Shots from a gun salute pierced the air as a grieving crowd gathered in front of a flag-covered casket.
Staff Sgt. John DeLong, 28, who was killed in a car accident May 30 near Fort Carson, Colo., received full military honors Wednesday morning during a memorial service at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville.
“It just epitomized my son and what he stood for and the way he thought about protecting our rights as a country,” said Judy DeLong of Gainesville, John DeLong’s mother.
Bill Coates, senior pastor for the First Baptist Church, remembered John DeLong as a man with a “great deal of discipline, a lot of passion and a great love for our country. He also had great love for family.”
And his family members had a great love for him.
John DeLong’s sister, Meg DeLong McPeek, delivered a tribute to her brother at the memorial service.
She described a hawk feather she sent to her brother when he was serving in Iraq. An image of the feather tattooed on her arm kept the siblings “safe and linked as brother and sister.”
McPeek also remembered the lessons her brother taught her — how to daydream, how to be a good friend, how to be honest, how to laugh.
“He transformed my life as my brother,” McPeek said. “And he’s transforming it even now as I look to restructure my life around the giant hole this has left in me.”
Sgt. Scott Denlinger, who served with John DeLong, was also in attendance to honor his fellow patriot.
“He was just a really good guy,” Denlinger said. “A good soldier.”
John DeLong served in the 82nd Airborne Division and B Company 4th Combat Support Battalion. He was in Iraq from August 2006 to November 2007.
“It’s because of people like John that we have what we have today,” Coates said.
During the service, John DeLong was honored with the Meritorious Service Medal to recognize his “tireless devotion to duty, expert leadership and relentless selfless service”.
Applause filled the chapel when the medal was presented.
When the service moved outside, John DeLong’s mother was given the flag from his casket.
And as the sun shone, the birds chirped and an arc of more than 20 American flags waved in the breeze, mourners could remember the life of a man who was brother, son, friend and soldier.
Because, as McPeek noted during the service: “Life changes fast, and life changes in an instant.”