Hundreds Mourn Fallen Georgia Soldier

In Milledgeville, Ga., hundreds turned out to pay their respects to a small-town hero with a larger-than-life personality. Following two tours of duty in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Alex French IV, a member of Georgia's 48th Brigade, was killed in a suicide bomb attack Sept. 30 in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. Josephine Bennett of Georgia Public Broadcasting has this report.

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In Milledgeville, Georgia, hundreds turned out to pay their respects to a small-town hero with a larger-than-life personality. Following two tours of duty in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Alex French IV, a member of Georgia's 48th Brigade, was killed in a suicide bomb attack September 30th in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.

Josephine Bennett of Georgia Public Broadcasting has this report.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

JOSEPHINE BENNETT: A hearse-led caravan of more than a hundred friends and relatives slowly wound its way from the Macon Airport through 30 miles of country roads to the town of Milledgeville. Along the way, people lined the streets, saluting and waving American flags, after a local radio host announced that Staff Sergeant Alex French was coming home.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I'll be all right after a while.

BENNETT: The high school gymnasium where French used to shoot hoops was packed with hundreds of mourners this past Saturday. It seemed as if the entire town knew him.

Mr. BILL MASSEE (Sheriff, Baldwin County): He's a man who played sports with your sons. He was friends with your daughters. He went to our school. He ate in your homes. He grew up with your families.

BENNETT: Local Sheriff Bill Massee said the loss was personal. French was eulogized by his cousin Taculve Marshall Van(ph). He said as the family's sole surviving son, Alex - who he called my big cousin Al - could've stayed home from Afghanistan, but didn't.

(Soundbite of gathering)

BENNETT: French's sister LaQuita was among the dozens of family members and friends that spilled out of her parents' tiny house in Milledgeville and onto to the porch following the funeral. She says her brother began his military career in the Navy right out of high school, a decision that was inspired by his respect for uniforms and his love of the cartoon character Popeye.

Ms. LAQUITA F. BASLEY: He didn't like spinach, but he just thought Popeye was the epitome of strength, you know, and he was like, he was going to grow up and be Popeye and, you know, he became a sailor first.

BENNETT: After four years in the Navy, French realized he didn't like being on the water. So he came home and went to work as a prison guard and later as a local sheriff's officer. But his family says he missed the military. So he joined the National Guard. Another sister, LaToya, says despite her brother's love for rules and discipline, he was a big practical joker. She remembers when he was 11, he challenged their sister to a race.

Ms. LATOYA FRENCH: He said, on your mark, get set, go. So, LaQuita went racing around the house and he locked her out the door.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: And she started beating on the walls yelling and stuff, woke my mom and my dad up. LaQuita got in trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRENCH: Well, yeah, he was a jokester. He really was.

BENNETT: Above all, LaQuita said her brother will be remembered as someone who always put others first. She knows Alex would be happy that the three other soldiers in their vehicle survived the attack.

Ms. BASLEY: I'm proud of him more than sad now because now, I get it.

BENNETT: Staff Sergeant Alex French IV leaves behind a wife, three small children, and a large extended family. He is the eighth member of Georgia's 48th Brigade to die in Afghanistan.

For NPR News, I'm Josephine Bennett in Macon, Georgia.

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