By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
On a warm and humid Tuesday morning, family, relatives, friends and soldiers said their final goodbyes to Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Austin, of Corbin.
Scores of people came to the Corbin Funeral Home to express their sympathies and to show support for the soldier who lost his life earlier this month while stationed overseas in Europe.
Austin, a member of the United States Air Force, was an Airman from the 435th Air Ground Wing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He was assigned to the 1st Communications Maintenance Squadron.
Austin was at a train station in Maidstone, England, located near the capital of London on Aug. 6 when he somehow came into contact with a live railway track at the station and was electrocuted. Investigators said the accident was not suspicious.
He was 25 at the time of his death and was with the Air Force for more than three years.
Before the service began at 11 a.m., the show of support for Austin was apparent outside the funeral home.
Several fire trucks from various departments in the area lined up in the grass off the parking lot to form a “wall of support,” in memory of the soldier and for the soldier’s family. As an extra layer of support, members of the Patriot Guard Riders came from far and near, with several of them accompanying the funeral procession to Austin’s final resting place in Harlan County.
There was good reason for the support and security.
Around 9:30 a.m., members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., sent a press release to the media saying their group would be at the funeral home at 10:15 a.m.
It turned out to be an empty threat from the church, a controversial religious group known for picketing funerals of American soldiers.
By 10:15 a.m., no one from Westboro was seen in or around the funeral home. Several units from Corbin Police, Laurel County Sheriff’s Department and the Kentucky State Police post in London were already in place, just in case.
“They do this all the time at high-profile funerals. Whenever this happens, they get on the Internet and make threats. They’ve never been in this part of Kentucky since the Sizemore funeral. Kentucky’s a different breed of people, and they’re not welcome,” said Danny Valentine, state commander of the Kentucky Patriot Guard Riders.
Since Austin would be buried in Harlan County, members of the Harlan Honorary Guard came to Corbin to accompany his casket. The honorary guard is a group of volunteer honorably-discharged veterans who provide burial service and a last tribute to those who served in the military.
Kerry Martin was one of the guard members who made the trip.
“We heard about the Westboro church bunch planning to come over here. We got some messages that they’d be here on our computer. I think it’s a lot of talk,” he said.
“We came here out of respect. We do it not because we have to, we do it because we want to,” added David Whitt, commander of the American Legion Post in the Harlan County of Loyall, who came along with the honorary guard.
By 10:30 a.m., concerns of the Westboro group coming to the funeral had greatly diminished.
Jean Scruggs, of Corbin, came with her husband to show support for Austin and his family. She gazed at the wall of fire trucks parked in the grass and commented on the empty threat.
“That young man served his country for their right to protest, and now he can’t have the right to be buried in private. He deserves the honor, not a protest,” she said.
Her husband, Steve, who formerly served with the Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Department, agreed.
“I can’t understand their doctrine of hate, and why they teach this to their children. It breaks my heart to see the support that the community has shown,” he noted.
A 2006 graduate of South Laurel High School and a member of the West Corbin Baptist Church, Ryan Austin married his wife, Jessica, on Dec. 6, 2009. He enlisted in the Air Force the following January, and worked in cable and antenna maintenance while stationed in Germany. Ryan earned nearly a dozen medals and awards in his brief time with the Air Force, and was remembered for his love of golf, cooking, learning and traveling.
Along with his wife, an unborn son, Brayden Kaine Austin, survives.
The boy will be born next month in Kentucky, according to a family friend, Christa Koeller. Christa, her husband and family lived across the street from Ryan and Jessica when they were stationed at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., before the Austins went to Germany.
In addition, his father, Doug, two brothers, a sister also survive, as well as scores of family and friends.
The funeral service was conducted by Pastor Daniel Carmack and ended around noon. About 20 minutes later, state police cars and Patriot Guard Riders motorcycles led the hearse down the Cumberland Gap Parkway.
Through Laurel, Knox and Bell counties, the procession went down U.S. 25E to Pineville. From there, it turned left onto U.S. 119 and made its way up into Harlan County.
Once there, the procession went to the Fields Cemetery, where the Honor Guard of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, conducted military honors for Austin.
His mother, who died earlier from cancer, and his grandmother, are buried at the cemetery.
At his final resting place, Austin was buried next to his mother, Karen.
Fire trucks line up to form ‘wall of support’ in soldier’s memory
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