The morning sun pierced the fierce blue sky, greeting the stars and stripes as they emerged from the plane.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Jonathan D. Davis, 34, of Kayenta, rested in the casket beneath the flag he died defending, ready for the final leg of his journey home to the Navajo Nation.
The casket was lowered from the plane, and a small group, garbed in black leather motorcycle riding gear and patriotic patches, took Davis on their shoulders. The casket passed through a row of American flags held tightly at attention, and the honor riders placed his body in the hearse.
Stretched from Flagstaff Pulliam Airport and along the route to Tuba City, hot breath mixed with cold air. Hands were tucked into pockets to fend off the frigid morning.
Hundreds gathered Friday to pay their respects to one who had given his final measure of devotion to his country. Family, friends, area law enforcement and the Navajo Hopi Honor Riders escorted the Marine to a funeral home in Tuba City.
They passed flag-waving crowds strewn along South Milton Road and Route 66 from City Hall to the eastside. Students from the Tuba City Boarding School gathered outside to greet Davis' procession.
JOINED THE MARINES
Davis was the 14th member of the Navajo Nation to die in Afghanistan.
Davis attended Monument Valley High School in Kayenta and joined the Marines after his graduation in 1997.
He was survived by his wife and high school sweetheart, Helena, as well as their one son, Calvin.
In an obituary printed in the Daily Sun, his family said he was an avid fisherman and prankster, who was fond of teasing all those he cared about.
"He was one of the only men I knew who dreamt a dream and went out to accomplish it," his wife was quoted as saying in the obituary. "He was fearless and the most courageous of warriors."
Davis, a 16-year Marine Corps veteran and motor transport operations chief, was killed fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Feb. 22. The region is a Taliban stronghold and grows more opium than any other province in a country that produces most of the world's supply, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Despite eradication efforts like those under way by NATO forces in Helmand, opium production continues to grow dramatically in Afghanistan and Helmand.
A Marine spokesperson said that the circumstances of Davis' death remain under investigation.
He was assigned to Headquarters Battalion, 32nd Georgian Liaison Team, Regimental Combat Team 7, 1st Marine Division. He had also served during the Iraq War.
Among those who turned out for the procession in Flagstaff was Judy Nez.
Her son, Army Sgt. Christopher Neil Gonzalez, 25, of Birdsprings, was killed in Iraq in 2007. She is now a member of the Gold Star Mothers Club, which was formed to help mothers who have suffered the loss of a child that died in combat.
She says her loss is still fresh in her mind and she understands what Davis' family is going through. Because of different laws at the time, Nez was not able to have the same homecoming for her son.
"It is very hard," she said. "I never got to see my son taken off the plane."
The Navajo Hopi Honor Riders, however, were there for her as well, she says. And they still come out every year to help her memorialize her son.
"The honor riders are a big support," Nez said.
Flagstaff resident and Navajo Nation member Dan Russell, and several others who ride with the Navajo Hopi Honor Riders, said they thought it was important for them to show up and take part in the procession.
He said he thought Davis' death would have a major impact on the Navajo Nation.
"There's a lot of people in the Armed Forces on the reservation," Russell said.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer ordered flags at all state buildings to be flown at half-staff on Tuesday. Coconino County and the Navajo Nation did the same. Flags were also flown at half-staff at the California State Capitol because Davis served out of Camp Pendleton.
"The Navajo Nation mourns the loss of a warrior who gave his life defending freedom," Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said in a statement. "We are saddened by the loss of our warrior and we offer our prayers to the family during this difficult time."
Davis was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. He earned at least nine other medals in his military career in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Services will be held at the Kayenta Community Cemetery today at 10 a.m.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or email@example.com.