so wonderful to know this city will always remember my Jonathon as a hero.”

Many thoughts are still going through her head, however. One of the biggest is trying to understand why a suicide bomber on the other side of the world wanted to rob her of her future by killing her husband, along with himself.

“Jonathon said he wanted to build an empire with me,” she said. “I know what a phenomenal father he would have been, and I was going to be the one to have his children, Now, I will never have that opportunity.”

After his funeral service Saturday at Columbus East High School, Whitney said she will return home to North Carolina to sort out the next chapter in her life.

The pain is still raw, however, and she knows much more is ahead.

“But let me tell you,” she said. “I would go through all this a thousand more times just to have one more year with my Jonathon.”

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.