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Soldier's friend: Local support 'made me proud'

The bagpiper had finished, and the only flag at the graveside was taken from the coffin, folded and given to a wife whose grief is immeasurable as she held three fatherless children.

A Marine officer with a chin like a piece of granite told the crowd, hundreds strong, that the ceremony was over.

Some people filed past the casket of Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Joseph Dudley of Fort Mill and Tega Cay - called T.J. by most, "Duds" by Marines who knew him.

And served with him.

And were alive after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and six deployments because of him - even if Duds was dead.

The old Marines, the retired, stood off to the side exactly a week after Dudley died in Helmand province, Afghanistan - the deadliest place on earth right now for an American in a uniform.

One veteran, John Wentling of Rock Hill, at 66, looked like he could still handle the Taliban by himself with an old shotgun and slingshot. His handshake felt like an iron clamp.

"Connor's over there," Wentling said, pointing at a group of Marines readying for turns at the casket.

There were so many combat ribbons and medals on these guys - from gun battles and mortars and rockets and bullets - that they jingled when they walked.

A tall Marine went first. He took off that white dress hat that Marines wear and knelt by the casket, crinkling those blue dress pants with the red "blood" stripe down the side.

Then, another Marine, not tall, lean as a greyhound with features as sharp as an eagle, stood beside the casket. He saluted Duds, because Duds was a Marine.

And because Duds was his friend.

Then Connor Wentling from Rock Hill, a Marine officer and helicopter pilot on airships just like the one Duds was in charge of the crew on, walked away from his friend forever.

Wentling is 31, not much older than Dudley, who died at 29 and left that heartbroken wife and three kids.

He was sad, but he was not defeated by death.

"Fort Mill and Rock Hill made me proud," Wentling said. "These past two days. The processions down the road. The funeral. This is a great place.

"So many people cared so much. The flags we saw. So many flags."

And those flags became symbolic of this week, as Wentling noticed how Rock Hill and Fort Mill showed its best and toughest and most tender face - all at the same time.

From the funeral at Fort Mill High School, south to Rock Hill Memorial Gardens where Dudley was laid to rest, is exactly nine miles.

Hundreds of people with hundreds of flags lined that route as Dudley's body was carried there atop a fire truck from Tega Cay, the department where he started his public service that ended in Afghanistan.

Huge flags draped from fire trucks, tiny flags in hands and every flag size in between.

Nobody talked politics or race or religion or anything that too often divides us.

There was no "them," only "us," when Marine T.J. Dudley was going to be buried.

To get people down those nine miles required dozens of Rock Hill cops. One who helped with traffic at Cherry Road and Riverview Road, then zipped another route to the cemetery to be there as the casket came in, stood silently with his hand over his heart.

Bradley Sims is now a Rock Hill Police officer, but eight years ago, he was an 18-year-old just out of the same high school Dudley went to, Fort Mill High, fresh from bagging groceries at the Winn-Dixie store nearby.

Sims headed to Iraq with the Fort Mill Army National Guard before he even needed to shave. He came back and almost immediately was sent to Afghanistan.

At 21, Bradley Sims was already a two-time veteran of combat, a sergeant like Dudley, and in charge of the safety of 18- and 19-year-olds.

Like Dudley, Bradley Sims put his men first.

Sims wanted to honor the Marine who came from the same high school, where young men dream of courage and sometimes show it off in front of the whole world when that courage sometimes requires being wounded - sometimes dying.

"We all have to do what we can," said Sims. "He did all he could. I am proud to be here today."

Right across from the entrance to the cemetery stood three little kids - Isaiah Gillespie, 7; DeKiyah Keemer, 9; Joshua Mackey, 8. All waved flags with left hands and held right hands over their hearts.

A person in every vehicle in the funeral procession - hundreds of vehicles - waved at those three little kids.

One lady opened a SUV window as it rolled by slowly, her face streaming with tears, and said, "Thank you, kids. We love you."

"I want to remember this man who fought for me and my country forever because he is my hero," said DeKiyah.

The kids stood near a flag held by Alex Simms, a rising junior at South Pointe High and football player at 295 pounds, and his mother, Noreen McCollum, her hand over her heart.

"These Marines look so young," said McCollum, and she was right.

The young go off to these wars. And across the street is what happens sometimes in these wars, afterward. Young Marines leave widows and kids without fathers.

But as Connor Wentling the Marine said - after seeing so many people stand on roadsides to honor Dudley the Marine - Rock Hill and Fort Mill showed the stuff people are really made of when it comes time to make sure a Marine is buried with dignity.

"These people are the greatest," he said. "Just like Duds."

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