"Where do we go from here?" Eugene Mills II, father of 21-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Eugene Mills III, said as he addressed hundreds of mourners at his son's funeral service at Grace Community Church on Tuesday.
Mills, who was scheduled to return home from his second tour in Afghanistan in August, was killed in combat in the country's Hemland Province June 22 after his five-person infantry team became involved in a skirmish in the province's Sangin Valley, his father said. Burial is scheduled for July 11 at Arlington National Cemetery.
"What we do is, we need to hug our kids, boyfriends, wives, husbands, girlfriends; be with our family members. Don't ever leave something bad because you never know what will happen," Mills, known as "Big Gene," said, holding back tears.
His son's casket, covered with an American flag, rested in front of Mills at the base of the podium. It had been placed there, in front of the weeping family, by seven Marines after slowly processing through the entryway under the American flags and stoic faces of members of Hogs for Heroes, a group of motorcycle riders who volunteer to honor service members who have died.
Mills said he considered himself lucky for having spoken to his son just three days before his last mission.
"I said, 'listen, take care of your Marines'; he was team leader, and that was more important to him than anything. Take care of his Marines, take care of yourself and I'll see you home soon," Mills said.
A somber Mills held a solemn and palpable pause before a long exhale of breath. He then looked up and introduced a video tribute to Gene, one he said would feature "some of the worst dancing you'll ever see," and managed to rouse some smiles and muddled laughter from the crowd.
According to Chris Knight, Mills' classmate at the Marine Corps School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, laughter is the response that Mills' would've wanted.
"What he would want me to tell you is, he would want me to make you all laugh," Knight said.
Knight, who named Mills the godfather of his first child, was one of many who shared memories and stories of "Little Gene."
"I had no idea what a real friend was until (Gene) showed up in my life," Knight said. "He's touched my family in a lot of ways. He was our family."
Mills' younger brother, Jake Mills, a high schooler who said he is planning on following his brother's footsteps and becoming a Marine, said his brother served as a role model and inspiration.
"I always wanted to be like him, he was always trying to be there with me. I always wanted to take care of Gene like he took care of me," Mills said during the service.
Commitment to serving and protecting
Before reaching the grounds of Grace Community Church in Fulton, the casket passed underneath a giant American flag raised by local fire trucks at the entrace to the church's parking lot.
In addition to family and friends from the community and local police and fire units, the service was well attended by members of the armed forces, including Marines who served with Mills on his two tours in Afghanistan. Throughout the service, Mills' commitment to serving and protecting this country and sense of duty were heavily reiterated.
"He was so motivated, I would say he was the most motivated person I put into the Marine Corps," said Staff Sgt. Dale Malone, who recruited Mills at the Columbia recruiting office.
Chief Ofc. Michael Hill shared a story of an interview with Mills where Mills revealed his motivations for joining the Marine Corps. Hill said Mills' reasons, which "caught his eye," were to protect his country, set a better example for his brother and make his parents proud.
"He said, 'that's all I need to make my life complete is those three things.' I can say without a doubt in my mind, he accomplished all three of those things," a breathless Hill said.
Mills' father thanked the Marine Corps for allowing his son to be a part of a brotherhood he cherished so much.
"Gene was a patriot, he loved this country. He was a family person to no end, he was just an all-around good kid whose life was cut short," Mills said. "Semper Fi."