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Tampa Bay residents pause to honor a fallen soldier

TAMPA — They came to honor him, though they didn't know him.

Air Force employee Michael Sparks leaned against the seawall in his military-issue fatigues. Bruce Johnson, 54, waved an American flag. And Bruce Matthews, a 78-year-old Vietnam War veteran, stood and saluted.

They were among a hundred or more who gathered along Bayshore Boulevard's sunlit sidewalk to pay their respects as a cortege carrying the remains of Army Spc. Eric Lembke home to Plant City passed by.

From inside the green minivan, funeral home president Edwena Haney saw the widow's tears. Mashelle Lembke wept at the homage offered her husband by dozens of people who lined Bayshore Boulevard and Channelside Drive.

Many made a point of being there. Others, out for a jog or going about their business, paused respectfully as the black hearse and escort rolled past.

Lembke, 25, was killed on Oct. 23 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department. His body was flown in to MacDill Air Force Base on Thursday.

At 2:30 p.m., a Falcon 20 aircraft landed at MacDill, carrying Lembke in a flag-draped casket. Dozens of military personnel stood at attention, only able to wipe away their tears after the 25-minute transfer of remains.

The ceremony was silent, save for the occasional order barked by the funeral honor coordinator, Sgt. Danny Paul. Lembke's 7-year-old daughter, Alexis, hugged her grandmother, and his 3-year-old son, Thomas, rested on his grandfather's shoulder.

Mashalle Lembke stood at the front of the group. When the honor guard removed the casket from the plane, she approached it alone. She pushed back her hair and looked down at the wooden box. Her sobs could be heard 100 yards away.

After the guard loaded the casket into the hearse, an escort of 15 Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office motorcycles and six patrol cars led the group to Plant City's Hopewell Funeral Home & Memorial Gardens.

Sheriff David Gee always offers an escort to the families of fallen soldiers, said Cpl. Greg Brown, and most accept. Still, the last time MacDill hosted such a ceremony was about two years ago, said Sgt. Bryan Gatewood.

On the way to the funeral home, the group passed Bayshore mansions, Brandon strip malls and Plant City strawberry fields.

At one point along the route through Plant City, the cortege passed a long line of cars waiting for a light to change. When some of the drivers realized what was happening, they got out of their cars and stood, watching respectfully.

As they arrived at the funeral home, about 25 people greeted them, including Carol Simmons, of Plant City.

She cried as they shared memories of Eric Lembke. They attended the same church, First Baptist Church of Plant City, and their daughters are friends.

"He's a hero, and I want my kids to know that," she said.

She remembers a man who worked hard at the now-closed Orange Blossom Tea Room in downtown Plant City. And she said he toiled over the restoration of what is now the Cornerstone Baptist Church, a historic church that houses a massive pipe organ.

That's where the couple married in March 2003.

"It was a beautiful wedding," Simmons said. "Real special."

Visitation will be today from 6 to 8 p.m. at Plant City's First Baptist Church, 503 N Palmer St., and the funeral will be at the same location on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Editor's note: The widow of U.S. Army Spec. Eric Lembke is Mashelle Lembke. A story in an earlier version of this story misspelled her first name.

Tampa Bay residents pause to honor a fallen soldier 11/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 6, 2009 7:23pm]

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