WEST JEFFERSON — Melissa Strickland didn’t think that the last time she saw her nephew in October would be the last time ever.
“Being a soldier was his dream and he was very good at it,” Strickland said. “He died doing what he loved.”
U.S. Army Sgt. Dillon Christopher Baldridge, who was from Youngsville, in the Raleigh area, was one of three U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan on June 10 when an Afghan soldier opened fire in an attack later claimed by the Taliban. Baldridge’s mother lives in Ashe County.
Baldridge was a kind man, who loved sweet tea and making jokes and had a passion for the military, his family members said.
At his funeral Friday, hundreds of relatives, friends, military personnel, public-safety officials and community members poured into Ashe County High School to pay their respects to the 22-year-old fallen hero.
Most wore red, white and blue amid the hundreds of billowing American flags.
“Dillon was joy. I tried remembering a time he wasn’t smiling and I can’t think of a single time,” said Strickland, who sang at the service. “He lived to bring smiles to others’ faces. He did outrageous crazy things to make us laugh.”
Strickland thanked the veterans and Baldridge’s comrades in the audience, remarking that she saw her nephew in each of them.
Baldridge’s younger brother, Zachary, who is set to begin Air Force training in September, spoke at the funeral as well.
“I had the honor of being Dillon’s brother,” he said. “It’s tough. I thank all of you for your support, and I thank my brother for his sacrifice.”
Military members spoke at the service, noting that freedom is not free but achieved through the dedication of such people as Baldridge.
“No matter how hard, grueling or daunting the task at hand, Dillon would flash his trademark smile ... and inspire those around him,” Brig. Gen. Matthew McFarlane said. “He was always referred to as a true Southern gentleman. And a jokester.”
As if on cue, county singer Toby Keith’s patriotic song “Courtesy of the Red, White and
Blue” began to play unexpectedly in the middle of McFarlane’s speech. Efforts to turn it off failed.
“It’s Dillon,” his aunt joked, eliciting a ripple of laughter amid the tear-soaked ceremony as the song played on.
A motorcade led Baldridge’s casket through the town, where hundreds of community members lined the roads, toting American flags. Signs read, “Thank you, Sgt. Baldridge.”
Baldridge was buried at Ashelawn Memorial Gardens a day shy of his younger sister Isabel’s birthday.
Isabel, who turns 14 today, had each member of the family wear a glittering American flag broach in her brother’s honor.
Military and family members gathered as a horse-drawn carriage carried Baldridge’s casket up a hill to his final resting place. Rifles were fired in his honor, prayers were said, and the U.S. flag that had adorned his casket was presented to his mother.
Each of Balridge’s military friends took turns hugging his family members.
Baldridge had told his family before he left for Afghanistan that this is where he wanted to be buried should something happen.
“Dillon would want us to live and love like he did,” fellow soldier Kage Weinstock said. “He would want us to be happy, smile more, keep pushing to meet our goals, follow our dreams … and wake up every day to take on the world.”
Baldridge was scheduled to return to North Carolina in the next couple of weeks ahead of his July birthday.
Friday was a celebration of Baldridge’s life, family members said.
His aunt thanked the community for rallying around the family and the overwhelming love shown.
Strickland last saw Baldridge about eight months ago when he came to visit his mother and was baptized one night in the New River in 30-degree weather.
“He wanted to make sure he was right with the Lord,” Strickland said. “That brings us comfort. We know where he is and that we’ll see him again one day.”
Baldridge had dreamed of being a soldier ever since he was a young child, his passion for the military growing with each passing year, she said.
In 2012, he enlisted after graduating from Franklinton High School.
Baldridge — who had previously been stationed in Hawaii and at Fort Campbell in Kentucky before his first tour overseas — was posthumously promoted to sergeant and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge and the Army Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster.
He is survived by his mother, Tina Palmer; hifather, Christopher Baldridge; his stepfather, Tom Palmer; his stepmother, Jessie Baldridge; and his siblings, Zachary Palmer, Isabel Palmer, Ethan Baldridge, Lucas Baldridge and Shelby Baldridge.
“We’re so proud of him, you couldn’t ask for a better person,” Strickland said with tears.
“The sacrifice he’s made, he’s a hero.”