August 22, 2005 – Posted at 4:08 p.m. CDT
POCAHONTAS, AR – Army specialist Rusty Bell died in Iraq August 12th from non-combat related injuries. Bell was assigned to the Army's 603rd Aviation Support Battalion out of Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.
More than 200 friends and family paid their respects to Specialist Bell Monday morning and among those present was 2-star Major General Castro of Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. Bell's family says they will remember him as confident, well liked, and an outdoorsman.
Visitation for Bell was held Sunday night at McNabb Funeral Home in Pocahontas. And while it was a chance for friends and family to say their last goodbyes, one religious group used it as an opportunity to spread their message. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas protested Specialist Bell's funeral visitation. They say they do so to call attention to what they say is God's punishment for an America that embraces sinful lifestyles.
But many in Region 8 considered the group's presence in Pocahontas to be a slap in the face.
“I wouldn't lift a finger to help this evil nation if it meant that I had to act contrary to the word of God to do,” said Westboro Baptist Church protestor Steve Drain in an interview Sunday afternoon.
“The message is supposed to be offensive,” said fellow protestor Rachel Hockenbarger.
And Monday, it wasn't hard finding anyone in Region 8 who disagreed.
“I almost had a heart attack when I saw it on the news, it made me so mad, I couldn't hardly stand it,” said Teddy Grissom, manager of the Pocahontas American Legion.
Protestors who took to the sidewalks of Randolph County may not have gotten their message across, but they did evoke a lot of emotions.
“I don't really believe they really understand the freedom of our country, what our young men have done, what they have died for,” said Richard Rider of Corning.
“I believe that anybody who would do that, that feels that bad about this country and what we do over here ought to be somewhere else,” said Grissom.
“We think this was a slap in the face to the young man that was lying in state and to the family,” said Ray Shaver, commander of VFW Post 4556.
And as a veteran, Shaver says one part of the protest hit home hard.
“We highly resent stomping the flag and desecration of the American flag. We were taught to respect that flag and that's what we fought for, that's what we stand for,” said Shaver.