Slain Marine Lance Cpl. Steve Sutton’s widow, Toni, and his father, Gene, expressed gratitude to the region’s residents for the overwhelming outpouring of support and love shown during the fallen Marine’s funeral.
LEESBURG -- On the the morning of May 26, when Toni Sutton saw three U.S. Marine officers walking up the sidewalk toward the front door of her house in Jacksonville, N.C., her heart stopped for a moment.
She then braced herself for the bad news she knew she was about to hear. But she still wasn't ready for it.
The Marines informed her that her husband, Lance Cpl. Steve Sutton, had been killed the day before by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast in Afghanistan's dangerous Helmand Province.
He was 24.
"The whole thing was horrible," Toni Sutton said Wednesday. "Seeing the three Marines coming up and waiting for the knock on the door, knowing they were going to tell me something that I didn't want to hear. I knew I had just lost my best friend; I knew had just lost my everything."
Halfway across the country, Steve Sutton's father, Gene, was visiting with fiancee Bonnie Stanfield's relatives in Windsor, Ill.
"My phone was in the truck, so they (the Marines) called my fiancee's phone," Gene Sutton recalled. "They asked for me and said they had some news about Steve. I asked if he was hurt, and they said 'It's bad, Mr. Sutton.'"
Special Thanks from the Sutton Family
The Sutton family offered special thanks to the following for their support:
Albany Fire Department, Albany Police Department, Albany Water, Gas & Light, American Legion Posts 30 and 182, Americus Fire Department, Art’s Signs, Backwoods Outdoors, Camp LeJeune, N.C., Columbus Police Depatment, Dougherty County EMS, Dougherty County Police Department, Dougherty County Sheriff’s Department.
Dover AFB, Eagles of America, Georgia Department of Corrections, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia State Patrol, Leesburg Police Department, Lee County EMS, Lee County Fire Department, Lee County Public Works, Lee County Sheriff’s Department, MCLB-Albany, MCLB Fire Department, MCLB Police Department.
Merry Acres Inn, Mitchell EMC, Patriot Guard Riders, SWGA Regional Airport Police, Turner County Sheriff’s Department, The Speed Shop andThree Squares Diner.
"I busted her phone up against the wall, then went out to my truck, got my phone and threw it into the woods. I spent some time screaming and laying on the ground. Me and him was pretty close."
Gene Sutton and his fiancee returned to Albany the next day. Toni Sutton's mother, Celia Senn, drove to Jacksonville and then both drove to Dover Air Force Base to accompany Steve Sutton's body back to Albany the following Friday.
"It was weird: The ceremony in Dover and the one after we got back home were almost like two funerals just days apart," Toni Sutton said.
What happened after that amazed Lance Cpl. Sutton's widow and his father, as Lee County and Albany banded together in a huge outpouring of love and support for the fallen Marine and his family.
"I was shocked by how people came together for us," Gene Sutton said. "I don't know how we will ever be able to thank the people for their amazing support."
While both communities pulled together for the family, Gene Sutton pointed to Bo Henry at Merry Acres Inn as an example.
"We had 10 Marine wives come down for the funeral to support Toni, and Bo offered to put them all up at Merry Acres at no charge," Sutton said. "We were really grateful for that, but it really happened everywhere."
On the day of the funeral, thousands of Southwest Georgians lined the cortege route from First Baptist Church of Leesburg to Crown Hill Cemetery in Albany. More than 240 Patriot Guard Riders from five different states and more than 30 law enforcement vehicles from 15 different agencies led the procession.
The entire 13-mile route was a surreal experience for the Suttons.
"It made me feel honored to be married to him; to look out of the window and see all those people, it made me see how loved he was by everybody," Toni Sutton said. "I was very surprised. I'd never seen anything like it, and it made me feel very good."
Gene Sutton had similar feelings.
"As we drove to the cemetery, I was looking at all of the people," he recalled. "The were folks in wheelchairs with cut-off legs saluting; there was an old man standing off by himself and he was also saluting. Then I remembered the day before when Harry Trawick and the Patriot Riders stood outside of the funeral home holding flags in the rain. When we turned off of Slappey onto Third and I saw that giant American Flag at the cemetery entrance, I lost it and I broke down. It was too much for me to bear."
Closure, they say, takes time, and Toni Sutton is still looking for hers.
"I haven't had closure yet because they would not let me view him," she said softly, her husband's dogtags dangling around her neck. "I don't know when I will ever have closure, but I do know he will always be a hero to me."