Sgt. Steve McCoy's final journey home began at 1:37 p.m. Monday inside a private charter jet, cruising at 27,000 feet above the country he died fighting for.
Two hours later, his flag-draped wooden coffin was carried to a waiting hearse by a U.S. Army honor guard from nearby Fort Gordon, as a cluster of family, friends and others watched in reverent silence.
"He laid down his life like so many other soldiers have done through the years," said Sgt. McCoy's aunt, Phyllis McCoy Giddens. "It's a heavy price, but freedom doesn't come without a price. In our country, we take freedom for granted, but it's not. Freedom has a price."
Mrs. Giddens was part of a family contingent that arrived just minutes before the Dassault Falcon 20 - operated by Kalitta Charters out of Michigan - touched down at Thomson-McDuffie Regional Airport. Among them were his wife, Tabitha, and the couple's twin children, Ryley and Landen, soon to turn 4. Also present were Sgt. McCoy's parents, Sam and Pam McCoy of Camak, Sgt. McCoy's brother, Eric, also a sergeant in the U.S. Army, Mrs. Giddens and her mother, Ann McCoy, of Warrenton, and Sgt. McCoy's in-laws, Steve and Becky Moore, of Moultrie.
"It was very moving, very touching and very honorable," said Mrs. Giddens, referring to the military ceremony held at the local airport for her nephew.
A final tribute
A full military funeral service is planned for 5 p.m. Thursday at Beggs Funeral Home for Sgt. McCoy, one last piece of military formality for a fallen soldier. He'll be laid to rest in McDuffie County's Savannah Valley Memorial Gardens - just a few feet from his grandfather, who passed away in January 2005.
It was Roland V. McCoy, Sr., a member of the 82nd Airborne during World War II, who first piqued Sgt. McCoy's interest in the military. It was an honor, his grandfather said, to wear that Army uniform and fight for freedom. Sgt. McCoy and his older brother, Eric - now an Army sergeant also - would listen to their grandfather's battlefield stories, and resolved to make the military a career.
Steve McCoy joined the U.S. Army in 2004, following his older brother into the service. Steve McCoy was stationed at Fort Stewart as a member of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.
Both McCoys eventually ended up in the war-torn country of Iraq, just a few miles south of the capitol city of Bagdad. They both completed successful tours there the first time around.
And they both returned to the region for second tours.
Steve McCoy's would end along a Baghdad roadside.
The end began with a jarring explosion, powerful enough to shred metal and kill men. It was Easter Sunday, and Steve McCoy was the only survivor of the five soldiers in the Bradley armored vehicle. He was pulled to safety by two other U.S. soldiers and a friendly Iraqi soldier.
But the damage had been done.
He was burned on more than 90 percent of his body. Within a few days, he was being treated in Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He stayed there until June 10 - just nine days after his 23rd birthday - when he succumbed to his war injuries.
A hero's welcome
Steve McCoy graduated from Colquitt County High School in Moultrie just before the summer of 2003 with a clear plan for his future: military and marriage.
He fulfilled both quickly. Sgt. McCoy married his high school sweetheart, Tabitha Moore, and the couple became the parents of twins just 10 months later.
On Monday, Ryley and Landen McCoy, now nearly four, held onto their mom as their father's casket was lowered out of the aircraft in Thomson.
Across the runway at the nearby fire station, local firefighters stood at attention as the ceremony unfolded. Closer to the aircraft, McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall and Thomson Police Chief John Hathaway - along with other law enforcement personnel - did the same.
And they were not alone.
A cadre of motorcyclists, called Patriot Guard Riders, was on hand to escort the hearse and family to Beggs Funeral Home.
"(Sgt. McCoy) chose to do what he did for our country and because he did, he paid the ultimate price,) said Bobby Byrne, of Marietta, who is a member the group.
Others who gathered at the airport on Monday didn't know Sgt. McCoy, but came simply to show their respect for an American soldier.
"It was heartbreaking,) said Sonya Hardin, who works as a secretary at the airport and lives in Dearing. "Words can't come close to filling the void the families of the soldiers killed in that war must have."
Thomson VFW Post Commander Milton Keene said he wouldn't have been anywhere else.
"This is one of the most honorable things we can do is to salute a fallen soldier,) he said.
For Mrs. Giddens, the outpouring of support was extremely touching, especially from those who had been through war themselves, like many of the Patriot Guard Riders and the VFW members.
"Many of them know what we are going through,) said Mrs. Giddens. "They have been there. Many of them have either lost family members or loved ones, too, during times of war.)
Meanwhile, McCoy family members are thankful for the prayers and support of friends and strangers - all who have offered a kind word in recent months. And they continue to rely on their faith.
"Without our faith in God, there's no way in the world we could be coping as well as we are,) said Mrs. Giddens on Monday night. "All of this was pre-planned by God.)