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Soldier's funeral site of protest

By Samantha Langley
Asst. Around the Town Editor

October 25, 2012


Photo by Samantha Langley
Over 1,500 people came to support the family of Sgt. Donna Johnson, when word was spread that Westboro Baptist Church would be protesting her funeral.
The streets were lined in Raeford on Oct. 13 as 1,500 people came to support the family of deceased Army Sgt. Donna Johnson.

Westboro Baptist Ministry, located in Topeka, Kan., had received a permit to protest during the funeral in a small area on the next street.

According to Westboro's website (www.godhatesfags.com) and its signs at the site, their members believe that God is killing American soldiers because America tolerates homosexuality.

They chose this funeral, especially, because Sgt. Johnson had a female life partner.

According to the obituary in the Fayetteville Observer, Johnson was killed by a suicide bomber while serving in Afghanistan.

People from as far away as Alabama came to support and protect the family from the protestors.

"Without someone like this, they wouldn't have the right to picket. If they don't like what we're doing here, they can move to Europe, Canada or even go to Afghanistan with these soldiers for all I care," a member of the Army said.

People began arriving as early as 8:30 a.m. for the funeral that started at 11 a.m.
Photo by Samantha Langley
The Patriot Guard Riders stood outside the Raeford Presbyterian Church, where the services were held.

The Patriot Guard, according to its state captain Ron Howard, is a national organization that goes to military funerals where protestors have permits and attempts to shield the family with American flags.

"We try to shield the family with love and with our flags so they don't see anything ugly going on around them," Howard said.

At the beginning of the service, when the family and friends came into the church, the Patriot Guard stood around it.

They almost completely blocked the crowd that had come there to support the family.

Word that the protestors had arrived ran through the crowd. People raced down to the next street.

Four protestors stood in an area blocked off from the crowd. All of them had brightly colored signs with phrases like "God hates fags" and "Thank fags for dead soldiers." They were shouting out words with the same messages.

They also dragged flags from the ground. One of the men had made rainbow gay pride flags sewn into his pants, which hung low enough to drag across the ground.

The crowd gathered around the edges of the streets shouting back at the protestors things like "Get out of here, you dumb bitches" and "These are our soldiers."

A loudspeaker began to play "American Soldier" by Toby Keith. Many people sang along with the song, and others waved flags to show their support for Sgt. Johnson.

One man was arrested for running out and grabbing an American flag that one of the protestors had been dragging from the ground.

According to Raeford Police Chief Franklin Crumpler, no charges were filed against him.

After about 10 minutes, the protestors packed up their signs and got back into their car.

Crumpler said they left because "the protestors were in fear for their lives."

"We told them that we understood if they felt this way, but if they wanted to stay for the time that their permit allowed, we'd protect them to the best of our ability," Crumpler said.

The crowd was ecstatic as the protestors left. Many people began screaming and yelling "We did it." Others broke down in tears. For many, this was a patriotic victory.

"We did it, now let's go to the funeral," someone in the crowd yelled out.

The crowd continued back up the hill and stood waiting for the processional to lead from the church to the graveyard.

It took about 15 minutes after the protestors left for the processional to make its way.

Motorcycles led the limo containing Sgt. Johnson's family and behind that came the body in a hearse pulled by a motorcycle.

The American flag draping the casket could be seen by the crowd through windows on the hearse.

A complete silence fell over the crowd. Even children that had been getting restless before the processional seemed to understand the gravity of what was happening.

Some people stood by crying or in prayer. Military veterans and personnel saluted both the family and the body.

The family could be seen through windows of the family car. A woman in the back seat stared out at the crowd with tears running down her face.

After the processional passed, the crowd mostly disappeared.

A few members went down to the burial site, but most seemed to feel that this was the family's private time to grieve.

"I don't agree with what they did. They make a lot of hate, because they preach hate.

The good side of that was that it brought the community together in such a patriotic way. Even though I don't agree with them, it was their constitutional right and we were sworn to protect them to our best abilities," Crumpler said.

Jessica Pfeiffer and two other students from UNCP's Secular Student Alliance came to support the family.

"I wanted to go to support the family. I feel like a funeral is not a place to protest. It's their right, but that doesn't make it right," Pfeiffer said.

Sgt. Johnson, according to the Fayetteville Observer, is survived by her wife, Tracy Joe Dice; parents, Ray Johnson and Sandra Guton; and sister, Rene Anne Johnson Albattrawi.

Sgt. Johnson was a decorated war hero and had received many awards including the Purple Heart and the bronze medal.

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