When the hearse bearing the body of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Chester J. McBride III turned the corner half a mile away, a shouted order of "Attention!" could be heard all around the Bulloch County Courthouse area.
The crowd quickly hushed, and the approaching rumble of the Patriot Guard Riders' motorcycles was almost the only sound.
If there had been music and sirens, the scene in front of the courthouse might have seemed like that of a patriotic holiday parade. One woman, who was visiting from out of town, said she thought Statesboro was having a New Year's parade. When she found it was the Welcome Home Parade for McBride, 30, who was killed Dec. 21 while on patrol in Afghanistan, she decided to stay, and even held a small flag.
But John Kitchens, 32, a Marine Corps veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, knew exactly why he was there.
"I'm here with my wife and my two young children, and it's important to me to bring them to events like this because I want to show them how to properly honor our war dead and show our support for the sacrifice that Staff Sgt. McBride made and also raise awareness to them that there's a war going on overseas," Kitchens said.
McBride's funeral will be held today at 11 a.m., in Georgia Southern University's Hanner Fieldhouse on Herty Drive. Like Friday's honor parade and viewing, the ceremony is open to the public.
A chartered jet carrying McBride's body landed shortly after 12:30 p.m. Friday at the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport. A military honor guard picked up McBride's casket as it was taken off the jet and solemnly walked across the tarmac to place it in a waiting hearse, parked about 150 feet away.
McBride's parents and other family members were watching the honor guard from in front of the airport terminal entrance. As the casket neared the hearse, McBride's parents began walking toward the hearse when McBride's mother started running, overcome with the loss of her son. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, who had lined the tarmac honoring McBride's arrival home, wept while watching the emotional scene as family members tried to console the distraught Mrs. McBride.
FBI 'dream job'
A sizeable contingent of the people who gathered in front of the courthouse, many holding larger flags, were classmates of McBride's from the Statesboro High School Class of 2003.
Among them was Faron Smith, who identified herself in an earlier interview as McBride's high school sweetheart and longtime girlfriend. They had gotten back together just this year, she said.
"His jokes" are among the favorite things Smith will remember about McBride, she said. "I do also value that he was a motivator - he always motivated me to go above and beyond, just like he did - and his love. Like, no matter what, no matter - when we separated, no matter how long - he always stayed in touch."
Staff Sgt. McBride, the son of Chester R. McBride Jr. and Annie L. McBride, had been deployed several times and began his most recent deployment in October, soon after he spoke to a gathering of the football team at Statesboro High, Smith said.
"He actually volunteered for this last one," she said. "This was his last trip before he got out of (the Air Force) and went off to do his FBI."
Another classmate said working for the FBI was McBride's "dream job."
In the Air Force, McBride held the title of special agent as well as the rank of staff sergeant. He had received a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, with honors, from Savannah State University, plus an Air Force associate degree in the same subject. In May, he graduated again, from Valdosta State University, with a Master of Public Administration.
'Routine security patrol'
Assigned to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 405, out of Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, McBride was one of six Air Force personnel who died Dec. 21 after they were attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations lost three men and one woman, a major, in the attack. Two other Air Force enlisted men who died were with the 105th Security Forces Squadron out of Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York.
All were "on a normal, routine security patrol" through villages outside the Bagram base, Linda Card, public affairs director for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at its headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, said when telephoned Thursday.
When the Air Force OSI posted notices of its agents' funeral arrangements on Facebook, law enforcement agencies from around the country added condolences.
Local law enforcement had a prominent role in escorting McBride's casket from the airport through the heart of Statesboro. While McBride worked in law enforcement with the Air Force, his sister, LaTrell Zeigler, is a Bulloch County Sheriff's Office deputy.
"Between his profession and her being employed here, it is one big family, and, you know, it's awful. It's awful at any time, but especially at this time of year," said Bulloch County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jared Akins. "We feel so sorry for the family, and we've told them that anything they need, anything we could do to make his passing any easier, we'd accommodate them."
Statesboro police Capt. Charles Forney coordinated the deployment of officers. Besides the sheriff's department and Statesboro police, the Georgia State Patrol and the Georgia Southern University and Portal police departments had escort vehicles in the parade, and Brooklet police also assisted with traffic control.
After being contacted by the Air Force, the Statesboro Police Department also offered its flag equipment for the funeral so that the military need only send its personnel for a color guard, Forney said. The Fire Department also took part, hoisting a massive flag from a ladder truck over the airport entrance.
American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90 members were in the crowd by the courthouse, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars had cars in the parade.
Patriot Guard Riders
But the Patriot Guard Riders, volunteers who ride their motorcycles and hold flags for fallen heroes' funerals and memorial parades, provided the most escort units. About 120 PGR members came as flag holders from all over Georgia, as well as some from South Carolina and Florida. They rode at least 90 motorcycles in the parade, said Jeff "JayDub" Goodiel from Norcross, PGR Georgia state captain.
Founded in 2005, the group's primary mission is "to stand for those killed in action, and that includes police officers and first-responders, but primarily military," Goodiel said.
"Thankfully, we haven't had that many lately, and so we stand for our veterans as well," he said. "We escort them to their final resting place as well."
This weekend, the group was taking part in three funerals for veterans in the region, as well as the parade for McBride, said David Blanton of Gray, PGR assistant state captain for southeastern Georgia.
The honor parade ended at Agape Worship Center, a church off Johnson Street attended by McBride's family. A crowd formed there for the beginning of the open-casket viewing, which lasted from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. By 4:30 p.m., the initial crowd had subsided, but Patriot Guard Riders were still on task, standing at attention on both sides of the church's porch.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.