JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — The family of deceased local sailor Samuel Lewis Stiles, 25, had hoped they could respectfully memorialize him after his sudden death while stationed in Japan. Dozens of the family’s supporters, mobilized largely through social media, lined both sides of Luther Road near Emmanuel Baptist Church on the frigid Tuesday morning to make sure that happened.
Reports began circulating last week that a religious hate group known as the Westboro Baptist Church had planned to picket the veteran’s funeral.
Notorious on a national scale for such spiteful messages as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers,” their expected presence spurred civilians, veterans and perfect strangers from across the area to come together in Stiles’ honor.
The anatgonistic placards of the WBC were nowhere to be found, replaced by rows of American flags held in salute along Luther Road — just as the family requested.
“It was really overwhelming,” said Stiles’ aunt Vi McVay. “The family definitely appreciated all the support and kindness that was shown. It’s amazing that so many people took time out of their day to show up. I really don’t know what else to say.”
Most pockets of supporters were friends or acquaintances of the Stiles family. Many others were vets or members of military families. While each gave a differently worded answer as to why they joined up with the support effort, they were all grounded in reverence of the job the armed forces does.
“I’ve seen people die for this,” said Ryan Francis of Blairsville, an 8-year veteran. “Just so these idiots can — unfortunately — (be) protected by their First Amendment right.”
Francis, like others around him, never met Stiles or his family.
“All I know is he’s a fallen brother in arms and I’m here to show my support,” he said.
Drew Mangus of Stonycreek said he’s been involved in counter-protests against the WBC before.
“(I came) because it’s the right thing to do — period,” he said. “The family deserved it.”
McVay noted that Richland police presence was impeccable and said she feels it went a long way in deterring detractors and keeping the event quiet.
“They blocked roads off and made everything go very efficiently,” she said. “They had it pretty secure up there.”
So secure that Richland police couldn’t tell if the WBC showed up at all.
“There was no credible or reliable evidence to indicate that the church was even there,” said Detective Kevin Lehman.
And with the threat of disturbance quelled, supporters were free to raise their flags in remembrance of the beloved Stiles.
“He and I rode the same bus in high school together,” said Tony Farina of Richland. “He was a really funny guy. He and I would always just goof off and he always had me laughing, every time we hung out.
“I don’t think there was a time that I ever saw him in a bad mood. He was just generally a good person ... I’m really glad people came to support all this.”
The funeral procession was met at Forest Lawn Memorial Park along Frankstown Road by John Wojcik, Commander of the Central City VFW, and three other VFW members. Like Francis, Wojcik had never met Stiles or his family, but knows one crucial thing about the young Petty Officer Second Class:
“We’re veterans and veterans stick together,” he said. “We stand together.”