They came from all over to pay their respects.
Dressed in black formal wear or olive dress uniforms, denim and leather or T-shirts and sandals, clutching American flags or holding up homemade signs, they came Saturday to honor the first Forsyth County soldier killed in combat since the Vietnam War.
Hundreds of people stood silently along a flag-lined stretch of Dahlonega Highway in the sweltering midday heat as a hearse carrying the body of Army Cpl. Matthew Phillips rolled up to the Coal Mountain Baptist Church.
The procession was escorted by sheriff’s patrol cars, state patrol units and leather vest-wearing motorcyclists flying flags from the backs of their Harley-Davidsons.
Active-duty soldiers in camouflage fatigues and white-haired veterans in dress uniforms of green, white or blue stood rigidly at attention and saluted as the hearse passed by.
“Matt is an example of all that is right with our country,” Brig. Gen. Tim Crosby said in his eulogy inside the church. “As a soldier, he will live in our hearts forever.”
Phillips, 27, died July 13 during a battle with Taliban militants in the eastern Afghanistan province of Kunar.
The Rev. Danny Bennett quoted Scripture that Phillips had written down before entering the military, from Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
“He’s with God today,” Bennett said. “He fought a good fight, he kept the faith, he finished his course.”
Crosby said Phillips’ sacrifice exemplified the cost of freedom.
“Our nation is at war, and wars are fought on a grand scale,” the general said. “But they are won on a very personal, human level. They are won by soldiers like Matt, who selflessly go in harm’s way to safeguard our nation, our freedoms, our way of life and to help others to be free.
“Cpl. Phillips is one of America’s heroes, that gave everything so that those he loved, as well as his fellow Americans, could be free.”
At the conclusion of the memorial service, Phillips’ survivors were presented the three honors he was awarded posthumously: the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Good Conduct Medal.
At graveside, Army Chaplain Lt. Col. Darrell Thomsen quoted from the 23rd Psalm, from “a military perspective.”
“The Lord has been, and always will be, my shepherd forever.
“... where I dwell now, there are no enemies, in the presence of almighty God,” Thomsen said.
“Matt Phillips, I salute you,” the chaplain said in a firm voice as he stood in front of the soldier’s coffin. “I salute you because you stood the watch through the tyranny of terrorism. You valiant warrior, I stand with you and thank you. You stood the watch and gave your full measure of devotion.
“Take your rest, dear soldier, take your rest, my friend. Take your rest, Airborne.”
Seven soldiers then fired the customary three-round volley of shots from their rifles and a bugler played “Taps.”
An honor guard soldier inserted three spent shell casings into the folded flag that had draped Phillips coffin before presenting it to Phillips’ young widow, Eve. The bullets — one from each volley — represent honor, country and duty.
The general knelt down to present a framed flag to Phillips’ father and offer his condolences.
Phillips served with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Platoon, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team for two years, including the last 14 months in Afghanistan. He was one of nine soldiers to die in the battle, just days before his unit was scheduled to leave the base.
Two others from Georgia, Cpl. John Ayers of Snellville and Master Sgt. Mitchell Young of Jonesboro, died that same day in Afghanistan.
Among the hundreds who lined the highway was Christine Hunt of Cumming, who brought along her three children, ages 3, 5 and 12. She placed a poster board sign with the words “Thank You Cpl. Phillips — God Bless” in the windshield of her car parked along the side of the funeral procession route.
“I wanted my kids to know what he did for us,” Hunt said. “He died for us, and we just want to pay our respects to his family and let them know that we thank them.”