LARGO — Leonard Leary had just limped beneath the overhang of the church's front entrance when the sound took hold of him. From a ceiling speaker came the sound of a bagpipe playing Amazing Grace. It stopped him. He leaned his head back and closed his 68-year-old blue eyes.
Leary, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, had driven 100 miles from Port Charlotte to Largo Saturday morning. He didn't know the young man for whom the song was played, but he knew what mattered: that his name was Matthew Sitton. That on Aug. 2 he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. That he was 26 when he died.
Hundreds of people — family and military members, friends and strangers — packed into First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks to attend Sitton's funeral. Sitton had grown up in that building and attended Indian Rocks Christian School, where he played football and baseball.
He met his wife, Sarah, at a Gainesville church camp in 2007, just weeks before his first deployment. For two years, they exchanged letters and packages. They fell in love and, on Independence Day in 2009, he proposed.
Nine months ago, the Sittons had their first child, Brodey.
The Army Ranger, a staff sergeant, was on his third tour when he died, just one month before his return home.
When the funeral ended, as reporters watched from across the street, fully uniformed military men with wide shoulders and square jaws carried Sitton's casket to an awaiting hearse.
One of them sobbed.
Sitton's family walked behind the hearse as it pulled away from the church and crept toward the nearby gravesite.
Army Brig. Gen. John Baker escorted Sarah. She wore a knee-length black dress. Her husband's dog tags hung from her neck.
Sarah's skin looked pale, and her eyes hollow. Her gaze stayed fixed on the road in front of her.
Back near the church's entrance, Leary held an American flag and stood still, saluting. As the procession disappeared from view, a distant bagpipe played once more.
Times files contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]