Residents from Tampa to Plant City waved flags or stood solemn at roadside today as the body of Army Sgt. David A. Croft Jr. was returned to his hometown.
A motorcade that included Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies and members of the military escorted the hearse carrying Croft's body from MacDill Air Force Base to Haught Funeral Home.
The casket of Croft, who was killed Jan. 5 in Iraq, was draped by an American flag.
"I'm glad I get to be here for this but I wish that he was walking off the plane not coming off the plane the way he is," his sister Robin Croft said. "But I'm very proud of him, very, very proud of David."
Croft, who is in the Air Force, was at MacDill as his body was taken from the plane.
Residents who stood along the procession's route in Tampa included Gail Hayes, a member of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 139.
"It's very important we support these men and women who are out there putting their lives on the line for us," Hayes said.
Army Staff Sgt. Brian Doore, who stood in uniform along the route, said, "Our unit felt it was important for us to come out here and support the fallen soldier."
About 60 people, some with American flags, gathered outside the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds to pay their respects to the fallen soldier. Several were employees or contractors at the festival.
"I could see David Croft's mother (Vickie) as the convoy went by," festival General Manager Paul Davis said. "She had the window down. She was crying but she waved at us, as if to thank us for being here. This community will always remember David's service to this country."
Other festival employees, including Sunny Smith and Becky Martin, stood near the festival's flag, which was lowered to half staff.
"Many of the people have come out on the sidewalk to show our support for the Croft family," Smith said.
"We also want to support all our troops fighting overseas," Martin added. "David Croft is part of the Plant City family. We will never forget him or the sacrifice he has made."
Carl Rupp, a contract employee with the festival, attended high school with the fallen soldier's father, the late David Croft Sr.
"This is a sad time for the community, Rupp said. "But we must remember freedom is not free. Somebody has to pay the price. And the biggest payment of all was paid by our young soldiers like David Croft and his family."
"My heart goes out to them," Rupp said. "But I want the family to know that this community will never forget them. I know I won't. I just hope that the people who live where he died appreciate how much these soldiers mean to us, and how much their sacrifice and service means to them."
Joe Crain of Wesley Chapel, who also was outside the festival grounds, said that his nephew, Marcus Griffin, was killed in action in Iraq two years ago.
"It takes a special kind of person to do what the soldiers and police do for our safety," Crain said. "The Bible says in Matthew 13, 'Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.' We would be at the mercy of the world without such love and sacrifice."
Croft, who was promoted to sergeant posthumously, was killed Jan. 5 in Baghdad, just before his 23rd birthday and two weeks before he was to leave the war zone.
A viewing for Croft will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at Shiloh Baptist Church, 1104 Cason St. His funeral is 1 p.m. Saturday, also at the church off Paul Buchman Highway, north of Interstate 4. Croft and his fiancée, Susie Clark of Brandon, attended Shiloh Baptist.
He will be buried at a cemetery in the Turkey Creek community.