BELLEVILLE — It was a welcome befitting a hero, and this one honored the homecoming and ultimate sacrifice of 20-year-old U.S. Army Pfc. Tyler R. Iubelt of Tamaroa.
The body of the fallen soldier was flown into Scott Air Force Base on Monday morning, where Iubelt's wife, parents and other family members received his remains. Iubelt, another soldier and two contract workers were killed by a suicide bomber on Nov. 12 at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan; the Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Iubelt's body was placed in a hearse from Searby Funeral Home for the dignified transport, the procession, from Scott AFB to Du Quoin, where his services are set for Wednesday.
Along the way, friends, law enforcement and first responders, military colleagues and other supporters lined the route to salute, wave flags and quietly pay their respects — from inside and outside Scott Air Force Base, to Nashville, on to Tamaroa and finally, Du Quoin.
One of those paying homage, saluting the black hearse with a U.S. Army seal on it, was retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ralph Branham. He said he spent 21 years in the military, serving twice in Vietnam.
"(I'm) honoring this young man who just gave his life for this country," Branham said.
The processional was led by a Perry County Sheriff's vehicle and Du Quoin police car and fire trucks from the Nashville Fire Department and Tamaroa Fire Protection District and a formation of military veteran bikers, the Patriot Guard.
The motorcade made its way out of the O'Fallon-Belleville area, through Nashville, through Tamaroa and on to Du Quoin, where Iubelt's funeral will be held Wednesday. At spots along the route, people quietly watched as Iubelt's escort moved through.
In Nashville were several messages honoring the fallen hero.
Grace United Methodist Church's sign read: "Thank you Pfc. Tyler Iubelt; God bless you."
Down the street, a large sign on the front lawn of St. Ann Catholic Church read: "Thank you for your service Pfc. Tyler Iubelt. Our American hero."
A few more blocks down, the sign in front of the Nashville Community High School read: "Thank you Pfc. Tyler Iubelt."
On the grassy lawn of a home in a more rural stretch of Illinois 127 was an American flag with a large sign that grabbed attention: "Thank you Tyler."
The motorcade then made its way to Tamaroa, where Iubelt attended grade school and played on a junior high basketball team.
One school administrator said that when Iubelt was in eighth grade, some of the older students on the viewing route were in second grade.
"We just thought this was a learning experience for the kids, how we should pay our respects to those that sacrificed for us," said Cindy Opp, an assistant principal who also teaches seventh and eighth grades.
"The fact that Tyler left our little Tamaroa comunity and went across the world in the service — and, unfortunately, he won't be coming back home to us — and it makes us sad," Opp said.
"It brings up bigger questions of why was he there and why did this happen, especially to our older kids," she said. "It brings up discussions of why did this happen in our world. … We sure hope that they don't have to do this when they're older, that they don't have to face this with one of their classmates."
The procession then continued on to Du Quoin.
One of the most dramatic displays along the route was what looked to be a line of blooming cherry blossom trees; they were actually three miles of red, white and blue American flags, the Avenue of Flags of Honors.
On Monday, Chip Shaffer and Larry "The Flag Man" Eckhardt led 150 volunteers in putting up approximately 2,900 flags, on both sides of a 3.1 mile stretch leading into Du Quoin.
Shaffer said it was impressive to see the law enforcement, first responders and citizens along the processional route, especially in Nashville.
"We're Americans," he said. "They showed how proud we are of being Americans. It's amazing that when you get in the rural communities, that strong bond between America and the military and our families."
Iubelt is survived by his wife, his six-month-old daughter, his mother and her husband, his father and his wife, three brothers, his grandparents, and other relatives. One of his grandfathers died before him.
Visitation is 3 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Searby Funeral Home; his funeral is set for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at First Baptist Church in Du Quoin.
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