Chilly winds rippled through the hundreds of American flags held and planted around Columbia on February 28, a few hours after severe weather had blown through middle Tennessee. Yet despite the blustery air, gray sky, and cold drizzle, thousands of citizens lined the streets, with their hands on their hearts and their minds on a grieving family struck by the storm of war.
To write a few hundred words about what I witnessed in this city does not do justice to the outpouring of love, patriotism, mourning, and support that thousands of fine folks showed to the relatives, friends, and fellow Marines of Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter on Monday. The fallen hero, who I will profile in an upcoming Creators Syndicate column, suffered catastrophic wounds on Valentine's Day in Afghanistan's Helmand province, and passed away on February 19.
The Heritage Funeral Home memorial service for Lance Cpl. Carpenter concluded with a beautiful, emotionally devastating moment. Sarah McLachlan's 'Angel' softly played over the chapel's speakers as mourners sat in silence, cried, and prayed. When I walked up front to pay my respects at the Marine's open casket, I said a prayer for his widow, Crissie Carpenter, and the unborn son, Landon, who will soon bring her joyous light in a time of darkness. As Mrs. Carpenter poignantly said in her husband's obituary, Landon "isn't here yet, right now he's still in heaven with Andrew."
As soon as cars began slowly leaving the funeral home for the drive to Polk Memorial Gardens, everyone in the procession saw a city's collective arms wrapped around Crissie and Landon Carpenter. Folks of every age and background stood on streets and highways to honor Lance Cpl. Carpenter and his loved ones. Businesses, places of worship, and schools shut down in the middle of a Monday afternoon to catch a glimpse of the passing hero and wave their flags.
One of the most touching moments I witnessed during the procession was in front of a school, where children stayed several hours after the afternoon bell to learn the meaning of sacrifice.
One of many businesses to shut down was Regions Bank. Employees stood quietly outside their workplace, in front of flags at half-staff, to show their support for the Carpenter family. During my drive home on Tuesday, I stopped at a Regions branch to make a memorial contribution to "Landon's Fund," which will go toward the child's future. To contribute, you can visit any Regions Bank in middle Tennessee or ask its Columbia, Tenn., branch for information on how to donate.
Elderly people stood in the cold outside a nursing home, with one veteran, perhaps of World War II, saluting a fellow warrior. A few more miles down the rural highway, an active duty service member stood alone in the wind, saluting his brother in arms. Police officers and firemen were everywhere, going well beyond their duty to make sure the day's events went exactly as planned.
During a troubled time when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are mostly off the national radar, it's easy to get frustrated or even cynical about our country. But as it paid homage to a fallen volunteer warrior, the Volunteer State reminded us why our nation is still the greatest on earth.
Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter kissed his soulmate goodbye, served in Afghanistan, met his son in heaven, and was greeted by thousands of guardian angels in his hometown. As Columbia, Tenn., showed the world on February 28, the loved ones this Marine left behind will never be alone.