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For slain military, Hillsborough deputies arrange the final escort

TAMPA — Their hands rose one by one, like a wave. Some saluted. Others held hands to hearts.

Inside a little blue car, following the hearse carrying her soldier son, Cheryl Sitton looked out at the hundreds of strangers.

They lined the streets of MacDill Air Force Base. They flocked to Bayshore Boulevard and packed downtown Tampa streets.

Sitton was overwhelmed. She lifted her hand to the window and tried to make eye contact with every person: The two little girls with miniature American flags. The suited office workers. The uniformed police and women waving homemade signs.

All had come to pay their respects to fallen Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton, and they had the opportunity because of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Since slain Army Spc. Eric Lembke returned in November 2009, the Sheriff's Office has offered an escort for every fallen member of the U.S. armed forces returning to the Tampa Bay area.

This week, they helped welcome home Army Spc. Zack Shannon.

For the Sheriff's Office, he was No. 18.

• • •

Four years ago, Sheriff David Gee watched a YouTube video. A modest group of deputies led a hearse through a small Midwestern town and down dirt roads.

If they can do it, why not Hillsborough County? the sheriff thought.

Gee has been an advocate for the military during his tenure as sheriff. He likes to hire former military, when possible. He's pleased MacDill is in his county.

His son-in-law is serving a second tour of duty abroad with the Army.

Gee is shy about the praise he has received for starting the escort. A year ago, when officials gathered to publicly commend him, he said, "I've got good people around me and they all support it.

"It's just the kind of sheriff's office we have — and the kind of community we want to have."

Before the deputy-led escorts, military at MacDill held dignified transfers for family members on base, as they do today. The casket is transferred from an airplane to a hearse. It is formal and somber and practiced nationwide.

But back then, when the hearse left the base, no one knew it held a soldier.

Every city needs a homecoming like Hillsborough hosts, Sitton said.

Seven months after her son's body returned from Afghanistan, she still cries when she thinks about the hundreds who lined the route, through Tampa and all the way to Pinellas and down Ulmerton Road.

"I wanted to hug every one of them," she said. "It was just the most unbelievable thing."

• • •

It starts with a call from the military. A soldier has been killed.

Slowly details trickle in about his or her homecoming, the date and time.

J.D. Callaway, the director of community affairs, is the Sheriff's Office's point-person, and he has fine-tuned this operation through experience.

The Sheriff's Office contacts the soldier's family to make sure they want the escort. The group discusses specific wishes, such as a route that would pass the soldier's high school.

Then the Sheriff's Office meets with law enforcement agencies from any jurisdictions they'll pass through during the escort.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has often helped block intersections in their county, and they're happy to do so, said Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. David DiSano.

"We feel like it's important to show our support for soldiers," he said.

Before the soldier's arrival, the law enforcement agencies involved drive the route in a practice run — traveling at the same time of day as the actual event to check out traffic patterns.

Then they send the details to reporters, so the public will know when and where to pay their respects. They also alert the Patriot Guard Riders and Green Knights, two motorcycle groups that join the motorcade.

Callaway also has a list of people he emails before each escort. It has grown to more than 100 over the years, as people ask to be notified in advance.

On the day of the escort, usually five Sheriff's Office employees take video recordings and photographs. A helicopter videotapes the motorcade from overhead.

About 25 deputies are involved, many of them on motorcycles. The Hillsborough deputies lead the entire route.

The cost is mainly deputies' time and gasoline, said Callaway, and it's likely in the thousands of dollars for each escort.

"That's not even a consideration," Callaway said. "We just get it done for the family."

Later, the video is edited and put on DVDs for the soldier's family and, if they agree, it is also posted on YouTube. The family gets a photo album, too.

Retired Lt. Col. Richard Lechowich hasn't been able to watch the video yet. His son, 1st Lt. Ivan Lechowich, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in September 2011.

The young man left a baby girl, just one week old.

Now just a year old, Natalie Marie Lechowich will one day be able to watch the DVD, and she will see that hundreds of people came out to honor her father.

"I hope," Richard Lechowich said, "that it will make her really, really proud."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

For slain military, Hillsborough deputies arrange the final escort 03/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 11:08pm]
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