by Denny Simmons
Evansville Courier & Press
Staff Photographer

A couple of weeks ago I was assigned to cover a funeral. A local soldier, Pvt. Jonathan Pfender of Evansville, Ind., was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Iraq. He was given a hero's send-off that rainy day. Besides those who attended the funeral service at The Centre, about 300 area citizens, many clad in leather jackets and riding motorcycles showed up to support Pvt. Pfender's family. Many of them veterans. Many of them not. Nearly all of them were there to remember a local kid who died while serving his country.

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Veterans and motorcycle groups joined together to show their support for the Army Pvt. Jonathan Pfender's family before his funeral service at The Centre in Evansville Tuesday morning.

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Area residents showed their resolve with American flags, motorcycles and group solidarity when a small group of extremists, upper left, showed up on Locust Street at the Civic Center Tuesday morning.

Now I said "nearly all of them" were there to support his family. About a week before the funeral, a Topeka, Kan.-based group, the Westboro Baptist Church, announced they would be showing up to protest the funeral. The group, labeled by The Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, has a past of demonstrating at gay funerals, but lately the group has taken their message of intolerance to military funerals. And it doesn't matter to them if the deceased was gay or not. They have enough hate to go around. Natural disasters? God's punishment. Victims of war? God's punishment. They're known for displaying thought-provoking signs at their protests with messages of "God hates fags" or "God sent the IEDs."

I suppose I could go on and on, but I won't. I just want to give you a feel for the situation I was supposed to document. My assignment was to cover the funeral. Another photographer, Vincent Pugliese, was assigned the demonstration, and yet another photographer, Justin Rumbach, was assigned the graveside service (although we later found out it was a private service). As you all know, photographing funerals is a challenge to say the least. You need to make pictures, but if you're like me, you are continually dealing with thoughts like, "how close should I be?" "is my camera too loud?" "when is a moment too private?" All of these questions and more were going through my head throughout the service, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Peggy Jo Hammond, right, and her husband, Jeff Hammond, second left, cheered on the Patriot Guard Riders as they rumbled down Locust Street on their motorcycles Tuesday afternoon. The group and many others joined together to show their support before the funeral of Hammond's son, Army Pvt. Jonathan Pfender who was killed in Iraq Dec. 30, 2005.
First I had to meet the mother and stepfather of Pvt. Pfender, Peggy Jo and Jeff Hammond of Evansville. We had done previous stories on her son and the upcoming protest, so I was familiar with his and their stories. However, it's not easy to introduce yourself to a grieving mother only a half-hour before her son's funeral. She made it easy on me and actually seemed happy to have me there. I explained what I would like to do and I would do my best to not be distracting to the people attending the ceremony. She told me to do whatever I needed to do and I had her permission. I've gotta say that was a load off my mind, but I still was photographing a funeral. And although she had given me her blessing, most of the security (Army and local law enforcement) weren't given that word, so each time I was stopped, I'd have to find Peggy Jo and she'd give me the all clear sign and I'd be on my way again

When I finally got inside the auditorium it hit me... this was an open casket funeral. Again the questions started. "Did she mean I should shoot everything, including her son in his casket?" "Should I shoot around him?" Well, I hunted down Peggy Jo one more time to ask her. Our newspaper, the Evansville Courier & Press, normally won't run a picture of a dead body, although it happens occasionally. I didn't get into that with her, I simply asked her if I should photograph her son.

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" played as Peggy Jo Hammond visits with her son, Army Pvt. Jonathan Pfender, 22, near the end of his funeral service at The Centre Tuesday afternoon. As a child he would often sing the song to her at breakfast.
She told me she would prefer I didn't and that was that. I tried to honor her wishes. I photographed the ceremony with mourners blocking him in the casket. I used flower arrangements to hide his face. I overexposed to blow out the inside of the casket. I did my best not to photograph him. But guess what? I did. It was inadvertent, but I did. Of course, it was THE picture. I thought so. My editor, Cecelia Hanley, thought so. The AME/Visuals, Kevin Swank, thought so. And, as I later found out, the Executive editor, J. Bruce Baumann, also thought so. Unfortunately, when I brought the image up in Photoshop, I realized I could partially see Pvt. Pfender's face. When I made the image I thought I had it blocked out by a fern, but it didn't hide him completely.

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Soldiers from Ft. Campbell, Ky., offered their services for the funeral of Pvt. Jonathan Pfender of Evansville.

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Comrades in arms offer a last salute to Army Pvt. Jonathan Pfender during his funeral service at The Centre in Evansville Tuesday afternoon. Pvt. Pfender was killed by an Improvised Electronic Device while serving in Iraq on Dec. 30, 2005

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Members of Army Pvt. Jonathan Pfender's family come together over his casket at The Centre Tuesday afternoon.

I called Kevin over to my monitor and told him the same story I just told you. I told Peggy Jo I wouldn't photograph him in his casket. Kevin and I agreed we should pick an alternate image (not as good, but workable). I decided to try and track her down through the VFW where they were putting on a dinner for the family and friends of Jonathan. After quite a few hard stares (I had my camera on my shoulder) from some folks at the bar after hearing I was there to see Peggy Jo AND worked for the newspaper, one of the waitresses offered to escort me into the banquet hall to see her.

She was there with her husband, Jeff Hammond, and about 10 or 15 other folks. Now interrupting her before the funeral was difficult, but this was just plain hard. I began by thanking them again for the honor of covering their son's funeral. An honor, by the way, nobody else was privy to. More on that later. I then told her I had a picture I wanted her to see. I let her know it was a picture that might or might not be published, but I wanted to make sure she was alright with it first. I need to add I never show my unpublished pictures to my subjects unless it's maybe an ID situation where there are a million kids and the teacher might help me out with a name. But this time I felt like I had to. Well, I pulled the black-and-white laser print out of my coat and handed it to her folded in half. She held it for a moment before opening it. When she finally did (with my heart pounding), she didn't say a word, but she began to weep. Jeff, her husband, decided he'd better take a look at the picture that was upsetting his wife and leaned over to get a look at it. This was the moment of truth. He immediately rose from his chair while staring me in the eyes and said, "I just want to shake your hand. Thank you." And he grabbed my hand and we shook.

After that the picture was handed around the group and there were more tears and stories were started. We talked and they reminisced about their boy who was born to be a soldier. It was during this time they shared with me something I hadn't known. I was the only photographer they gave permission to photograph the funeral that day. And trust me, it wasn't because they knew my work, I just happened to be working that shift that morning. It was another reason. They trusted us. And by us, I mean the Evansville Courier & Press. It seems those who did the stories and pictures before me, Bob Gwaltney, John Martin, Phil Elliott, John Lucas and Tom Langhorne, did a great job of building their trust. The Hammonds told me all of them were respectful and reported their stories accurately and thoughtfully. Because my colleagues handled the previous stories and pictures on Pvt. Pfender's death with dignity and truthfulness, they earned Peggy Jo and Jeff Hammond's trust. If not for those who went before me, the community would have missed out on Pvt. Jonathan Pfender's big day. The day he was honored as a local hero.

© Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press
Pvt. Jonathan Pfender's pallbearers transport his remains to the waiting hearse after his funeral service at The Centre in Evansville.

Denny Simmons

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