WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The charter plane touched down just after noon at Wilmington International Airport on Feb. 1, 2020. The casket inside, draped in the Stars and Stripes, carried the body of Army Specialist Antonio Moore, the 22-year-old who had lost his life eight days earlier in a rollover crash on his first deployment in Syria.
“I never thought he’d be coming home that way, because he was happy when he was getting deployed,” said Crystal Vereen, Specialist Moore’s mother. “He was telling everybody. He was knocking on neighbors’ doors that actually served (in the military). He was like ‘I’m going for my country.’”
Crystal Vereen had not seen her son in person since the night before his 346th Engineer Battalion deployed as part of Operation Inherent Resolve on Nov. 2, 2019. She had made the trip to Knightdale, NC, for the mobilization ceremony.
“We went out to eat, and I remember him sitting across and we were joking with one another,” she remembers. “I took him back to Knightdale, dropped him off. He walked to the building, and I was in the car, crying of course. He came back, knocked on the hood, opened the door and said ‘Mom, come here.’ We embraced, I told him that I loved him and I was proud of him. He was like ‘Mom, stand tall. It’s okay’.”
Crystal tried to stand tall on that cold, grey day when her son made his final trip home. But the emotions poured out as she approached the casket on the airport tarmac. Crystal, her husband Will, and Tony’s siblings gathered for several minutes before the casket was loaded into a hearse.
The family rode in a bus, escorted by motorcycles and law enforcement vehicles, unaware of the thousands of strangers that had gathered on streets between the airport and the funeral home. On that day, all ages and all races came together as a community, waving a sea of American flags to honor a life lost in service to country.
“Gosh, there was just lines of people,” Crystal says. “From old to young, from babies being in carriages waving flags, from other military, veterans saluting. I had to stop crying at that point, and we all just sat there, quiet, just looking out and through the tears, I had to smile and say ‘Wow!’ We all kept saying ‘Wow!’ They came out to support him, to welcome him home, you know, to show us love. When we came down Martin Luther King Parkway, I just wanted to stop and just hug everybody. It was like ‘Thank you! Even though you don’t know him, you’re here! You’re welcoming him home!’”
“He brought this town together,” said Will Vereen, Tony’s father. “They didn’t even know him. They came to rally around us, but they were there for him. That speaks to who he was.”
Strangers lined the streets again three days later, as a procession of vehicles wound its’ way from the funeral services to Specialist Antonio Moore’s final resting place. A military honor guard presented Crystal with the flag that had covered his casket.
“I never thought that I would be on the receiving end,” Crystal said. “You know, you see other families go through it. Your heart goes out. But you never think that someone will be handing you a flag. When I took the flag, I remember holding it close and I wouldn’t let it go. Because you’re proud that your son served, even though you’re going through your grief. It makes you proud.”
The support for Tony’s family has not stopped in the year since his death. Daycares and school groups have sent posters filled with messages. So have his classmates from Hoggard High School. Fellow veterans have sent military coins and mementos. They are keepsakes Crystal says the family will keep forever, tangible evidence of the lives Tony touched in his 22 years.
They wonder what the future would have held for the young man whose smile could light up a room, who was always there when a friend needed help.
“You wonder what his life would turn out to be,” she said. “He always wanted to be an FBI agent. He was going to school while he was in the reserves. He went into the military because that would help him to achieve that goal. So, you say to yourself “Would he have done it? Would he have children? Would he get married?’ You feel like you miss all of that now.”
Both Will and Crystal say the days have not gotten easier since their son’s death. They’ve learned to live with the loss. They remain convinced, though, that the thousands of strangers who showed up on that Saturday afternoon provided the strength needed to make it through the darkest days.
“They will never know how much it helped a mom, a dad, grandparents, on the worst days we ever experienced in my life,” Crystal said through tears. “They will never know how much it meant. I keep leading back to just ‘Thank you’. Thank you for helping this family rise up, and making us feel like we weren’t alone, and making me feel like we were all in this together.”