East Ridge residents and their neighbors turned out along Interstate 75 on Tuesday lining the route of the funeral procession of Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith.
“It’s a sad day,” said an emotional Jeannie Melvin, whose father served in the U.S. Navy. “It’s a sad day for Chattanooga. It’s a sad day for Tennessee. God Bless this country.”
Smith was one of five servicemen killed during a mass shooting in Chattanooga on July 16.
An East Ridge Fire Department ladder truck parked on the overpass on Ringgold Road at I-75 flying the colors as a tribute to the murdered sailor from Paulding, Ohio. Hundreds of people gathered along the bridge waiving Old Glory and reflecting on the moment.
“I’ve come to pay my respects,” said Ethan Putnam, a 25-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan. He said he took off work to stand for several hours waiting for the hearse carrying the body of the sailor to pass by.
Putnam’s wife, Arica, had strong opinions about how something like the death of Smith could come about.
“Our military risks their lives by going overseas and serving,” Ms. Putnam said. “They can go armed over there but they can’t be armed over here. Little by little we are losing our freedom.”
People began gathering along the bridge and below on I-75 at 1 p.m. to watch the funeral procession which would carry Smith’s body from the First Baptist Church of Ft. Oglethorpe to its final resting place in Chattanooga’s National Cemetery. As truckers and cars passed on the busy interstate they would honk their horns in recognition of the flag and those rallying around it.
As the crowd grew and time drew near for the passing of the procession, dark clouds began to move in. When the lights of law enforcement motorcycles became visible to the south on the interstate in Catoosa County, a hush fell upon the entire area, as southbound traffic stopped.
Robert Murray, a U.S. Navy veteran, snapped to attention and saluted, as his wife stood quietly and his stepson held the Red, White and Blue emblem of our country aloft. Rain began to pelt the pavement as the hearse bearing Smith’s body cruised by with its motorcycle escort. The crowd remained motionless and somber as the rain fell and the hearse moved north on I-75 with the procession following.
“Once a brother, always a brother,” Murray had said some time before the funeral procession passed.
Murray, his wife, Amanda, and her son, Bradley Nelson had traveled up from Trenton, Ga., to pay homage to Smith.
“My father, Dale Delay, was a Sr. Chief Petty Officer in the Navy,” Ms. Murray said. “He served out of Norfolk, Va. for 22 years. This is one of the few things I could do to show my respect, not only for (Smith) but for my dad and my husband.”