By Frank Lewis
Motorcycle riders, law enforcement agents from around the state and region, and concerned citizens are expected to form a human barrier around the funeral of Justin Helton — a 2006 graduate of Beaver Eastern High School, and member of the U.S. military who died in Afghanistan last week.
Another flyer from the group known as Westboro Baptist Church has emerged, causing apprehension that that group may show up to picket the young man’s funeral services.
The church has been involved in actions against an array of groups, including gay people and those who have died while serving their country, since at least 1991, when it sought a crackdown on homosexual activity at Gage Park six blocks northwest of the church. In addition to conducting protests at military funerals, the organization pickets other celebrity funerals and public events. Protests have also been held against Jews and Catholics, and some protests have included WBC members stomping on the American flag.
The latest flyer circulating in light of the funeral services for Helton, reads - “Thank God for 10 more dead troops,” and “Thank God for 3 dead oath-breakers,” among other things.
“We will preach to the living at their funerals in their home towns in respectful and lawful proximity thereto,” the flyer reads. It then says - “Here is a roster of the damned,” and lists the names of 13 people whose funerals they plan to target. Among them is Helton.
Local officials are awaiting word on the route to be used for the return of Beaver, who was killed June 9 in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan. Helton’s body was returned to the U.S. on Thursday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Rebecca Lee, executive director of the Pickaway County Veterans Service Office, said she has not yet been informed of the date or the route that will be used to escort Helton’s body home to Pike County, but she expects him to be flown to Rickenbacker and escorted south along U.S. Route 23. No arrangements have yet been confirmed, though, for Helton’s final return to Ohio.
Tuesday morning, Mike Bell, first vice commander of Post 471 of the American Legion, was busy organizing a protection barrier to join others at the funeral.
“There will be protection,” Bell said. “I’m just now getting out to the local people because I just found out about it a half-hour ago. But I do know, from my understanding, the Cincinnati Police Department, many of which are veteran riders and all of them are coming. So we’re going to have our local people, and that is who I am reaching out to.”
Bell said one of his sources in Washington Court House, Ohio, told him no date has been set for the funeral because autopsies must be performed in Delaware.
“Right now, just on his end, he’s got approximately about 1,000 bikes coming,” Bell said. “As soon as they start moving them this way, we’ll work closer together so I can get the bikes from down here.”
Helton, 25, had been in the Army since 2010 but had been in Afghanistan for only about two months. It was his first deployment, and he was expected to be home in about six months.
The situation with the anticipation of the presence of members of the Westboro Baptist Church brings to remembrance a funeral held in July of 2010 in Coal Grove. On that day, a funeral was held for Sgt. Justin Bradley Allen of the U.S. Army, who had been killed in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan on July 18.
The funeral was held at Dawson-Bryant High School, and hundreds of motorcycle club members lined their Harley Davidsons the length of the school property to escort the body and the family to the cemetery, one group was looking for members of the Westboro Baptist Church, because that group makes a habit of picketing funeral services for fallen American military personnel. It was rumored the group would be at the funeral. Reports were that the group had been in town the night before and distributed flyers, but did not put in an appearance at the actual funeral after hundreds of bikers surrounded the school and cemetery which were in close proximity to each other.
Bell said the purpose of having the bikers and others surround the funeral is to keep it respectful for family members and friends of the fallen soldier.
“Definitely we’re going to make this happen and honor this soldier,” Bell said. “If anybody gets in the way we’ll just have to take care of business.”
The Westboro Baptist Church is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination. The Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention (the two largest Baptist denominations) have each denounced the WBC over the years.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.