COLUMBIA - A small white plane had made its landing at Columbia Regional Airport. As it inched toward the entranceway, two lines of mourners solemnly waited in silent reception of the body of Steven J. Fitzmorris, 26, who was killed during combat in Iraq on Aug. 25.
Those present at the airport on Sunday morning included family, friends and community members. Some had known Fitzmorris, and some had not.
Among the group who did not know Fitzmorris were members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization of motorcycle enthusiasts that honor fallen soldiers by attending their funerals.
"We come to show the family and community the respect that the soldier has allowed us to show," said Vern Bastian, a Patriot Guard Rider ride captain.
The riders' purpose is twofold: to show respect to heroes and their families and to protect those families from groups that may protest.
On the runway, the three-legged aircraft rolled to a stop and slowly raised its door, as the hands of onlookers moved to hearts and brows.
At the end of one of the lines of mourners, Bob Keymer gripped a large American flag, adding to the red, white and blue color scheme of the scene. Keymer is a veteran and a member of the American Legion Riders, the group that began the Patriot Guard Riders in 2005. "You'll see a lot of Vietnam vets here," Keymer said.
When Vietnam veterans returned home after the war, Keymer said, they were often met with a poor reception and protests.
"Our purpose is to make sure that when a soldier comes home, they never get the kind of reception that (Vietnam veterans) did."
On this Sunday morning, there was nothing more than reverent support.
"The boys over there are doing what they think is right," Keymer, himself a former member of the Navy, said.
After the memorial on the runway concluded, community members and friends moved to their cars, and the riders moved to their bikes. The deep sound of motorcycle engines, with an underlying tune of patriotic music, were the only sounds.
The motorcycles and cars followed the family in procession from the airport to Memorial Funeral Home. Supporters along U.S. 63, as well as throughout downtown Columbia, gathered along the road to show their support.
A man cutting grass on his tractor by the roadside saw the procession approaching. Turning off the motor, he stood up and put his hand to his heart as the cars and bikes passed by.
Children waved small flags, and families held signs as a show of respect to the fallen soldier and his family.
All the while, two lines of motorcycles followed the procession of vehicles, providing support to the Fitzmorris family.
"It's our small token of appreciation," Bastian said.