WOODSTOCK, Ga. — For the third day in a row, thousands gathered in and around a church to honor a hero.
Some of them never knew Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells. They've read about him and listened to national news talking heads discuss his patriotism, how he was fearless and willing to sacrifice his life for his country. In short, how he was the perfect Marine.
But Wells also was a 21-year-old, the youngest of the group of five military servicemen gunned down on July 16 at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center. So those who knew Wells best didn't know him as a hero, not for most of his life. They knew him as a boy.
And so they gathered at First Baptist Church of Woodstock for a funeral Sundayafternoon, the ones who spent the night at Wells' house long before he become a symbol for youthful patriotism.
And they shared stories about a boy.
Even then, he idolized the military, saw men in camouflage the way a lot of boys his age see LeBron James and Peyton Manning. Wells loved to watch "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers." With his grandfather, he painted toy solders.
When his friend JarekQ Aloisio fell and injured his arm, Wells scooped his head under Aloisio's good arm and walked with him toward the house like a human crutch. Wells hollered toward his mother, "Medic!" and "We need morphine!"
As a boy, Aloisio said Sunday, Wells dreamed of playing in the Sprayberry High School band. He learned the clarinet, like his mother, Cathy. And at the funeral, behind the podium, the church orchestra performed.
But where a seat in the top right corner should be, a red Marine Corps flag stood on Sunday. That used to be Wells' place in the band.
Outside the church, though, beyond these intimate, childhood stories, a scene of capital-P patriotism carried forth. An American flag and a Marine Corps flag flanked Wells' casket, which itself was covered with another flag. A ring of flags also stood in front of the church's entrance. The drivers of about 100 Jeep Wranglers cruised down the road in front of the building, displaying their own flags.
And, between the church and the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, hundreds waited on bridges, prepared to wave more flags as the funeral procession passed.
About 500 Patriot Guard Riders joined that procession. During the funeral, the group waited in the July heat, discussing the route they would ride to the funeral with the police. And yes, many of the riders carried American flags.
The police escort included officers from Canton Police, Cummings Police, Holly Springs Police, Nelson Police, Cobb County Police and the Cobb County Sheriff's Department.
Inside, about 2,500 people attended the funeral. Lee Johnson came with other members of the Marine Corps League, all of them wearing a red sports coat and a red hat. Johnson served from 1965-68 as a regional data analyst in Kansas City.
He didn't know Wells but came to his funeral to pay respects, from one Marine to another. He thought back to his own time in the service, what he remembers about how the public treated servicemen in the 1960s.
"It's just good to show support," he said. "That's not something we got during 'Nam."'
Nearby, Yvette Pegues watched from an electric wheelchair. Pegues became paralyzed three years ago after doctors discovered a genetic disorder — the nerves in the back of her brain were too long, damaging her spinal cord.
When she heard about the attack in Chattanooga, she thought about all the military veterans she has met while advocating for more laws to protect people with disabilities. She loves those veterans, she said. She couldn't believe someone would target them.
Then, she learned Wells was one of the Marines who died. Pegues didn't know Wells, but she had seen him in the hallways of the church. And she had seen his mother. She thought of her, and then she thought about her own children.
She tried to imagine watching her own son's funeral. If it happened, she would want it to be like Wells'.
"In a hard way, it was beautiful to see him come home," she said. "His homecoming is a success. He died in service. He is being honored for his service."
From the lectern, 1st Sgt. John Coyne remembered his lance corporal. He said Wells was eager to learn, that he even followed Coyne to the bathroom to ask him questions.
When Wells was stationed in California, Coyne said, he injured his thumb while hammering a tent stake. Coyne looked at the thumb, cut and swollen. He told Wells he needed to see a doctor.
On Sunday, he recalled Wells' response.
"First Sergeant," he said. "I will not leave my gun. I'll refuse medical treatment."
Coyne looked up from the lectern, toward the other Marines, and Wells' family.
"That's the way he was," Coyne said. "He cared more about his fellow Marines and the mission than he did his personal safety. That's what he was doing July 16."
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.