by Alan Hodge

Despite threats of disruption by members of the controversial Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, Monday’s funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas O’Brien was one of solemn dignity and patriotism.

A native of Stanley, 21-year-old O’Brien was killed by an improvised explosive device June 9, while on patrol in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines based in California. He was a 2008 graduate of East Gaston High School and joined the Marine Corps in 2009.

Westboro Baptist has drawn attention to itself in recent years by appearing at military funerals displaying signs bearing inflammatory, negative, statements regarding U.S. soldiers lost in action.

No Westboro Baptist members appear to have attended O’Brien’s service, which was held at First Assembly of God on South Myrtle School Road in Gastonia, but opinions of locals out to support the O’Brien family were plentiful.

Marine veteran Eric Anderson of Weddington has two younger brothers serving in Afghanistan.

“O’Brien is a fellow Marine,” Anderson said. “It’s wrong to use this funeral as a stage to spew hate.”

Gastonia resident Victoria Mabry also shared her thoughts on the Westboro Baptist protest tactics.

“You want to hate them,” she said. “But you just have to pray for them.”

O’Brien’s flag-draped casket was brought to First Assembly of God in a procession that began at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. Crowds of people lined the route along Wilkinson Boulevard to wave American flags as it passed by.

The motorcade was escorted by dozens of motorcycles from the Patriot Guard Riders, as well as fire engines and police vehicles.

Patriot Guard Rider Randy Wilson rode from Danville, Va. to take part in the ceremony.

“O’Brien gave his life for this country,” Wilson said. “It’s proper we honor him and his family.”

In addition to law enforcement officers and firefighters from across Gaston and Mecklenburg counties, other groups that came to pay respects to O’Brien included members of Boy Scout Troop 501, the East Lincoln Lightning youth baseball team, the Marine League and American Legion Posts 23, 30 and 48.

O’Brien was a member of Post 23 and played baseball for its team. He gave up a baseball scholarship to join the Marines.

The people who gathered on the First Assembly of God grounds and along South Myrtle School Road to show their support for O’Brien, his family, and other American troops were a diverse group.

Ninety-nine-year-old Stanley resident Paulina Whare braved the heat while waiting for the motorcade to arrive.

“I had two sons serve in Vietnam,” Whare said. “We have to remember our soldiers.”

The funeral service inside the First Assembly of God sanctuary was an emotional one. Hundreds of people packed the church for the service, which included a presentation that remembered O’Brien’s life. The Rev. George Sherman, from O’Brien’s home church Shady Brook Baptist, led the service, and U.S. Navy Reserve Chaplain Shawn Turpin, Chad Owens, one of O’Brien’s teachers at East Gaston High School and uncle Jeff Bright also made remarks.

O’Brien will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery June 28.

The same explosion that cost O’Brien his life also wounded his friend Lance Cpl. Josh Cawthorn, of Asheville, who is being treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital. The O’Brien family has requested that donations be sent to his family c/o Shady Brook Baptist Church, 2940 Belmeade Drive, Charlotte.