VENUS - A capacity crowd of residents gathered Wednesday night 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 often to serve as a buffer to protect the families of fallen soldiers from any war protesters.

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.

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

Also on hand to offer comments and condolences were state Rep. Rob Orr of Burleson, District Judge Roger Harmon, Venus Mayor Carolyn Welcher 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.

Visitation will be at Midlothian Funeral Home, 200 E. Avenue E, located behind Chicken Express on U.S. Highway 287 Business, from 7-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14.

Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at First Baptist Church, Midlothian, 1651 S. Midlothian Parkway (take Midlothian Parkway exit).

For more information, call First Baptist Church in Midlothian at (972) 775-8207 or Midlothian Funeral Home at (972) 723-9884.

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