WOODSTOWN, N.J. — The silver hearse rolls out the main gate of Dover Air Force Base, where America’s war dead return to U.S. soil.
“He’s coming,” yells John Davis, a 73-year-old retired electrician and Vietnam veteran. He and about 20 other bikers scramble for their Harleys.
Davis has a droopy gray mustache, a small soul patch and trifocals. He swings an artificial knee over his bike, drapes an ice pack over the nape of his neck and fires up his black motorcycle. The bikers pair off, forming a line leading away from the base. The hearse falls in behind them.
At 1:15 p.m., the convoy is heading north on Route 1 out of Delaware, toward the soldier’s home town. The guttural rumble of the Harleys, softened by the hum of highway traffic, fills the air.
Most of the bikers don’t even know the name of the soldier in the hearse.
Sixty miles away, in Woodstown, N.J., the three local employees of the John M. Glover Insurance Agency wonder why the police have posted temporary “no parking” signs on South Main Street. They check the borough of Woodstown’s Web site to see whether there are plans to trim the trees in town. Then they notice the firemen hanging a big American flag between the ladders of their two trucks.
One of the agency employees, William Seddon, calls his son, a volunteer firefighter, to ask what is happening.
“The body of a soldier is going to come down the street later in the afternoon,” his son tells him.
For the next hour, the three insurance company employees find it impossible to work, they later recall. The war in Afghanistan, abstract and easily forgotten, suddenly feels real.
Lisa Stone strides out of the insurance office and snaps a picture of the firetrucks with her cellphone. At 1:41 p.m. she texts it to her daughter, who works at a Wawa convenience store in Berlin, N.J., about 30 miles away.
“A fallen soldier will pass by my office in a few minutes,” Stone types as a caption.
Tara Crowther, who sits across from Stone, checks the Web site of Today’s Sunbeam, the local newspaper, and finds an article about the soldier.
“He was killed in Afghanistan,” she tells her co-workers. “He’s just 22 years old.”
When the motorcycles and the hearse pass through town, the three insurance company employees are standing outside their storefront with hands over their hearts. Crowther and Stone meet eyes and begin to cry. Both are thinking about the soldier’s mother.
Seddon, the office supervisor, stares straight ahead.
The turnout in Woodstown, a farming community on the way to the New Jersey shore, is light. Across the street from the insurance office, Sharlene Taylor stands in front of her flower shop. She didn’t know the soldier, who moved away from Woodstown as a 14-year-old. But Taylor, 62, has been selling flowers to his grandmother for years. Her shop is providing most of the flowers at his funeral, including an arrangement of white carnations that spells out his name: Richie.
“Things like this need to be in people’s faces so they understand what the government is signing us up for,” she says after the procession passes. “They should have let out the high school early so that the students could have been here to see it. It is just so profound. . . . This poor boy had to wake up with fear and swallow it every morning to do what he had to do.”
Two shops down, Elena Patten Colubriale, who owns a travel agency, does not budge from her desk as the motorcycles and the hearse roar past. Earlier that morning, she had seen a picture of the dead soldier in the Sunbeam and had thought that he looked just like his mother. The two had the same smile and high cheekbones.
Colubriale looks up briefly as the motorcycles pass and then turns away to face her computer screen. She cannot bear to watch.
Her daughter, a senior at the University of Delaware, is 22, like the soldier. Her son will graduate from high school in a few days.
“It was so disturbing,” she says. “I was just thinking of his poor mother having to see that. . . . If my son decided to enlist in the Army, it would just kill me.”
The motorcycles and hearse come to a stop in front of the H.T. Layton Funeral Home, which sits next to the two-story clapboard house where the soldier lived during his middle school years. The house was built in 1750 and is said to be the oldest building in Woodstown.
The soldier’s mother, stepfather and sister link arms and walk out to meet the silver hearse.
An honor guard carries the flag-draped casket past Davis, whose white T-shirt is drenched in sweat after the 80-minute ride from Dover. Since 2005, veterans and other volunteers have provided motorcycle escorts for the bodies of thousands of soldiers and Marines at their families’ request.
Davis and his fellow bikers hold a salute until the soldier disappears into the funeral home.
“Riders dismissed,” he says.
Two days later, on a steamy Saturday morning, funeral services are held for the soldier at St. Joseph’s Parish Center in Woodstown. The borough schools superintendent and police director have sent out e-mails to their employees asking them to line the one-mile stretch of road from the church to the cemetery. The town business association and local tea party chapter have done the same.
Around 11:45 a.m., Elizabeth Hathaway, 15, is biking home from swim team time trials and notices the people gathering in the center of town. She asks her father if he’s going to watch the parade for the soldier, and they decide to go together.
Her father had attended Woodstown High School with the soldier’s parents and taught P.E. to the soldier when he was in middle school. Elizabeth and Doug Hathaway stake out a spot in the center of town, where the Quaker society holds its monthly peace vigil.
Shortly after noon, a bagpiper outside the church begins playing “Amazing Grace.” The soldier’s casket is loaded in a black hearse, and the funeral cortege, led by about 50 motorcycles, starts to move through town.
Elizabeth, who has strawberry blond hair and striking blue eyes, listens as a little boy in his swim team bathing suit peppers his father with questions: “Why are there so many cars? Where is the soldier going? Are we going to get to see him?”
Friends and neighbors surround her on the sidewalk. Although she has never met the soldier, she recognizes many of the more than 300 mourners who are driving slowly past her on their way to the cemetery. She bites down on her lower lip.
“Dad, I don’t even know him and I am crying,” she says.
She is holding an American flag she got from Jeff Mortimer, who that morning had dug through his garage and found a dozen flags left over from the Fourth of July. Mortimer’s plan was to watch the procession until the hearse passed through town and then dash home for his daughter’s high school graduation party.
The hearse edges by him, but he decides he can’t leave. For the next 20 minutes he stands silently holding his flag.
“I am so proud of Woodstown,” he says to Elizabeth and her father.
The hearse passes the borough hall and a small stone memorial to Russell G. Garrison and Marvin L. Watson — the two Woodstown boys killed in the Vietnam War — then stops at Lawnside Cemetery.
Janice Tighe Hogan, the mother of Spec. Richard C. Emmons III, sits under a green funeral tarp with her family. She is wearing a black dress and sunglasses. She had thought about burying her son at Arlington National Cemetery but decided that she and her family would never be able to visit him. Instead, she chose a funeral plot next to his father, who died when Emmons was 10.
He spent his high school years in Granby, Conn., and had wanted to join the Army right after graduation, but his mother persuaded him to try college. He enlisted two years later, in May 2009.
“I finally did it,” he told her after he signed the paperwork at the recruiter’s office. “You are looking at a soldier.”
The chubby teenager became a solid block of a soldier. In Afghanistan, his battalion commander tapped Emmons to work as his communications specialist charged with keeping his radios working on the battlefield. He was killed May 31 in Logar province, south of Kabul, when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the armored vehicle he was driving.
A few days later, Emmons’s fellow soldiers at Forward Operating Base Altimur in eastern Afghanistan named the base gym after him.
At the cemetery, the honor guard soldiers lift the American flag off his casket so the priest can sprinkle holy water on it. The troops fold the flag into a triangle, tucking it tight with their white-gloved hands, and hand it to the general overseeing the ceremony. He goes down on one knee and gently lays the flag in Hogan’s lap. She hugs it tight to her chest as the general delivers a slow and deliberate salute.
About 50 people stand silently in the parking lot of the abandoned Acme Supermarket across the street from the cemetery. One of them is Cathie Turin. Her husband, a Vietnam veteran, died 11 years earlier from Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer common among veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
“Today that soldier is everyone’s brother,” she says. “He’s everyone’s son.”
After the ceremony, Turin, 59, meets up with two friends from town. They talk briefly about the funeral and the war.
“I am not a war protester, but we need to think realistically,” she tells her friends. “Those people in Afghanistan have been fighting for centuries. We aren’t going to stop them. Besides, we have enough problems at home.”
A red hatchback, with its windows down and its radio blasting, moves slowly down the road by the cemetery. The street is packed with early-season beach traffic.
“Would you turn that down, out of respect?” Turin yells at the driver.
“For the funeral?” the driver asks with a hint of irritation in her voice.
“For a man who was killed in Afghanistan,” Turin replies.