AIKEN --- The deafening squeal of the chartered jet's engines sliced the silence of the morning at the Aiken Municipal Airport, bringing more than two dozen family members and at least 50 other onlookers to attention as the remains of Staff Sgt. Willie James Harley arrived Saturday.
Harley, 48, was killed Oct. 1 in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device.
A fellow guardsman, Spc. Luther Rabon, 32, of Lexington County. S.C., was also killed during the attack. The two men were the first from the National Guard's 1221st Engineering Clearance Company, based in Graniteville and Batesburg, to be killed.
More than 100 men and women in the company deployed in July for training before heading to Afghanistan.
"When you first hear about it, it's unreal," said Tiffany Thornburg, of Edgefield. Thornburg met Harley during his time with the Edgefield company, before he transferred to Graniteville.
"You can't help but think, 'That could have been us,' " she said.
Thornburg and about 15 fellow members of the company showed up in support of Harley's family.
"He was always outgoing and joking, and everything he did was for his kids," she said. "It was always about taking care of his kids."
While family members documented the somber moment in photos and video, Harley's children -- including son Christopher Fuller, who serves in the same company -- stood together with locked arms and hands until their father's casket was out of sight.
Harley is also survived by children Allison Fuller, Calvin Fuller, Desmond Fuller and Willie Harley III and sister Barbara Glover.
Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Cedar Creek Church on Banks Mill Road, according to family members.