Honoring a Shelby County soldier

Hundreds of stars and stripes, patriotic signs and United States Marine Corps emblems paved a trail from Interstate 459 to Briarwood Presbyterian Church May 7.

Two ladder trucks from the Hoover and Vestavia Hills fire departments hoisted a colossal American flag several stories above the ground, as dozens of motorcycle-mounted members of the Patriot Guard Riders flanked the church’s perimeter.

Several hundred visitors nearly filled the church’s large sanctuary as the community paid its respects to fallen 22-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Rivers Jr.

Rivers, a Hoover native who was the first combat casualty buried in the Alabama National Cemetery in Montevallo May 7, died April 28 while on patrol in the Helmand Providence of Afghanistan.

During Rivers’ funeral service at the church off Acton Road, his friends and mentors and Briarwood Church officials described him as a mature, hard-working, team-oriented man who had looked forward to serving with the Marines most of his life.

“I see Thomas Rivers as a young man of dedication, a leader of men, a big team, little me kind of guy,” said Briarwood Christian School varsity football coach Fred Yancey, who last served as Rivers’ coach in 2007. “I knew God had given Thomas a great plan as a U.S. Marine.

“While some high school seniors have doubts about where they are going after they graduate, Thomas knew where he was going. He was going to be a United States Marine,” Yancey added. “I am proud that Thomas came our way. We are the friends he laid down his life for.”

During the funeral, Alabama government and National Guard officials presented Rivers with two proclamations from Gov. Bob Riley, a flag flown over the State Capitol building and the Alabama National Guard’s Distinguished Service Medal.

Dr. Mark Cushman, Briarwood’s pastor of pastoral care, called Rivers an “American hero,” and said the fallen Marine now “knows joy unlike any he has ever experienced.”

“More than anything else, he’s safe in the hands of the Lord,” Cushman said. “We might think Thomas has left the land of the living to go to the land of the dying, but quite the opposite is true.

“He has left the land of the dying, and has gone to the land of the living,” Cushman added.