It may have been a typical breezy spring morning in Waxahachie, but for a brief time the community of Ellis County came together as one to honor PFC Joel Ramirez, not only as a fallen hero but as a symbol of freedom in respect for all soldiers serving to protect the American way of life.

Residents lined the roadway leading to Wayne Boze Funeral Home awaiting the procession that would carry the young man from the landing site at Mid-Way Regional Airport on Friday.

Standing side by side, flags in hand, people shared memories of the Ramirez family and those of family members who served in the past or are presently serving in the armed forces.

“I am here to honor the soldier that passed away – giving his life for freedom and for the people over there that need strength and need help,” Linda Junkins said. “I’m here for the soldier and the community.”

Delaina Wimpee, special education teacher at Howard Eighth Grade Center, brought her students to witness the procession and see the community come together.

“We talked about war and how, because soldiers fight, we have freedom,” Wimpee said.

Edwin Lipsey, pastor of Foundation of Life Church, said a host of young men in his congregation are serving the country.

“We are here to honor the troops and tell the family we appreciate their son’s valued sacrifice,” Lipsey said, noting that the man beside him, Larry Mann, has a son who has served in the Marines for three years and has had tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Father and son were each at the procession.

“As an active military member, I have come here to support my fellow vet that was killed in the line of duty and pay my respects,” Chris Mann said. “It is a good turnout and it is really an awesome thing that the community supports our veterans here in Waxahachie.

“As a veteran it really means a lot to me to see community support and to see that our community cares about veterans,” he said.

For some, the morning’s event hit close to home in giving a vivid reminder of the dangers that face the nation’s men and women in uniform.

Pam Settlemyer’s son, Donal, deployed to Afghanistan a month ago with the Air Force.

“This hit home for me because my son is there now. I don’t want this for my son,” Settlemyer said, speaking through tears. “I feel for the family and pray God comforts them and they know their son wanted to serve his country and fight for freedom.”

Rachel Grigsby and Jenny Strength stood side-by-side on a hill overlooking the road.

“My brother is in the army. I’m here for him since he can’t be here,” Grigsby said.

Strength extended her sympathies, saying it’s important for the community to recognize the devastating loss the Ramirez family is facing.

“He was so young,” Strength said. “It could have been your son or daughter or father.”

A group from Citizens National Bank inched to the edge of the asphalt as they stood together to remember Ramirez and honor his service.

“We are here out of respect. I didn’t know him but I have the utmost respect and I have to show my patriotism and support for what it is to be an American. That’s why we’re here,” Johnny Guerrero said, speaking for the group.

Tilmon Splawn and Jimmy Mismash, both 12-year-olds from Clift Middle School, joined the crowd in proudly displaying their flags. Mismash said he feels bad the family has lost its son, who fought so others could have freedom and be safe.

“He went to school here and a lot of people know him,” Splawn said. “It’s sad he’s not here anymore.”

Standing alone and solemnly at the edge of the driveway leading to Hilltop Lanes was Cindi Chapman, whose father is a Vietnam veteran.

“I came to honor another fallen soldier who put his life on the line so we could live in a free country,” Chapman said. “People don’t recognize the people who fight and put their lives on the line, sacrificing time away from their families. They deserve our utmost respect.”

The arrival

Patriot Guard Riders and a large contingent of Ellis County-based public service agencies were on hand at Mid-Way Regional Airport to serve as honor guards and to stand in support of the Ramirez family as their loved one was brought home.

A 2007 Waxahachie High School graduate, Ramirez was killed April 16 when his vehicle was attacked by insurgents using an improvised explosive device in the Nimroz province of Afghanistan while deployed on a mission for Operation Enduring Freedom.

In addition to the 22-year-old Ramirez, fellow soldiers Spc. Paul J. Atim, 27 of Green Bay, Wis. and Spc. Charles J. Wren, 25, of Beeville, Texas were killed in the attack.

On Friday, the body of the fallen hero returned home to Waxahachie as the community turned out to pay their respects.

Flags lined the roadway leading into the airport and a large flag was displayed from the Waxahachie Fire Department’s ladder truck at the terminal, where the facility’s flags flew at half-mast.

A lone bagpiper stood vigil and, as the chartered jet touched down and taxied to the waiting procession, the strains of “Amazing Grace” could be heard. As Ramirez’s mourning family and friends watched, a solemn military guard escorted their loved one’s flag-draped casket from the aircraft to a waiting hearse.

As the procession made its several-miles passage to the funeral home, countless hundreds of people holding flags lined the roadways in tribute.

“I think it will be amazing for them (the family) to look out the car window and see all of these people honoring their son,” Monce Lewis said. “The response is so sweet to think that all of these people came out here to honor a person they don’t even know.”

“I think this is a great tribute to someone who lost their life for their country,” Bill Gardner said. “I think that it’s a great turnout. It’s a shame that people have to die for their country, but it is a part of life.

“I would not miss this,” he said. “I thank God that someone is doing something about it to show their respect to this young man. My grandson is holding my father’s flag and we are going to hold it up as he passes by. When my father passed away, that flag was given to me because he had served in the Marine Corps for 23 years.”

Show of support

People had begun lining up early in tribute to Ramirez and his service, well before the chartered aircraft’s scheduled 11 a.m. arrival.

“These young men give so much to their country. They honor us by their service and activities and we need to honor them by ours,” Bruce Recktenwald said, describing what he saw as a “great” response from the community. “There are already hundreds of people out here.

“I think we really can’t get away from what happened in Vietnam and how those service men were not respected and they were doing their duty. These gentlemen are doing what they’re doing – and I think that we need to remember that. I’m just proud to be out here and I’m sorry for the family’s loss.”

The words offered by people spoke to Ramirez’s sacrifice, as well as the loss to not only his loved ones but to the community at large.

“Anytime a death from war hits home like this from someone in your community it really does hit home,” Paul O’Rear said. “The Bible says greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. That is what Joel Ramirez has done. He has laid down his life for us so that we can be free, so that we can enjoy everything that we enjoy as Americans.

“To me, that is worthy of the highest respect and honor,” O’Rear said. “I’m just so glad we have this many people out here today to pay their respects. It just breaks my heart that this happened to their family because they are such good people. I’m here to show my love and support for the family so they would know that there are people that love them.”

“I really have compassion about the men and women in uniform that go to protect our freedoms and liberties,” Tommie Worthy said. “This is so respectful for a person that has lost their life. I’m here to show my respect for the family and be a part of this tribute to him. I think this response by the community is awesome.”

Donations for Ramirez family

Donations are still being accepted toward expenses incurred by the Ramirez family. The Joel Ramirez Memorial Fund has been established at Wells Fargo bank; donations also may be dropped off at the front office at Waxahachie High School.

Daily Light staff members Andrew Branca, Rebecca Hertz and JoAnn Livingston contributed to this report.