MAYSVILLE - The controversial Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest the funeral of Sgt. Jeremy Hardison this week, a move that has outraged the fallen soldier's family.
Feelings of grief have turned into anger, after the church known for picketing military funerals included Hardison's name on an online flier encouraging protests.
"Thank God for 18 more dead troops," the flier reads. "We are praying for 18,000 more. We will picket their funerals in their home towns in respectful and lawful proximity thereto."
In an interview Monday, Hardison's cousin, Brittany Allison, spoke for her family, expressing profound disdain over the comments.
"All of the soldiers who have lost their lives for this country deserve respect and honor at their funerals," Allison said. "If it wasn't for our soldiers, they wouldn't have the right to do something as ignorant as this."
There is now a movement to protect Hardison's funeral, along with the ceremonies for two other National Guard members killed in an Oct. 1 suicide attack. The Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization created to oppose the Westboro Baptist Church, have been in contact with the soldiers' families.
Allison implored anyone who could protect the funeral from protesters to help her family this week.
"I encourage [Patriot Guard Riders] to be at the funeral if they can to keep these people away," Allison said. "So that Jeremy and the other soldiers as well will get the respect and honor they deserve."
Hardison's funeral is set for Thursday at 11 a.m. at George Brothers Funeral Home in Greensboro.
A suicide bomber rammed his motorcycle into a crowded market Monday, killing a Maysville soldier along with 16 Afghan police officers and civilians.
Air Force Mortuary Affairs confirmed Tuesday Sgt. Jeremy Hardison, 23, of Maysville died in the blast. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in the Afghan city of Khost, south of Kabul.
Hardison's body, along with the remains of Sgt. Donna R. Johnson and Sgt. Thomas J. Butler were received at Dover Air Force Base Tuesday night. Air Force officials said Sgt. Johnson is from Raeford, northwest of Wilmington. Sgt. Butler is from Wilmington.
According to family members, the Jones County soldier attended White Oak High School in Jacksonville and N.C. State University in Raleigh.
In an interview Tuesday, Hardison's sister Justina said military officers told them about the blast Monday. The shock of the attack and the 23-year-old's death is still raw.
"I'm really hurt. He was my only brother," Justina Hardison said outside her family home. "I loved him. He was there for me through thick and thin."
Family members described Hardison as selfless, volunteering to go to Afghanistan when he did not want a friend to serve overseas alone.
"It just shows what type of person Jeremy was," said his aunt, Carrie Hansley. "He always thought of other people more than he did himself. And he wanted to be there to support his friend and that's what he did."
Hardison recently sent his young nephew a video of him reading from the "Cat in the Hat" over Skype. He told his family that he was originally assigned to work on water treatment projects, leaving relatives stunned that he was involved in a joint Afghan patrol.
"I knew he was going there to protect our country, but I didn't know he was going to protect higher ranking things like that," Justina said. "It's just hard."
The three fallen National Guard members are part of the 514th MP Company, based in Winterville. The Company left in June to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. All family members have been notified of the attack.
A Taliban spokesperson released a statement Monday, saying the attack was carried out by one man wearing a suicide vest.
"A foreign and Afghan force joint convoy was targeted [Monday] morning around 9 a.m. in the vicinity of the Khost governor's office, while the soldiers were dismounted in the area," the statement said.
Khost is one of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan, near the lawless region of Waziristan where insurgents seek refuge in the mountains. In December 2009, a suicide bombing struck a CIA base in the area, killing seven operatives and private contractors.