This is my first blog post for FOV and I am so excited to be able to share some of my story with you. Before I get into my post, a short introduction may be helpful to set the scene for my experience on Monday. My husband and I are currently at Fort Bliss with 2/1 AD. We have been here for just over a year, after moving from Fort Lewis -- prior to that, my husband (who at the time was my boyfriend) was stationed in Germany and deployed to Ramadi with the 16th Engineer Battalion in 2006-2007. As a result of his deployment, he was diagnosed with late-onset PTSD and TBI. We have been struggling with treatment for my husband’s diagnosis. It seems like every time we take 2 giant leaps forward, we hit a roadblock and take what seems like 1000 steps back. However, I could write several posts just on our experience so far with the Army behavioral health system, so I’ll save that part of our story for another blog post. ;) Suffice it to say, we are taking it one day at a time and working towards becoming a stronger team and finding the best treatment options for my husband. I recently graduated with my BS in Psychology and am in the process of enlisting in the Army myself as a Behavioral Health Specialist. My husband serves as an Active Duty Medic and is applying to the newly revised Flight Medic program at Fort Rucker.
There are few experiences that change the way a person views the important things in life more than a funeral. On Sunday night, I was on Facebook and saw a post about a Marine, SSG Christopher Diaz, who was KIA in Afghanistan at the end of September. His funeral services were scheduled for Monday, 10 October at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in El Paso and Fort Bliss National Cemetery. As sad as a funeral is already, what made this even more upsetting was the news that Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) was planning on protesting his mass and internment. For those who are unaware of who WBC is, they are a “church” who have radical views on a number of topics and say horrible things like “Thank God for IEDS.” WBC travels all over the country to protest the funerals of military service members. Luckily, there is a motorcycle club called the Patriot Riders who go on missions to help drown out the chants of WBC and organize counter-protestors to help protect the service member and his/her family. So, on Sunday evening, word of WBC coming to El Paso spread like wildfire on local El Paso and Fort Bliss Facebook pages. In just a few short hours, hundreds of people pledged to show up at the church and cemetery the next day to help protect the funeral of SSG Diaz.
When I first found out WBC was coming to El Paso, I was disgusted. Then I was determined to do all I could to spread the word and help protect this family who would be harassed by WBC. I told my husband I wanted us to go and help and he was hesitant. He was nervous that he wouldn’t be able to control his temper if he came face to face with a WBC protestor and worried he would do something “stupid.” But, he sent a text out to his soldiers to spread the word and I dug through our camping equipment to find two large blue tarps to bring with us to help shield the family from seeing hateful messages on WBC signs. The next morning, as I was getting ready to go to the church to meet up with other counter-protestors, my husband decided he wasn’t going. He sent a message to one of his soldiers who was planning on attending and explained why he wasn’t going to make it there. His soldier, a young guy who has been in the service for a short time, wrote back to say “I figured between the two of us we could be there for each other so we wouldn’t do something dumb.” It was then that my husband realized he needed to be there for his soldier and that he couldn’t leave his battle buddy behind. So, off we went to the church.
The next hour was an amazing turn of events. There were more people there than I expected who showed up with signs of love and support for SSG Diaz and his family, tarps, bedsheets, and hundreds of beautiful American flags to draw the attention away from the potential WBC protestors. The thing that was evident as strangers stood next to each other waiting for the protestors to come was that it wasn’t just members of the Fort Bliss community who came out to help; many people from the El Paso community, young and old, showed up to lend a hand and their hearts to the cause. Everyone had arrived early to stake claim on the church sidewalk. There were enough of us at the church that the flag holders could stand on the sidewalk next to the church, and those of us with tarps and sheets could stand in the median to block any WBC protestors who showed up. Initially, reports estimated over 200 WBC protestors were expected to attend. But, as the minutes drew nearer to the 10:00 mass, WBC was nowhere to be found in the church vicinity. We heard they were right down the road at a local park. When the funeral procession approached, most of us flowed into the street to block the road from any potential protestors and allow them to drive into the church parking lot. Hundreds of people holding flags and showing silent respect as the funeral procession went by in the middle of a busy intersection was a sight that cannot be explained in words. Later, we would find out that WBC sent people down to see how many people had gathered at the church to counter-protest. Evidently, they realized their attempts at protesting at the church were no match for the support of Fort Bliss and El Paso.
Almost immediately after the funeral procession ended, the Patriot Riders got confirmation that WBC was heading toward Fort Bliss (where we assumed they would be going to the cemetery). The crowd of SSG Diaz supporters quickly dispersed as people picked up their signs and tarps and ran to their cars to head for the cemetery. I rushed to the car with my husband behind me. I didn’t realize it at that second, but he was starting to have one of his triggers. Once we got in the car, he picked an argument with me because he said he didn’t want to go to the cemetery. I wasn’t thinking straight; I know now that I should have realized he was in a prime trigger moment being in a crowd of people, but when he was upset he couldn’t explain this and I was so caught up in helping SSG Diaz’s family that I wasn’t catching his signs. I thought he was mad because WBC could be there and didn’t want to have a reaction. What was really happening is he figured the church would be less congested than the cemetery would be and didn’t want to have one of his claustrophobic moments. He has this reaction more often that not at the commissary (he used to have them more frequently at the old building, but the new commissary aisles are much wider and there seems to be fewer traffic buildups in general, which has greatly reduced being triggered while we go grocery shopping). As a quick side note: while we were on the highway, we were right behind over 25 motorcycles who were racing to get to the cemetery. It was awesome to see 50 cars racing on the highway to get there before WBC. We may not have been driving as safely as we all should have, but being part of a group of speed racers all heading towards the same end goal was a pretty funny and surreal experience. (Disclaimer: And we all got there unharmed).
It wasn’t until after we had parked and gotten to the cemetery that my husband was able to explain what his feelings were in a calmer state of mind, and I felt stupid for not picking up on this. I apologized profusely and we came up with a game plan: he would go to the car if he needed some space and could call me on my cell phone if he felt like we needed to leave. Then we found a spot along the road in front of some cars that were parked on the side of the road. We ended up picking a spot that was fairly quiet and the cemetery was actually less stressful and congested since people were dispersed along a longer stretch of road than at the church. As it got closer to 11:30 when the funeral procession was supposed to arrive, more supporters came to line the streets. The incredible thing was there were no WBC protestors to be found -- again. It looked more like a July 4th parade route with the number of flags and people singing patriotic songs. When the funeral procession came down the street, the crowd was hushed and everyone ran to be near the cars as they drove into the cemetery, the Patriot Riders leading the way. The sound of rolling thunder from the motorcycles was breathtaking; it didn’t seem like the line of motorcycles were ever going to end. You could hear the bagpipes playing also . . . it was heartwrenching. But everyone in the streets held their flags up high and military service members in uniform lined the entrance to the cemetery; while those who were in civilian clothes stood by, saluting SSG Diaz as he made his way to his final resting place. The crowd showed silent support as the procession drove past and many of us were overcome with tears. The moments that were the hardest, yet the most gratifying, was seeing family members mouthing the words “thank you” through the windows of their cars, clearly overwhelmed by the support of this group who simply wanted to be there for the family during such a difficult moment.
For a few hours on Monday morning, everyone set aside their busy lives to show up for a cause that was greater than themselves. The makeshift community that was formed in such a short period of time showed how much people in the El Paso and Fort Bliss communities truly cared about their fallen comrade. Although SSG Diaz was a Marine and Fort Bliss primarily consists of Army Soldiers, everyone put away their allegiance to a specific branch and became one -- a united front, to protect a brother in arms. This moment in time may have passed just as quickly as it came, but I know in the hearts of everyone who participated in protecting SSG Diaz’s funeral, a part of our lives will never be the same.
Note: WBC never showed up at the church or the cemetery that day. Instead, we heard reports that they were intimidated enough by the level of support showed for SSG Diaz and his family that they instead traveled from the nearby park to the Cassidy gate of Fort Bliss to protest instead. Nevertheless, the mission of the Patriot Riders and those who helped protect the Diaz family was a success, as the family never saw the WBC protestors and SSG Diaz was laid to rest in peace.
Submitted by: LeAnn Bradshaw-Mueller, wife of an Army Combat Medic and OIF Veteran and FOV Volunteer