VENUS - A capacity crowd of residents gathered Sept. 12 at the Venus High School gymnasium to bid farewell to their hometown hero, Army Spc. Thomas L. Hilbert.

The VHS alumni and soldier died Sept. 7 from wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle during combat operations in Mosul, Iraq, Sept. 6.

Included in the crowd of mourners were 120 members of the Patriot Guard, an organized band of men, mostly military veterans who travel by motorcycle to memorial services of fallen soldiers to pay tribute, offer condolences and assist families.

David Hall of Keller, Texas, who heads up an organization called, “Thy Liberty and Law” was also present to display what he calls “the nation’s only working liberty bell.” Hall travels throughout Texas and other parts of the United States.

“I’m too old to go to war or carry a gun, but this is one thing that I can do,” Hall said. “I was up in Pennsylvania last week at a memorial service and recently we took the bell to a memorial service of the last remaining World War I vet.”

Hall said he has taken the bell on the road for the past 15 years attending memorials but most especially since 9/11.

“I’ve tried to cover all soldiers’ memorials in an area spanning from East Texas as far south as Austin and as far west as Abilene and a time or two I’ve taken it up into the Panhandle,” Hall said, noting that his crew-cab truck has traveled more than 300,000 miles transporting the bell.

Hilbert’s family arrived shortly after 7:30 p.m. to a somber crowd awaiting them in front of the school gym and the crowd silently filed into the gym for the memorial service.

Welcome address was delivered by the Rev. Bennie Leonard, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church of Midlothian who noted that Hilbert, a Cavalry Scout, entered the Army from Dallas, Aug. 4, 2005.

He was stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. and was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division before entering Iraq, Oct. 2006. Leonard said, "Thomas left Venus with a dream to serve his country as an American Solder and he returned as our hero, having lived out that dream."

Leonard also noted that Hilbert's sister, B.J. was a member of his church in Midlothian and also worked in the church youth department.

"Thomas would often come to the services with his sister when he was home," said Leonard.

Spc. Hilbert was awarded the Army Service Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Iraqi Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Purple Heart and the highest military honor, The Bronze Star.

Speakers on the program included Hilbert’s former minister of youth, Jeff Evans, and Robert Shaw, who shared “A Soldier’s Prayer” and announced plans to establish a veteran’s memorial fund in honor of Hilbert.

Jesse Maldonado, representative of the American Legion, presented a Bible to Tom and Teresa Hilbert, Thomas' parents.

Also on hand to offer comments and condolences were state Rep. Rob Ore of Burleson, who presented the Texas flag, Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon, who issued a proclamation from Johnson County, and Venus Mayor Caroline Welcher, who issued a proclamation from the city and Venus ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Treadway.

“We are all very, very proud of Thomas,” Treadway said. “And I want you to know that, as a mother of a military soldier, my heart is with you - and we not only salute Thomas tonight for his great sacrifice, but we salute you, the parents, for your sacrifice as well.”

Chris Turner, a representative from the office of U.S. Congressman Chet Edwards, presented Hilbert’s parents with a personal letter from President and Mrs. George W. Bush.

After the service, the crowd exited the building and formed two lines outside for a candlelight service as the family passed through the crowd.

The hymn, “Amazing Grace,” was sung by the crowd and Don Ricks, pastor of Shiloh Cowboy Church of Venus, led the benediction.

Funeral services were held Saturday, Sept. 15, at First Baptist Church, Midlothian and burial was in Venus.

E-mail Paul at paul.gauntt@waxahachiedailylight.com