Soldier's body returns home

Scott Hilyard

Standing at the corner of Jefferson and Husseman streets awaiting the hearse that carried the body of Phillip Pannier, the notion that everybody in a small town knows everybody else seemed less a cliche and more a cold hard fact.

Pick a person in the gathering crowd — any person — and hear a personal connection to Army Pfc. Pannier, the 20-year-old soldier who died last week in Iraq.

Played softball with his father.

Watched him play football in Eureka in high school.

Daughter graduated from Roanoke-Benson High School with him.

Worked with his mother.

Attended the same church all my life.

On and on.

"It’s a small town," said Pat Helsel of Roanoke, who wisely waited on a frigid morning inside a warm car parked in front of Knapp-Johnson-Harris Funeral Home. "This hurts really bad."

The Washburn resident was killed Jan. 8 in what is being described as an intensive, three-hour firefight in the Salad ad Din province north of Baghdad. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the military is also investigating whether Pannier and two other 101st Airborne Division soldiers died from friendly fire. The story also provided details of a massive, fierce battle against enemy insurgents who attacked the company with mortars, grenades and guns.

Details of Pannier’s death seemed to matter little to those who congregated along Illinois Route 116 in Metamora and Roanoke to somberly witness his return from war in a flag-draped casket.

"He was a brave kid," said Joe Mecagni, the commander of the Roanoke American Legion, who was remembering Pannier as a tough, undersized football player for Eureka, the school that allows the no-team Roanoke-Benson boys to play football with them. "He had a lot of heart and did a good job for his size."

The charter plane carrying Pannier’s casket arrived mid-morning at the Air National Guard Base located at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport. The black hearse was escorted the entire route to Roanoke by the Illinois Patriot Guard Riders, the police chiefs of Roanoke and Washburn, a Roanoke fire truck, Illinois State Police and the Woodford County Sheriff’s Department. A long line of emergency vehicles joined the rear of the procession at Four Mile Corner, outside of Roanoke.

Roanoke-Benson students were bused to the Ford dealership at the village boundaries to watch the procession creep its way down Route 116 toward the funeral home. Scores of American flags planted alongside the highway on Monday by Larry Eckhardt of Little York — a patriot who takes it upon himself to decorate towns in mourning in red, white and blue — grew closer together.

The hearse followed the curve in the road, its headlights flashing intermittently, then turned left on Husseman near the town’s IGA grocery store and the Veteran’s Wall on which is carved the name of every Roanoke veteran who served from World War II to the Persian Gulf War. American, Illinois and POW flags flapped at half-mast in a cold, eye-watering wind.

Hats came off. Small flags were raised and waved. Hands fell atop hearts. One woman held a cane with her left hand and saluted with her right.

The hearse pulled into the funeral home parking lot, then backed up to the front door as the rest of the procession fell in. Those who came to watch and honor Pannier drew closer as the six-soldier funeral guard from Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri slowly lifted the casket out of the back of the hearse and walked the few steps inside the front door of the funeral home. The detail will return for Friday’s military funeral service and perform its many ceremonial duties, including handing the folded American flag on Pannier’s casket to his mother.

Pannier’s parents, Donald and Robyn Pannier of Washburn, his fiancee, Jennifer Held of Metamora, and an unidentified little girl dressed in Army camo followed behind the casket and ahead of a large group of relatives behind them. They all disappeared from view through the doors of the funeral home.

The crowd dispersed quickly beneath a blinding sun that provided a cloudless blue sky, but zero warmth.

"It’s an honor," said a grim-faced 1st Sgt. Leslie Coleman, the leader of the funeral detail. "But it’s no fun."

Added Staff Sgt. Collette Jarvis, another member of the Army detail:

"He’s one of ours."

Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or at