The air was warm and the mood solemn Wednesday morning as the family of Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Joseph "T.J." Dudley walked into the hangar at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
Dudley's mother, Robyn Dudley, clutched the hand of her 18-year-old daughter, Bryn.
His widow, Mary Dudley, sat with her three children - 23-month-old Jenna Robyn; Thomas Carter, 5; and Taylor, 13 - near the black hearse bearing two American flags.
They were awaiting the arrival of the casket of the husband and father, brother and son who would never again attend soccer games, laugh with them or take them for haircuts and lawnmower rides.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
One of T.J.'s brothers, 21-year-old Jameson, himself a Marine, hugged Mary and rubbed her back as they waited in near-silence.
As her mother waited patiently, little Jenna Robyn couldn't sit still, toddling around the vast space, weaving her way in and out among the legs of her mother, her grandmother, her brother and sister.
Around the perimeter of the hangar, members of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in Fort Mill and Rock Hill, along with Rolling Thunder and Patriot Guard motorcycle escorts, stood at attention - American flags posted at their sides.
Finally, the quiet in the hangar was punctuated by the rumble of the giant door as it slid open, letting in bright sunlight.
Slowly, reverently, an airplane rolled into the hangar. Two men carefully lifted the bay door, assembled a ramp and - at last - pulled out a flag-draped casket.
Six Marines - three on each side - saluted the casket, unfurled the flag and carried it slowly to the hearse.
Family and friends embraced, cried and dabbed at their eyes with tissues, watching the casket disappear into the back of the vehicle before it made its way out of the hangar.
T.J. Dudley was coming home.
A family's courage
The core values that define a Marine are honor, courage and commitment.
T.J. Dudley had all three, family and friends say.
Honor, because he treated everyone he met with respect.
Courage, because he embarked on six deployments overseas, fighting for the freedom of all Americans.
Commitment, because he gave the ultimate sacrifice for that freedom.
On July 7, two weeks before he was set to return home, Dudley, 29, died from gunfire in Afghanistan, where he had been serving as crew chief with the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264 - the Black Knights.
Just hours before T.J. Dudley's arrival in that hangar at Wilson Air Center, family and friends had gathered at Palmetto Funeral Home in Fort Mill.
Robyn Dudley displayed the courage her son had embodied so well.
She hugged everyone as they arrived, squeezed their hands, exchanged smiles and offered words of comfort.
Later, as she waited for the arrival of her husband's remains at the hangar, Mary Dudley sat bravely, dry-eyed, strong for her children.
She didn't let anyone see her cry. Not until the hearse started to make its way out of the hangar.
Then she slowly turned to her husband's best friend, Ryan Smith, put her face in her hands, and quietly began to weep.
Public events planned to honor Marine Staff Sgt. T.J. Dudley:
11:30 a.m. - The funeral procession will begin at Palmetto Funeral Home, 2409 Carolina Place Drive, in Fort Mill. It will head south to S.C. 160, east on S.C. 160 over Interstate 77 and then turn right onto U.S. 21 at the Peach Stand. It will take another right onto Harris Road right again onto Munn Road.
2 p.m. - The funeral is at Fort Mill High School, 225 Munn Road.
After the funeral - Details were still being worked out Wednesday night, but the funeral procession will head south on U.S. 21 and stay on Cherry Road through Rock Hill before turning southeast onto Heckle Boulevard for a burial with full honors at Rock Hill Memorial Gardens, 700 Heckle Blvd.