Community rallies around soldier's family

Hundreds of people lined N.C. 49 in Harrisburg last week, somberly waving American flags as a procession of cars slowly filed down the road.

They came to welcome home - and to say goodbye - to Army Pfc. Christopher Barton.

"We couldn't be here without boys and girls like him," said Army veteran Ken Huster of Harrisburg, who clutched a folded flag as he watched a hearse pass by.

Barton, 22, of Harrisburg died May 24, just a week shy of Memorial Day, in Khost province, Afghanistan, when his unit came under attack by insurgents using small arms fire. He was an infantryman assigned to the 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Last week's holiday took on a new meaning for Barton's family.

"I've always been patriotic," said his mother, Elaine Schmiedeshoff. "But this takes it to a whole different level."

Since Barton's death, his family has been overwhelmed by the amount of support.

"It's a tragedy," said Barton's father, Roy Schmiedeshoff. "But everything that's happened after the tragedy has been positive. It's easy to be cynical about people but the outpouring of support has been amazing."

Flags placed by neighbors line the edge of the family's lawn at their Stallings Glen neighborhood home in Harrisburg.

One of their neighbors - a third-grader at Harrisburg Elementary School - recently asked the school's principal to fly the flag at half staff. Barton's wife, Heather Barton, received an e-mail from a teacher in Indonesia sending condolences. A Sunday school class at a local church made cards.

"I look at them and see their handwriting and pictures of little flags," said Elaine, gripping the bundle of brightly colored, handmade cards. "I can't look at them yet. I'll just cry."

They've also heard from soldiers who served with Barton.

"The support has been overwhelming," said Barton's mother. "Total strangers are dropping off things and leaving messages."

Friends organized a memorial after news of his death spread across town. His wife attended and listened as friends shared stories about the soldier, who was a Green Bay Packers fan and liked to play basketball with friends.

"It was really amazing to see," said his 19-year-old widow. "It was hard, but I'm glad I went."

Barton's family created a scholarship fund in his name, which will support wives of deployed soldiers taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College.

"We don't ever want him to be forgotten," said Elaine. "We won't ever forget him."

A service to celebrate Barton's life was held last Saturday, and he was laid to rest with full military honors at Harrisburg Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

Preparing for the service, Barton's mother flipped through family albums to find photos of her son.

"You couldn't help but notice his smile," said Elaine. "His smile was definitely contagious."

Heather lived two blocks away and met Barton through his younger brother Cory. They'd been friends for years but started dating just before he joined the Army.

"He finally got the courage to ask me out," she said, smiling. "I can't believe it took him so long."

Barton knew he was scheduled to be deployed when he bought an engagement ring - the ring his mother helped him pick out - and proposed to Heather last July 4.

The couple married at a small ceremony in October. They had been planning a big celebration after Barton returned. He was saving money to buy a house for him and his wife.

Heather still wears the dog tags Barton gave her when they were dating. "I love you with my heart and soul forever," they say.

Heather said she and her husband stayed in touch while he was overseas through Facebook and Skype, an Internet service that allows users to make video and voice calls. They were able to talk online for about 30 minutes before he left on what would be his final mission.

Within days, Heather came home to find two soldiers waiting to give her the news.

"I didn't believe it," said Heather. "I still don't believe it."

Barton's mother said she wants people to remember her son as a good man who was always there for his friends and family.

"I'm so grateful I had him for 22 years," she said. "But I will miss him forever."