SPRING HILL — First came the flier: "God hates America & is killing our troops in his wrath."
And now, its makers want to deliver their message in person Wednesday on Mariner Boulevard.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based religious organization that has gained notoriety by picketing military funerals across the country, plan a protest outside a local soldier's funeral.
Two local groups hope to shield that soldier's family from the WBC's picket signs.
"We will be there to protect the family from this indignity," said Kathy Kentta, a local organizer for United Protectors of Fallen Soldiers. "No grieving family deserves this treatment."
Spring Hill soldier Sgt. Derek Schicchi, 27, died July 19 of an apparent gunshot wound while serving at Fort Hood. He was found behind a store in Killeen, Texas, and local police said there was no evidence of foul play.
The Schicchi family declined to comment on Tuesday.
Members of UPFS and Freedom Riders, whose members provide motorcycle escorts at military funerals, say they will be at Brewer Funeral Home on Mariner Boulevard before WBC begins their protest at 9:15 a.m.
Two off-duty deputies from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office deputies will also be there, said Sgt. Donna Black.
"We do expect large crowds of people," Black said. "So we'll be ready for everything."
After a stint in the Navy, Schicchi was honorably discharged and joined the Army. He served two tours in Iraq and received multiple awards.
UPFS plans to form a nonviolent barrier between WBC supporters and those attending Schicchi's memorial service.
"We've got to get our folks together and get coordinated so we'll be ready when they arrive," Kentta said. "We've all got a job to do."
UPFS mobilizes local supporters wherever WBC protests.
WBC supporters, including children, typically line up across from churches, funeral homes and schools with signs that say, "Your son is in Hell" and "Thank God for IEDs."
Rev. Fred Phelps, the WBC leader, says military deaths are God's punishment for American tolerance of homosexuality.
Air Force veteran Susie Baruth started UPFS as a Facebook group about three months ago. Since then, the Facebook Causes page has garnered more than 1.1 million supporters.
If WBC follows the family to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, where Schicchi will be buried, UPFS will go too, Kentta said. She'll be in head-to-toe red, white and blue.
Vietnam veteran John Rinaldi of Clearwater will be in his black beret, with a 200-square-foot flag.
"We fought for our country," Rinaldi said. "If you want to protest your country, do it elsewhere."
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at (352) 848-3179 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.