By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published September 27, 2007
American flags lined Old Center Point Road, as the cadets of the Carrollton High School Air Force Junior ROTC stood at attention. And hundreds of mourners stood tearfully outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church as Sgt. Michael Hardegree was brought home.
The 21-year-old member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was killed Sept. 10 while serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. Hardegree died along with six other soldiers when the truck in which he was riding rolled over near Baghdad. His funeral Mass was held at his home parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Sept. 20.
The silence of grief outside the church was broken by the roar of dozens of Harley Davidson motorcycles ridden by members of the Patriot Guard Riders. Riders from across the country make up this group, which accompanies funeral processions of fallen military soldiers as a sign of respect and to protect the deceased’s family from any protests. Several police cars, with their lights flashing, preceded the hearse containing the flag-draped casket.
Inside, the church was full of those wishing to pay respect to the young hero who graduated from nearby Villa Rica High School just three years ago.
Father Paul Williams, pastor, spoke of Hardegree’s deep devotion to his country and his continuation of a family legacy. Michael’s father, Stan, as well as his grandfather, Thomas, both served with the 82nd.
“I was pondering this and realized that Michael was just 15 years old on (Sept. 11, 2001), and I had wondered if that had been his motivation,” he said. “But then I learned of both his father’s and his grandfather’s service in the Army. They were a great example to him.”
Celebrating the funeral Mass, Father Williams said, was a humbling experience.
“No one wanted to bring him home in this manner. We pray every day for the protection of our troops. Whenever I meet someone in the service, I always shake their hand, thank them and encourage them and tell them I will pray for them,” he said. “The last time I saw Michael was at midnight Mass this past Christmas Eve, and I did the same thing.”
As a child, Hardegree served as an altar boy at the parish, assisting the late and beloved Msgr. Michael Regan at Mass.
“Msgr. Regan loved Michael, and not just because they had the same name,” Father Williams said, telling the story of St. Michael the Archangel. “St. Michael is the one who said ‘I will serve.’ So I think Michael had a good and fitting patron.”
Though it’s never easy to send a young man off to war, Father Williams said, sending men like Michael give him a sense of hope for the future.
“We sent off a man, not a boy. We sent off a hero. We sent off a man of character, a man of honor, a man of duty and love and sacrifice,” the pastor said. “If men like Michael continue to step forward and say ‘here I am, I will serve,’ it gives me great hope for the future of our country.”
Hardegree served, he once said, so that his family would never have to see war.
“He tried to shield his family from the ugliness of war. But there were reminders—the picture of him wearing a T-shirt that his blood type was printed on, a picture of him with a gun,” Father Williams said. “The Gospel of John today says ‘no one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.’ That is indeed what Michael has done for our country and for all of us.”
The emotion-filled Mass continued as Father Williams incensed the casket and a member of the U.S. Army Band sang a moving song called “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” followed by “Ave Maria.” As the congregation processed out of the church, they sang “America the Beautiful.”
Following the Mass, attendees gathered in the parish hall.
Michael’s father, Stan, spoke of his son, whom he called a “keenly intelligent person.”
“He wasn’t the kind of person to wear his faith on his sleeve, but it was there. He was a guarded and private person—the kind to pray in the closet, as we’re told to. But his faith was there. He prayed. I know he did because he had a mission to accomplish,” he said.
Stan Hardegree said that he has been trying to help his son’s friends cope with his death.
“Several of Mike’s young friends are having trouble with God. They are angry that he was taken so young,” he said. “I’m supposed to be the grieving father, but I’m also trying to encourage them to meditate and pray and have a conversion. That’s what Mike would have wanted.”
Michael also wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and his family, including his mother, Cindy, and older sister, Beth Shaw, accompanied his body to Washington, D.C., for his interment Sept. 25.
During his service in the military, Hardegree received the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and the Parachutist’s Badge.