Aiken staff sergeant honored for ultimate sacrifice

AIKEN --- Tears of joy were shed Thursday as family and friends of Staff Sgt. Willie J. Harley Jr. swapped stories of the man whose smile was even bigger than his heart.

"We're saying he died as a hero, but Willie lived as a hero," said friend Wilbert Johnson, who met Harley as a 6-year-old boy. "The things he did, he did while he lived."

Harley, 48, and Spc. Luther "Will" Rabon, 32, of Lexington, S.C., were killed Oct. 1 in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device. The men were the first casualties of the National Guard's 1221st Engineering Clearance Company, which is based in Graniteville and Batesburg. More than 100 men and women in the company deployed in July.

Harley was remembered as a modest man who was known for talking all day long. Friend Kenith Corley said during the funeral that he'd tell Harley to go home around 12:30 or 1 a.m., and he'd still talk in the driveway for another half-hour.

"I'm not going to say 'Goodbye,' but 'I'll see ya later,' " Corley said.

Before the funeral, Harley's five children -- Allison Harley, Christopher Fuller, Calvin Fuller, Desmond Harley and Willie Harley III -- were privately presented their father's posthumous awards including a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal, NATO medal and Combat Action Badge.

More than 500 community members attended the afternoon services at Cedar Creek Church. Even children Harley coached during peewee football more than 10 years ago returned to Aiken.

About 300 Aiken residents lined the procession route from the church to Pine Lawn Memorial Cemetery on Hampton Avenue with American flags, to honor Harley, but also to protect his family from possible protesters.

On Monday, Westboro Baptist Church members said they would picket at the services, as they have done at military funerals nationwide for more than 20 years. In exchange for an hour of airtime with radio host Austin Rhodes on WGAC, the protestors agreed to not attend.

Aiken Public Safety spokesman Capt. Wendell Hall said there were no signs of protesters and the day went as planned.

Residents beside the cemetery began watch before noon for unwanted guests, just in case.

"This turnout is amazing and everything's just been smooth," said LaChanda Withers-Brown, whose husband serves in the same battalion. "He's truly going to be missed."

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