The death of a 23-year-old Army soldier from Columbus in a military bombing shook his hometown to its foundation, leaving a reverberating impact that kept his memory top of mind in a city of 45,000 through the remainder of the year.
Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, a 2011 Columbus East graduate, was killed Aug. 2 during a suicide bombing attack on a NATO convoy in southern Afghanistan, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
His death was named the 2017 local news story of the year by a panel of Republic editors.
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Hunter was the son of Mark C. Hunter of Columbus and Kimberly and Brian Thompson of Nashville. He was the husband of Whitney Michelle (Stewart) Hunter, of Fayetteville, North Carolina. They were married about nine months earlier on Sunset Beach near Wilmington, North Carolina.
Hunter was part of an international force referred to as the Train, Advise and Assist Command, which was involved in security. Hunter was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 504th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Hunter was a decorated soldier, having received the following military awards: 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. Awards he received posthumously: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal x2, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Bronze Star, NATO Medal and Combat Infantryman Badge.
“I’m very, very proud of who he has become and what he did for our country,” said Kimberly Thompson, Hunter’s mother, soon after learning that he had died. “It’s a double-edged sword. I’m incredibly proud he served our country; it’s what he was called to do.”
Members of the Hunter family have served the U.S. military since the Civil War, and Jonathon carried on that tradition, said his father, Mark Hunter.
When Hunter’s remains arrived in Columbus on Aug. 22, the Columbus community stood vigil, silently paying their respects as thousands of people lined streets along a 4.5-mile motorcade procession.
“Phenomenal” is how Hunter’s widow described the scene along the 4.5-mile route.
“It broke my heart but in the best way possible,” Whitney Hunter 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.”
Four days later, thousands came to Hunter’s alma mater, Columbus East High School, to pay tribute during his military funeral. It was attended by Hunter’s friends and family, plus dignitaries including Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, both of Indiana’s U.S. senators, Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Bartholomew County Commissioners chairman Carl Lienhoop, who each approached the flag-draped casket to silently pay their respects.
Later in the fall, Hunter’s name would be etched into the 25-column Bartholomew County Veterans Memorial and read during Veterans Day services there Nov. 11.
In early December, the Columbus East Alumni Association announced that it would honor Hunter by adding him to the high school’s Alumni Wall of Fame for distinguished alumni during a Feb. 10 ceremony at the school he attended.
A few weeks later, it was announced that a scholarship had been created to honor the memory and celebrate the life of Hunter, described as a natural leader with a passion for giving back.