Thousands gathered Saturday in downtown Columbia to honor fallen soldier Spc. Sterling Wyatt.
The crowds reportedly started forming as early as 10 a.m., and by the time the funeral began at 1 p.m., there were hundreds of members of the Patriot Guard, which is an organization of motorcycle enthusiasts who often attend the funerals of soldiers, as well as thousands of red-shirt supporters and Columbia Police Department, Missouri Highway Patrol and Boone County Sheriff’s deputies.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of community support that has been rallied for this young man,” Centralia resident Emily Lewallen, who attended the gathering, said.
Lewallen was among many who traveled to be a part of the event. For her, it was a deeply emotional time, as she has multiple family members who have served in the U.S. military.
“People like Sterling Wyatt are the reason I got out of an abusive relationship,” Lewallen said. “If this young man can lay down his life for us, we have an obligation to live out our freedoms as best we can, letting nothing hold us back. I was born in America for a reason, and he is part of that reason.”
Lewallen was one of many highly patriotic citizens walking along Broadway. Wyatt’s family sent out a request earlier in the week through a Facebook page asking for people attending the procession or funeral to wear red as a sign of support for their son’s sacrifice.
As of the time of the funeral, 4,169 people were confirmed attending on the Facebook page. An additional 1,750 people were listed as “maybe” attending, and a total of just less than 48,000 people were invited.
Another citizen mirrored Lewallen’s sentiments, also sharing a unique outlook on the large outpouring of support.
“Like a lot of people, I made sure to show up since I knew the Westboro Baptist Church was coming to protest,” Columbia resident Simon Slight said. “In sort of a perverse way, it may be a good thing WBC showed up. They effectively helped bring thousands of community members together and ensured this soldier was honored the way he should have been.”
Westboro Baptist Church is a small church in Topeka, Kan., that often protests military funerals around the nation. Six WBC members were present at Spc. Wyatt’s funeral.
Slight, who braved the heat with his two small children, said he thinks Spc. Wyatt has given the ultimate sacrifice for what we all take for granted. He said he thinks wearing red and honoring the fallen soldier is “the least we can all do.”
When the funeral concluded, hundreds of Patriot Guard riders lined Broadway from the First Baptist Church on East Broadway to the intersection of Broadway and Providence Road, completely closing all cross streets.
At about 2:30 p.m., Patriot Guard riders started their engines, and citizens cheered as hundreds of motorcycles roared through downtown and led the hearse carrying Spc. Wyatt to Wyatt's final resting place at Memorial Park Cemetery on Business Loop 70.
“This man gave everything,” Fulton resident Patty Handelman said. “I have a nephew in Afghanistan. My dad served, my uncles and many members of my family. Needless to say, this day gives me deeply patriotic feelings.”