By Valerie Baldowski and Johnny Jackson
Thousands of mourners and residents -- grateful for his service and sacrifice -- lined area streets Thursday to honor Georgia Army National Guard Staff Sgt. John Beale, a fallen member of the 48th Brigade 1st Battalion, 108th Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition Squadron.
Beale, 39, a McDonough resident, was killed on June 4. He is the community's first soldier to die in the current conflict in Afghanistan, and one of three Georgia National Guard personnel who died from an "improvised explosion device and small arms fire."
Nineteen-year-old Adam Suwinski, a private first class in the National Guard, saluted as the solemn military procession carrying Beale's body left Falcon Field Airport in Peachtree City. Suwinski, who graduated from basic training in September, is a member of the 48th Brigade Bravo 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry.
"He really gave up everything, so we can have everything we have right now," Suwinksi said. "He gave everything he had for us."
The memorial procession passed through the McDonough Square Thursday, and concluded at Cannon-Cleveland Funeral Home.
Huge crowds began gathering as early as 6 p.m., although the hearse carrying Beale did not pass through until after 7:30 p.m. The hearse was preceded by a motorcycle escort, and followed by vehicles from the Hampton, Jonesboro, Henry County, and Clayton County police departments, as well as the Henry County Sheriff's Department.
Army Maj. Perry Jarman was there taking photos of the crowds on The Square, to share with the other members of the 1st Army at Fort Gillem. Jarman said learning of the death of another member of the military is always painful.
"It's always sad when we lose a soldier, but we know that freedom isn't free," he explained. "We take comfort in knowing that he died for a cause that he believed in."
Jarman stressed the importance of a strong turnout to honor Beale. "It shows the real cost of war," he continued. "The cost of war is blood, sweat, and the precious lives that our soldiers sacrificed on the battlefield."
Another military member on hand to pay his last respects was Army Capt. Scott Zechman.
Zechman, with the 3rd Medical Command out of Fort Gillem, said he was traveling when he heard the news of Beale's death. He was concluding business at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and flew into Atlanta on Monday. He arrived at the McDonough Square Thursday at about 6 p.m., and said he anticipated remaining on the scene until the conclusion of the event. A strong message is sent to the families of a fallen comrade when the military lends its presence to a funeral, he said.
"It's for their family to see that we care about the soldier, and we care about them," added Zechman.
Beale was originally from Riverdale and was an employee of the Clayton County Authority before being deployed. "John actually started with the Water Authority in 2000," said Kevin Osbey, manager of the Authority's Stormwater Utility Department and Beale's former supervisor.
Osbey's department was created in 2007, and Beale was transferred to that department early that year. "He was actually my first hire in the department," Osbey said.
Beale was the department's Stormwater Management Technician, and Osbey said Beale was instrumental in setting up its inspection procedures for illicit discharges and illegal connections. "John was a very organized, detail-oriented person," Osbey said.
Osbey and Beale worked together for two years, before Beale left in January for training prior to being deployed. Beale's wife, Crystal, also works for the water authority, and both graduated from Riverdale High School, where they met. "They were high school sweethearts," Osbey explained. "They got married right out of high school."
Osbey said his initial reaction to Beale's death was shock, sadness and surprise. He said he planned to accompany several other water authority employees when they claimed a spot near Lovejoy Park Thursday to watch the funeral procession go by.
A "large contingent" of water authority employees are expected to attend the slain soldier's funeral on Saturday, Osbey added.
Beale had been an at-large member of the American Legion Department of Georgia, serving the past five years with Post 400. "Our hearts go out to the families, and our prayers are with them," said Fae Casper, the state's American Legion commander. "So many of us have children or grandchildren who are on active duty. We hope for everyone to pray for our troops, and to be there as they are needed."
Casper - a 22-year veteran, who retired from the U.S. Army in 1994, and mother of a son presently serving in the military - says there is a common patriotism among military veterans. "The reason I gave 22 years to the country is the patriotism and the love for our country," Casper said. "It's our freedoms, and that's what we're fighting for."
Beale spent Easter Sunday at church before heading off earlier this spring to serve in Afghanistan, according to Tim Dowdy, his pastor of five years at Eagle's Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough. "He had a great desire to encourage them [children in Afghanistan] and share with them why he was there," Dowdy said. "He was also a guy that loved his military service."
Beale was also a military history buff, Dowdy said. "He was one of those guys who knew exactly what he was getting into when he went to Afghanistan, which highlights his courage," Dowdy said. "John was a great man with a tremendous love for his family and also children, in general. He had a great compassion and love for people and God."
Dowdy said Beale's body will lie in-wake today at Cannon-Cleveland Funeral Directors, at 2580 Ga. Highway 42 in McDonough. The viewing will be held there from 2 p.m., to 4 p.m., and again, from 6 p.m., to 8 p.m.
Funeral services will begin at 1 p.m., Saturday, at Eagle's Landing First Baptist Church, at 2400 Ga. Hwy. 42 in McDonough. Beale will be laid to rest in Fayetteville following the service. He is survived by his wife, Crystal, his 13-year-old son, Christopher, and his 8-year-old daughter, Calye.