Honoring the fallen: A community comes together

By Chuck Wells

The text came to me two weeks ago: “It looks like a soldier from Columbus was killed in action in Afghanistan, working on it now.”

I knew at that moment that our newsroom had work to do, and I waited anxiously to hear more. Eventually, the confirmation came and we learned that Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. My thoughts went immediately to his family. I couldn’t imagine getting that kind of news.

In the days that followed, our newsroom worked feverishly on a plan for the day Jonathon would return home, and we were committed to a plan of work that would truly honor his service.

In moments like these, a community newspaper is in a unique position to tell the complete story. We wanted to own this moment.

Tuesday came and we were ready. I rushed out to the airport and waited with anticipation for Jonathon’s arrival.

Hundreds of people lined the fences at the airport. I saw people from all walks of life.

Eventually, the plane landed and there was complete silence. As the casket came off the plane and was carried to the waiting hearse, tears were everywhere. It was time to mourn.

All the while, a complete team of journalists were working behind the scenes capturing the comments and images from this powerful moment. As the hearse departed, I knew I had another stop to make.

I jumped in the car and headed down the planned route for the motorcade. I saw flags all over the place. Hundreds of people lined the streets, and veterans stood out in full uniform.

I made my way down Central Avenue and turned down 25th Street. As I reached Columbus North High School, I was blown away by seeing what seemed like the entire high school, standing respectfully waiting on Jonathon’s arrival.

As I passed North, I saw Jonathon’s former middle school coach, Dennis Pierce, holding up a Central Middle School helmet. I could see the pain on his face. I slowed down, rolled down the window and gave him a nod.

I made my way to where I wanted to watch the procession, my Dad’s porch on Washington Street. As I pulled up, I couldn’t help but notice the flag flying. It was new, and he was proud of it.

As we waited on the motorcade, Dad recalled how different today was in comparison to what it was like when he made his way home from serving in Vietnam.

He said, “You know, when we came back, people spit on us and here we are today and it feels quite different. This is a really good thing for our community and our veterans.”

The motorcade was upon us, and we made our way down to the street. It was a sight to see. There had to be hundreds of motorcycles, police cruisers and military organizations represented. Those riders had stern looks of respect on their faces and seemed to not notice the rain falling down on them. It was an impressive moment, and Jonathon’s sacrifice was honored.

How do you describe a day like this? It was a horrible tragedy and yet, I couldn’t have been more proud of our community.

As I sat on my Dad’s porch, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the flood of 2008. That same porch that I was sitting on was surrounded by flood waters pouring into our basement. As the water receded, much like on Tuesday, the community flocked to our aid. Hundreds of volunteers came to the aid of those stricken by the flood, and our community came together.

At the end of my day, I made my way to the gym and ran into Judge Jim Worton, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I asked Jim if he had made it to the procession and indeed, he had.

I asked him what he thought of it all, and he said to me that it was a terrible tragedy and yet you couldn’t help but be moved by the experience.

As I pondered Jim’s comments on my way home, I thought, yes, today the community came together for one of our own and we all saw today why Columbus is a very special place to live.

God bless you Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten, and Tuesday, a community came together.

Chuck Wells is publisher of The Republic. He can be reached at cwells@therepublic.com.