Written by, Josh Patton
When I was but a buck-private in Advanced Individual Training, I was put on funeral detail for a period of time. That meant that whenever there was a veteran funeral, a rare occurrence in 1998, we performed the military burial ceremony. We were the pallbearers, we folded the flag for the family, and we fired three times from seven rifles. It was a unique experience because on one hand we felt elation for being free of the post and in the outside world, but that was counterbalanced by the somber and reverent mood of the funerals themselves. I wonder if I would have been able to maintain my military bearing had there been a group of protesters carrying signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags,” only a few short yards away. Yet, this happens today for many grieving military families burying young men and women who’ve died not just as veterans, but as a result of their service to the country.
The followers of the Westboro Baptist Church, and its hateful pastor Fred Phelps, have been around for decades. They originally gained the media’s attention in the nineties when the funerals they would protest were those of gay men and women, such as those who succumbed to the AIDS virus or were the victims of hate crimes. CNN covered their protest of the funeral for Matthew Shepard a young man in Iowa beaten to death by two men over his homosexuality. No one thought that this group could be more despicable, but they proved their hatred went deeper than originally fathomed.
In 2005 these backwoods yokels descended up the funeral of a solider I served with at FOB Warrior in Kirkuk, Specialist Carrie French. She celebrated her 19th birthday in Iraq but just a short time later an IED hit her convoy and she did not survive. I didn’t know her well, but she would sometimes come to the Post Office to help unload mail, send some of her own, or just because. When word got back to us that someone actually protested at her funeral, everyone assumed they were protesting the war. Unbeknownst to us, it was Phelps himself protesting at her funeral. He told them God was not on the side of America in this war because of its lack of morality, specifically the tolerance it has for homosexuals. Since homosexuals are not allowed to serve openly in the military nor are they allowed to marry, one wonders what “Phelps’s God” would have us do.
I have always been a staunch defender of the right to free speech. There have been very few times I have opposed a ruling in favor of free speech from the Supreme Court. Notably, when they ruled that Corporations be counted as individuals allowed to speak with their money, and every time there is a ruling in favor of those swine from The Phelps Chartered law firm, staffed by lawyers that are also members of Westboro Baptist Church. Their most recent victory was when a federal judge in Kansas City, MO ruled that a 2006 state law banning protests at military funerals was unconstitutional. The right of free speech is one of our most sacrosanct and these rulings can be a painful reminder that even when the system works, sometimes, it doesn’t.
* The opinions expressed with in this article are those of Joshua Patton and do not necessarily reflect those of the rest of the staff here at Veteran Journal
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