JAMESTOWN – A seemingly endless line of small American flags down West Row Street flutter in a gentle breeze. The residents of Jamestown have turned out for a procession, an undesired one.
A chalk-white hearse slowly rounds the bend with a phalanx of law enforcement vehicles shepherding it and its passenger, Lance Cpl. Leon Deraps, to Jamestown High School. It is a homecoming far different from what might have been imagined for the young man who left town only a year ago.
The procession through the streets of the rural Moniteau County community welcomed home a fallen soldier Tuesday to bid him farewell.
Deraps, 19, a Marine and Jamestown native, was killed May 6 in Iraq when a roadside bomb blew up near the Humvee he was riding in near Fallujah, in the Anbar province of the war-torn nation.
Reminders of his death were hard to miss. Church placards passed on solemn notes of sorrow. The motto of the Marines, “Semper Fi,” adorned painted signs at the end of some drives. The window of a local antique shop underscored it all with the simplest message of all: “We will miss you, Leon.”
“Leon was a very important man in our community,” Liana Kuhn said as she stood holding a large American flag. “This has never happened in Jamestown before, and we’re a close-knit community. But I think as you look around, you can see just how much closer this has brought us together.”
Throughout the afternoon, residents said Deraps would have marveled at the pomp and pageantry of the events planned to celebrate his life, a life that residents said was defined by humility and kindness.
“He wouldn’t want us to do this much for him because he’d think it was too much,” said Jake Campbell, 17, who was friends with Deraps throughout high school. “But he’d appreciate it.”
Campbell, like many in the community, said Deraps’ death still seemed somewhat unreal. He learned of the tragedy on May 7, the day after it happened.
“It didn’t hit me until the next morning, when I woke up in tears and still didn’t believe it,” Campbell said. “I’m waiting for it to be a dream that I’m going to wake up (from), but then I remember that it’s true – he’s not coming back.”
The grieving process has been unusual for Jamestown. The nature of Deraps’ death, and the subsequent attention heaped upon the town and the Deraps family, is something residents hope will end after Tuesday’s visitation and a funeral scheduled for this afternoon.
“This isn’t typical because it happened so long ago,” said Lou Anne Wolfe as she, Lori Porter and Melanie Marshall waited for their lunch orders at Jamestown Market. “Within the course of American culture, it’s something that happened a week-and-a-half ago, and it’s put a lot of stress on the Deraps family.”
“Now, they finally get a chance to say goodbye today, and with the funeral tomorrow,” she said.
The past 10 days have also been a brutal reminder that the outside world does not exclude this tiny town nestled comfortably in the undulating hills of the Missouri River valley.
“It makes war more real now,” Pam Mason said as she stood waiting for the procession to roll by. “A lot of people differ on their opinions about the war here, but since this has happened, everyone is united in the fact that they’re in support of Leon, his sacrifice and his family.”
That support was on full display in the Jamestown High School Gym, where residents filled the bleachers to near capacity to pay their last respects and to comfort Deraps’ parents and five siblings.
“We don’t intend to forget them after (today),” Kuhn said. “With him being buried here locally, the grave will always have flowers and flags.”
Deraps’ parents, Sandy and Dale Deraps, slowly made their way past tables displaying mementos of their son’s life. There were photos of him as a young Cub Scout and as a more mature Eagle Scout. There was his letter jacket adorned with pins and medallions for various athletic triumphs. A scabbard, military certificates and photos bore tribute to his life as a Marine. In one picture, Deraps was relaxed and casual in his military fatigues. In another, he adopted an appropriately stern look while wearing his dress uniform.
Meanwhile, members of the Central Missouri Detachment of the Marine Corps League, which is based in Jefferson City, stood guard as sentinels before the coffin of their fallen brother.
“Speaking for myself solely, it’s very difficult when you have a 19-year-old kid who was just graduating from high school right about a year ago this week who is dead,” said Skip Rich, a member of the league and a Vietnam veteran. “It’s not very easy.”
Deraps made the decision to pre-enlist in the Marines during his senior year of high school. After graduating last May, he left for basic training in June 2005, proceeding on to combat training at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Deraps completed training at Engineers School in February at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and he was subsequently deployed to Iraq.
Shirley Durenburg said Deraps’ decision to enlist was well within his nature.
“His father was a Marine, and I think he wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Durenburg said.
During the service, Deraps’ parents sought solace and comfort in one another. As owners of Advanced Chimney Techniques, which is based in Jamestown, the family is also tied together by business.
Frequently, Sandy Deraps rested her head on her husband’s shoulder, gently quaking as she wiped away tears. Husband and wife whispered in each other’s ears and held each other as they dealt with the loss of their youngest child.
It’s a loss that will take the Deraps – and all of Jamestown – a long time to get over.
“We’ve all had our good moments and bad moments and cried a lot of tears, but I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet,” Kuhn said.
“I think that time is yet to come.”