A steady line of mourners and family supporters stretched across Columbus East High School gymnasium for nearly four hours this weekend to pay their respects to a U.S. Army sergeant killed earlier this month in Afghanistan.
The visitation was for U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter, killed Aug. 2 in an attack on a NATO convoy near the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar. About 600 of the visitors Saturday stayed for the Columbus native’s funeral, military officials said.
Hunter was one of their own, a much-admired 2011 graduate of Columbus East.
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Hunter entered the Army on April 8, 2014, and was sent to Afghanistan — his first deployment — on July 1, about nine months after his marriage to Whitney M. Hunter, of Fayetteville, North Carolina.
As Saturday’s visitors approached Hunter’s alma mater, they were greeted by a display of U.S. flags lining both sides of the campus.
A Garrison Flag, the largest used by the U.S. Army at 20 feet tall and 38 feet wide, was hoisted above South Marr Road, attached to tandem ladder trucks from area fire departments.
As the crowds entered the main gymnasium, they walked past 14 Patriot Guard members standing at attention carrying flags, while another six did the same at the south entrance.
During Hunter’s visitation, two religious songs — “In the Eye of the Storm” and “Amazing Grace” — were played, along with “God Bless America.” The music accompanied a continuing slideshow shown on multiple screens that displayed about 100 photographs of the 23-year-old fallen hero.
As the service was about to begin, dignitaries and their spouses, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, both of Indiana’s U.S. senators, Joe Donnelly and Todd Young, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Bartholomew County Commissioners chairman Carl Lienhoop approached the flag-draped casket one at a time to silently pay respect to Sgt. Hunter.
A few minutes later, they were followed by Hunter’s mother, Kimberly Thompson; his stepfather, Brian Thompson; and the soldier’s father, Mark Hunter.
As Mark Hunter stood alone next to his son’s remains, the father reached out to touch the casket twice as tears filled his eyes. As Mark Hunter sat down next to Brian Thompson, the stepfather compassionately put his arm around the father.
When Hunter’s widow, Whitney, was escorted into the gymnasium, the crowd of mourners rose to its feet before the service began.
One of the honored guests was Sgt. Hunter’s deployment bunkmate, Cpl. Casey Weafer, one of four brothers-in-arms flown from Afghanistan to Indiana so they could attend the service.
Weafer was among the soldiers who carried Hunter’s body to a helicopter moments after he was killed.
“I’ll never get that image from my head of seeing my best friend like that,” Weafer said. “It broke my heart. But we have a job to do there, and we will do it.”
Army Chaplain Clifford Pappe said Hunter’s ceremony was the largest military funeral he had presided over since the 2008 death of Army Staff Sgt. Brian K. Miller of Pendleton.
As the sole speaker during the funeral service, Pappe said he wanted to honor both the family wishes and military protocol. That balance was reached by interchanging Scripture readings and prayers with personal remembrances from people who knew the fallen soldier well.
Pappe cited what he said were the five traits Hunter possessed that he heard most often: Revered, inspirational, polite, incisive and highly respected.
“Over my past 37 years of service, I have seen these qualities in our military time and time again,” Columbus retired U.S. Air Force General Mark A. Pillar said prior to the service. “I greatly admire these dedicated young men and women. They know before they volunteer they might deploy three or more times in a 10-year span, but they do it anyway. It’s remarkable. They are the greatest.”
As the seal of the 82nd Airborne was placed on the casket, active and retired military paratroopers spread throughout the gymnasium rose and slowly saluted their fallen comrade.
“When we are facing times of loss, we each need to have a Jonathon who can support us and be by us,” Pappe said. “Rejoice in the impact that he had on his family, his friends, his company and his country.”
As the honor guard raised the flag above the casket, the entire auditorium stood and remained standing as the flag was carefully folded and presented to Hunter’s widow.
Two other flags were brought out, reverently touched the casket, and were presented to Hunter’s mother and his father.
In the hallway, a 21-gun salute could be heard, followed by the playing of taps.
Slowly and reverently, the honor guard carried the casket outside.
Hunter became the second Columbus East graduate to give his life for his country while serving in Afghanistan.
In 2010, U.S. Marine Sgt. Jeremy McQueary, 27, was killed while conducting searches for improvised explosive devices.
A third local serviceman to lose his life was Cpl. John C. Bishop, 25, a 2003 Columbus North High School graduate. Bishop, a Marine, died in 2010 when his company was ambushed while on patrol.
Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, 23, of Columbus was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 504th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
He was recipient of the following military recognition: Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Noncommissioned Officers Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, Basic Combat and Skills Badge, Basic Marksmanship, Qualification Badge (Expert), German Parachutist Badge (Bronze) and Overseas service bar.
Posthumously, Hunter was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Bronze Star, NATO Medal and Combat Infantryman Badge.