More than 1,000 people from around the coastal region descended on Long County on Sunday afternoon to pay their respects to and support the family of Sgt. Stefan Smith, a 3rdInfantry Division soldier and Ludowici resident who was killed in action July 23 in Afghanistan. Smith’s wife, Kristi Smith, and children, Dewey, Denver and Gracie Smith, live in Ludowici.
Despite threats of a protest by Westboro Baptist Church members, Smith’s funeral proceedings went smoothly and there were no confirmed sightings of any WBC members.
The church, based in Topeka, Kan., is known for its extreme ideologies and for staging protests at military funerals. After WBC posted a news release on its website last week announcing plans to travel to Ludowici and picket Smith’s funeral, members of the Liberty and Long county communities organized a counter-protest and created an event page on Facebook.
“What Westboro Baptist Church was going to do just isn’t right. That soldier has a wife, kids and some parents, and they’re dealing with losing him and everyone needs to show respect. We need to be here, so we are,” Cairo resident Wes Ryles said.
Although Savannah television media outlets reported that the Georgia State Patrol detained Westboro Baptist protesters during the funeral, Long County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Danny Dinkins said that is untrue.
“There were rumors and reports of Westboro Baptist Church sightings, but they were all checked out by the Long County Sheriff’s Office, and there were no confirmed sightings,” Dinkins said.
Authorities had expected the group to set up its protest at Smiley Elementary, about a half mile from New Beginnings Church, where mourners gathered for Smith’s memorial.
“What that church does is horrendous. They are so wrong, and the irony is that they ought to be supporting the military. It’s because of what military does that they have the freedom to go around and protest like they do,” Ludowici resident Kadee Dasher said.
Hundreds of motorcyclist led the funeral procession, which started at Carter Funeral Home in Hinesville. Crowds of supporters lined the roads, waving flags as the procession made its way to the church. Smith was buried in Long County on property owned by his family. The Long County Commission granted special permission for the burial.
Smith was killed when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device. First Lt. Jonam Russell, 25, and Spc. Rob Nichols, 24, also were killed in the attack.