By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
Solemnly they stood, forming a tableau that stretched from a corner in Clovis to Melrose to Fort Sumner.
“We are here to support the family of the fallen soldier,” said Byron Cross, near a Clovis church entrance, his motorcycle behind him.
A legion of supporters — most of whom had never met fallen soldier Sgt. Leroy “J.R.” Segura Jr. — mourned his death Monday, gripping American flags and filling entire blocks across three adjacent towns.
Segura, 23, died while serving in the war on terror, fatally injured in a vehicle accident in Habbaniyah, Iraq, according to a press release from the Department of Defense.
About 70 Patriot Guard Riders — mostly motorcycle riders whose main mission is to attend the funerals of American soldiers killed in conflict — formed a wall around Sacred Heart Church, where funeral services for Segura were held under a gray sky. Many of the riders also attended his burial services in Fort Sumner.
“We all came for the same reason,” said rider Melanie Lloyd of Albuquerque, “to support the family and let them grieve in peace.”
Also joining the riders en masse were eastern New Mexico residents.
Clovis mother Margaret Romero and her four sons, the youngest 4 years old, proudly held banners and American flags in support of the Seguras.
“This hits home,” Romero said. “My brother is in the Marines. He deploys in September.”
Stationed along Sumner Avenue, more than 50 miles west of Clovis, a band of Fort Sumner residents shouldered heavy flags as cold rain drizzled down.
“We respect what the soldiers are doing,” Fort Sumner resident Miki McRee said.
However, nowhere in the streets of Clovis, Melrose, or Fort Sumner were members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Officials of the Topeka, Kan.-based church announced last week plans to attend Segura’s funeral services.
Considered a cult by many, members of the church preach primarily against homosexuality, along with other acts they deem sinful.
They do so predominately through public protests, according to the group’s Web site. Believing the war on terror is God’s punishment for American sin, church members picket at soldiers’ funerals across the nation, according to Megan Phelps-Roper, who said she is the granddaughter of the Westboro’s pastor and founder, Fred Phelps Sr.
Westboro has about 70 members, most of whom are related, Phelps-Roper said.
Rather than attending Segura’s funeral in Clovis, the group decided to attend the funeral of a soldier in Enid, Okla., on Wednesday, Phelps-Roper, 20, told the Clovis-News Journal in a telephone interview Monday.
She said the group achieved its goal in Clovis, and therefore, attending the funeral was not necessary.
“Our goal is to publish this message … that God is punishing America by killing the fruit of this nation, their children. We didn’t have to go all the way to New Mexico to do that,” she said.
“That message has saturated Clovis, New Mexico. Our goal was accomplished. So, we have to go to other places that have not yet gotten that message. Our job is to put the cup of God’s wrath to your lips and make you drink it.
“You have to do that a city at a time,” Phelps-Roper said.
The eldest of 11 siblings, Phelps-Roper, who has had objects thrown at her at some funerals she has picketed, said the Patriot Guard Riders attendance at Segura’s funeral did not impact her church’s decision not to attend the funeral.
“They (the riders) shine a spotlight on our message,” she said.
Nor did strong community support.
She said angry phone calls and e-mails the group received following local media coverage of the Westboro group swayed them from attending the funeral, as they believed members of the community had heard their message.
Many area residents and riders turned a cheek to the group, refusing to comment about its pending arrival or absence at services Monday.
Others expressed deep offense.
“What those people are doing is disgusting. I don’t know how they can call themselves Christian. I cannot fathom how someone could be so uncaring,” said Lillian McDonough, a longtime member of Sacred Heart who held vigil outside the church prior to the service.
“What right do they have to be here? These are our sons, our daughters,” said the mother of a Marine, Susan Kroeger, who also held a flag for Segura Monday.
Amid a tight cluster of family and friends, a childhood friend of Segura’s batted away tears, and spoke in soft tones of the day, as community members and riders lingered just feet away.
Manuel Black, 24, lived down the street from Segura and attended elementary, middle and high school with the soldier.
“We are all entitled to our own opinions,” Black said. “But I just (want the Westboro Church) to know that J.R. died for people to be able to have that opinion.”