SPRING HILL — Westboro Baptist Church's plans to protest a local soldier's funeral fell through Wednesday after members moved their picket line to Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
Instead of facing Westboro Baptist signs, which typically say, "Thank God for IEDs," Sgt. Derek Schicchi's family entered the funeral flanked by two lines of waving American flags.
More than 50 solemn members from three organizations came to pay their respects, but also to create a barrier of flags and motorcycles between the Schicchi family and the expected protesters.
"No one deserves that disrespect," said Patriot Guard Dee Mills of Masaryktown, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2006. "That they didn't come is a good thing."
The three groups gathered around 8 a.m.
When the Kansas religious group hadn't shown up two hours later, Freedom Riders began planning their motorcycle escort to Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell, where Schicchi was buried on Wednesday.
Word of the protest emerged when the church, which has gained notoriety for protesting at military funerals around the country, published a flier online listing Schicchi's funeral details under the heading, "God Hates America & Is Killing Our Troops In His Wrath."
Schicchi, 27, died July 19 of an apparent gunshot wound while serving at Fort Hood. He was found behind a store in Killeen, Texas. Local police said there was no evidence of foul play.
He planned to deploy sometime in 2011, his father, Peter Schicchi said.
He described his son as full of life, a man who loved Ford Mustangs and dreamed of a lifelong career in the Army.
"I've lost not only my son, but my best friend," Schicchi said.
Schicchi was honorably discharged from the Navy and joined the Army in 2003. He served two tours in Iraq and received multiple accolades.
Westboro Baptist spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said the group chose Schicchi's funeral because he was stationed at Fort Hood, which she called "an epicenter of the military's evil and a portent of the nation's imminent destruction."
Kathy Kentta, a local organizer for United Protectors of Fallen Soldiers, said their organization goes to funerals across the country to shield families from Westboro Baptist's protests. Eight UPFS members attended Schicchi's funeral Wednesday.
Patriot Guard Dave Blatt, 58, said the members' first priority is honoring the dead. If their flags shield the family from the protesters, that's a bonus.
"As far as I'm concerned, those protesters will face one person when they die," Blatt said. "And he's the only one who matters."
Blatt brought a friend, Douglas Fox, to his first Patriot Guard gathering. Fox had a weathered American flag that once flew on the USS Stewart, where his stepson is stationed. Fox said he'll go again on Friday when the Patriot Guard honors a soldier at a Pinellas Park funeral.
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.