SPC Jeremiah C. Hughes came home to Jacksonville yesterday. But not as his family ever wanted or dreamed of. SPC Hughes died April 9 in Balad, one of 19 U.S. service members who died last week. Hughes, 26, was a member of the 21st Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division out of Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He was, by all accounts, an extraordinary young man.
On Monday, Dan McCarthy, the City of Jacksonville's military liaison, put out an e-mail blast to the military community asking them to turn out for his arrival at Jacksonville Naval Air Station at 2:53 p.m. I have felt guilty about not showing up for some of these ceremonies in the past given what the community has done for us. But my schedule is generally too tightly wound to undo on short notice. I had a national conference call at 3 p.m. It wasn't going to work.
It was a very unusual day in North Florida yesterday. A cold front passed through and temperatures hovered in the 50s. An unfriendly wind blew out of the north at 20 mph with a occasional gusts to 35 mph. As I sat in my office, a rain squall slogged in off the ocean and the temperature dropped to 51 degrees. . . in Florida. . . in April. It was warmer in Minneapolis yesterday.
As the conference call progressed, I watched the minutes pass on my computer clock. I thought: The funeral home where SPC Hughes is headed is in Jacksonville Beach, a couple of miles from my office. I am on my cell phone. Maybe I can pay my respects there.
So I trundled into my truck and headed down beach to the funeral home. The squall passed and the skies began to clear and the temperature warmed to 61 degrees. I pulled into the H&R Block office parking lot across the street from the funeral home. It was Tax Day and the lot was crowded. I was lucky to find a spot.
The conference call progressed and ended after 4 p.m. At 4:15 p.m., I figured I had made a mistake. It wouldn't have been the first time I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I headed south down 3rd Street toward my home. At Butler Blvd., the Jacksonville Sheriff Office motorcycle honor guard was blocking north bound traffic at the exit ramp. The procession was heading to the Beach as planned.
I circled back but got stuck in the traffic about four blocks from the funeral home as the honor guard moved the procession on to 39th Street. Impatient drivers began making U-turns through the medians grumbling about the tie up. Must be a wreck or something.
I couldn't even make it to my church parking lot which was a block away from the funeral home. As I passed the home, the honor guard was at present arms. It looked as if there were at least 40 members of the Patriot Guard there as well.
As Dan McCarthy from the city will tell you, if nothing else, Jacksonville will turn out for its returning service men and women under the best or worst of circumstances. And based on this morning's news coverage in The Florida Times-Union, yesterday was no different.
But I had missed it. I drove by, gave a short salute and a silent prayer.
Godspeed SPC Hughes and God bless your family.