Thousands show support for soldier Wyatt's family at funeral

Saturday, July 21, 2012 | 7:31 p.m. CDT; updated 9:14 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 21, 2012
Supporters formed "a sea of red" to honor the memory of Spc. Sterling Wyatt during his funeral at First Baptist Church of Columbia and procession along Broadway on Saturday.

COLUMBIA — Motorcycles rumbled into the parking lot passing Larry "Preacher" Page’s trailer as he handed out American flags to Patriot Guard members.

Along with thousands of members of the Columbia community, Page, of Kirksville, arrived in town to show support for the Wyatt family. Spc. Sterling Wyatt's funeral was held Saturday at First Baptist Church.

Wyatt, 21, died July 11 in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan from wounds caused by a homemade bomb attack. An Eagle Scout, he graduated from Rock Bridge High School in 2009 and joined the Army in November 2010. He was deployed overseas in December and due back in the United States in August.

Page’s son, Rex, was killed in Iraq on June 28, 2006. At Rex’s funeral in Kirksville, 265 motorcycles and 400 riders arrived from the Patriot Guard. Larry Page joined the group afterwards and has been involved now for six years.

Page drives the Flag Support Unit car or "cage." When he joined, a herniated disk prevented him from riding a motorcycle, so he fitted a trailer to carry 400 flags. The only requirement of being a Patriot Guard member is to stand with a flag in support of fallen soldiers, Page said.

"We expected this for Columbia. It’s not a surprise," Page said of the crowds gathered in front of First Baptist Church. Riders arrived from all over Missouri, including St. Louis and Kansas City.

Organizers estimated a group of 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered outside the church to show their support for the Wyatt family. More people lined the streets to Memorial Park Cemetery where Wyatt was to be buried.

Amy Vandergriff-Belcher spent six hours covering her body in paint with names of people who could not attend.

"A friend of mine’s husband died in Afghanistan and I wasn’t able to go to the funeral," said Vandergriff-Belcher, who wanted to let those who couldn't attend the event still have a way to pay tribute.

"The difference in age, class and economic ranges, there’s nothing like it," Vandergriff-Belcher said about the community members all dressed in red.

Grassroots effort

Organizers were quick to defer credit to the community.

"Words can’t describe, (there were) so many emotions. I was sad, happy, then dehydrated," said Sarah Cox, who worked with the church and the Columbia Police Department to plan the show of support.

As the funeral started, about 60 people watched on a projector inside the fellowship hall at First Baptist Church. As the casket was closed, the only sound in the hall was the constant hum of a refrigerator and volunteers rummaging through coolers of ice for bottles of water to give people outside.

Former scoutmaster Peter Neenan spoke of how Wyatt would have led the Columbia community, Wyatt's time in the Boy Scouts and how he was a member of the Pyro Patrol and taught other boys fire-building skills. Wyatt's Eagle Project consisted of building a stone path at Shepard Elementary School to help disabled students have an easier time to get to the outdoor classroom.

"His spirit soars like the eagle he was and will always be," Neenan said.

Former senior pastor of First Baptist Church John Baker started the meditation near the conclusion of the service with two main points: This is really difficult and we all really miss Sterling. The congregation can grieve together, he said.

"Sterling tapped his toes to a different drummer," Baker said.

Baker baptized Wyatt at the age of 13 and commented on his persistent "Mona Lisa-esque" smile.

Wyatt was also a great marksman, Baker said, and eventually served as a gunner in an armored vehicle. He shared a story of how Wyatt's family needed 10 squirrels for a recipe for that night's dinner. He took 10 shells and came back with 10 squirrels.

"Thank you Columbia for your gift of love and support," Baker said, adding that the city came together in support of Wyatt.

Baker said that in Wyatt’s last spiritual report to his mother, "He and God were good. Very good. And getting better."

Following the service, Baker and current pastor Carol McEntyre led the way out of the church flanked by community members. A six-man honor guard then moved the flag-draped casket to the hearse while the family followed behind.

As the motorcade made its way toward the cemetery, a red wall of people lined Broadway — some holding hands over their hearts, others saluting the hearse. Silence fell over the usually bustling street, interrupted only by the occasional rumble of a motorcycle or the flapping of flags in the wind.

Supervising editor is Jake Kreinberg.

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Barbara Cochran July 22, 2012 | 4:41 p.m.

Heart goes out to the Wyatt family and all their friends. I can't help but shed a tear when reading this article and viewing all the pictures taken. It's a sad story but also it makes me proud to see how supporting, caring, and strong our community is. I was unable to attend yesterday, but I went to high school with Sterling and thought about him all day.
Thinking back not one negative thought comes to mind. He was truly an amazing young man. His family should be extremely proud of who their son is. It is people like him, who give us all hope. <3

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