Members of the Patriot Guard Riders watched through a chain-link fence Sunday morning as soldiers unloaded a casket draped with an American flag at Augusta Regional Airport.
Roughly 15 minutes later, the motorcyclists cranked their engines, ready to escort family and friends of Army Spc. Hilda Clayton on their 5-mile journey to a funeral home.
Clayton, an Augusta soldier, was killed in a July 2 training accident in Afghanistan.
“It was such an impressive sight,” said Sean Gillen, the general manager of Poteet Funeral Homes on Peach Orchard Road. “Driving in the middle of that was emotional, and I’ve been doing this for years.”
Veterans and well-wishers dotted the sides of the route to pay their respects to the Army photographer, who died after a mortar weapons system failed during an Afghan army training exercise.
“I was so surprised to see the people lining the streets,” said Evelyn Suarez, Clayton’s mother. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. People that didn’t even even know her came out to help support her. If she could see them now, she would be happy.”
Near the entrance of the airport, Karl and Susan Keene sat on the tailgate of their truck waiting for the procession to pass. An American flag was pinned to the side of the truck facing the road.
“Freedom isn’t free,” said Karl Keene, a retired Navy electrician who lives in Augusta. “Didn’t know her. Didn’t know the family. But this is the least we could do to honor a soldier.”
As the motorcade turned onto Peach Orchard Road, men removed their caps and children waved miniature flags. Rain came down in a slow drizzle, but the crowd remain steadfast until the detail group of uniformed soldiers entered the funeral home.
Suarez said she saw men salute and a child with a sign honoring Clayton as the procession passed by. After the ride ended, Suarez said the girl gave her the poster.
With less than a year left in Clayton’s tour in Afghanistan, Suarez said she was looking forward to welcoming her daughter home with a warm embrace and celebration.
“I wish it was that way,” she said. “But I want to thank everyone who was out there and who supported me when my baby came home. Everybody has been so nice.”
Poteet Funeral Homes will hold a public visitation from noon to 8 p.m. Friday. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Good Shepherd Chapel at Fort Gordon. A graveside service will be held immediately afterward at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Augusta.