MOUNT STERLING — In the words of Pastor John Hobson, they did not have a funeral Thursday for Army Pfc. Dustin Gross.
No, they had a "homecoming ceremony" for the 19-year-old Montgomery County native who was killed May 7 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, just weeks after arriving in the war-torn country.
And what a homecoming it was.
Some 2,200 American flags lined the bypass around town and the route from Montgomery County High School, where the funeral was held, to Machpelah Cemetery.
Never miss a local story.
About 800 to 1,000 mourners filed into the school arena for the funeral service and to see five medals presented to relatives of Gross.
Then, as the funeral cortège made its way through town, hundreds of townspeople lined the streets to say goodbye.
Some saluted. Others held flags. Many held signs with messages like "Thank U, Dustin," or "Gone but not forgotten."
Many simply held their hands over their hearts. They watched silently as the line of cars snaked through downtown, looped around the bypass surrounding the city, and then arrived at the cemetery.
It took an hour and 15 minutes for the entire cortège to complete the circuitous eight-mile route to the cemetery.
There, under a cloudless blue sky, Gross was laid to rest with a 21-gun salute and to the strains of a bagpipe playing Amazing Grace.
Hobson, pastor of Cathedral of Glory, expressed pride during the funeral in "being a part of this community that has come out in support the way you all have."
The community's outpouring of gratitude was due to several factors, said lifelong resident Debbie Helton, 56, an employee of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office.
"Number one, I think it's because this hasn't happened to Mount Sterling before — at least they didn't bring the body back to Mount Sterling for the burial," Helton said. "We've had soldiers die, of course. Their names are out here on the monument in front of the courthouse. But they actually brought this young man back to Montgomery County."
And he was only 19 and had just graduated from Montgomery County High last year, so the bonds with the city of 6,895 had not broken.
"It's sad that a 19-year-old can't go into Applebee's and order a beer, but he can go to Afghanistan to be killed," Helton said. "That's just my personal opinion."
During the funeral, Brig. Gen Thomas Seamands of Fort Bragg, N.C., said he heard story after story during the Wednesday night visitation about the "fun-loving, life-loving, enthusiastic, competitive, dedicated, loyal Dustin and the impact he had on the community."
Seamands said Gross participated in football, wrestling and weight-lifting. He noted how Gross was successful in a team sport, in a one-on-one sport and in an activity in which he tested himself.
Similarly, he said, the medals presented to his family speak about service to others and to self-sacrifice.
The medals were the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal and the NATO Medal for service with an international security force.
"We are the home of the free because we are the home of the brave," Seamands said.
This was the 86th funeral in seven years for Larry Eckhardt of Little York, Ill., who enlisted volunteers to erect flags along the roads. He has done similar patriotic displays in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin.
Eckhardt said he does it "because without these young men, we wouldn't be able to do it."
Eckhardt didn't serve in the military. "This is just kind of my way of saying thanks," he said. "Whether you like the war or not, you've got to support our guys."
The funeral was attended by 140 to 200 motorcyclists with the Patriot Guard Riders.
Danny Valentine of Corbin, state captain of the group, said he was 18 when he went to Vietnam. "We were treated pretty bad back in the Vietnam days, and we're not going to let anybody treat 'em like that again," Valentine said.
Asked what sense he makes of a 19-year-old's death, Eckhardt, the "flag man," said:
"I'd say his family did a great job raising him. Because to be 19 and willing to sacrifice, put everything on the line for all the people in the country — I'd say he was raised by a great group of people to care that much.
"That's basically what he did. He signed a blank check, and somebody upstairs cashed it."