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Roy Exum / July 9, 2012

Texas A&M’s Wall of Glory

The overwhelming majority of the estimated 750 Texas A&M college students, all wearing maroon tee shirts, neither knew nor had ever even heard of Lt. Col. Roy Lin Tisdale when they reverently gathered outside the perimeter of Central Baptist Church in College Station on Thursday. All that mattered was that the highly-decorated Army officer was an Aggie and, in a final act, would be treated like a noble Aggie.

As we have learned throughout history, from the fabled “Home of the 12th Man” in the football stadium to the seven Congressional Medal of Honor winners during World War II, Texas A&M has a special aura about it. Last Thursday, after word came that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church would come from Kansas to scurrilously picket Lt. Col Tisdale’s funeral, it was as if the old Corps of Cadets’ Reveille bugler himself had sounded the call.

About two hours before the funeral services were to begin, the kids wearing their school’s colors started showing up by the dozens. From everywhere they came. One wore a maroon shirt that boldly said in white block letters, “Bring It.” Another student, his dreadlocks cut respectfully short, wore a shirt that more clearly defined the moment: “None Of Us Are As Strong As All Of Us.”

Silently and very quietly, this despite the broiling Texas sun, the students formed a long chain around the church property. They linked their elbows and vowed – with what will now be added to the university’s glamorous lore as “The A&M Wall” – that no hateful protesters from Westboro Baptist Church would get any closer to the church or to the university’s burial cemetery, the Aggie Field of Honor.

Our nation had already suffered one tragedy. Lt. Col. Tisdale, who was the commander of the 525th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, was shot and immediately killed at Fort Bragg on June 28 by an enlisted soldier from Kansas who had been accused of stealing a $2,000 tool box. If found guilty, the soldier would have been dishonorably discharged so, instead, he shot his respected commanding officer before turning the weapon on himself. He later died as well.

Roy Tisdale grew up on a ranch in Alvin, Texas, where he actively rodeoed and was remembered by his agriculture teacher as being on the leadership team and the livestock judging team. “If there was something going on, Roy was there. There was nothing he couldn’t achieve, nothing he wouldn’t do for anybody.”

At A&M he was an Aggie through and through. Upon graduation he was commissioned an officer and, in the years that followed, he did multiple tours defending the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, Meritorious Service, Army Commendation Medal and numerous other distinctions.

The Westboro Baptist Church, on the other hand, has been condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as “a homophobic and ant-Semitic hate group.” It has picketed military funerals in all 50 states because it leaders “believe that God punishes soldiers because of America’s tolerance to gays.” (Please note: Westboro is not affiliated with any organized Baptist denominations and has been repeated called down by churches and synagogues universally.)

Texas A&M, which will join Missouri as the newest members of the Southeastern Conference this fall, was described perfectly not long ago by Prof. John Hoyle (who once headed the Athletic Committee): “We believe the glass is half-full. We don’t engage in stinkin’ thinkin’. Aggies turn disappointment and failure into success. We learn that. Writer Mitch Albom said of us, ‘we are in love with hope.’ And that’s true.”

Ryan Slezia, a promising Aggie now in law school, got wind of Westboro’s plans and is credited with immediately sounding the alarm on Facebook. “In response to their signs of hate, we will wear maroon. In response to their mob anger, we will form a line, arm in arm. This is a silent vigil – a manifestation of our solidarity,” he wrote.

Lilly McAlister, one of the students standing with her elbows locked to those of either side, said in a hushed voice. “We are here for the family. We are positioned with our backs to them. Everyone has been told there’s no chanting, no singing, no yelling anything back.” And, understandably, there was little if any talking. It was in reverence for a heroic soldier and Aggie.

Nobody is quite sure if Westboro came or not but it was easy to understand why they wouldn’t dare show their faces – or get within 10 miles of College Station – if they did. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one Army officer who served with Col. Tisdale. “The line stretched all the way to the cemetery. People were waving flags, placing their hands over their hearts. I’ve fought in wars but I got goose bumps on top of goose bumps.”

Hundreds wept openly during the processional from the church to the Field of Honor. Again, there was no protest of any kind but a popular rumor was that not too far away there was instead a huge posse of leather-tough Texas Rangers (not the baseball kind) who were believed to have a strong affection for God, the United States military and A&M’s Aggies – in that order.

Lt. Col. Steven Ruth, a classmate of Roy Tisdale’s at A&M and a lifelong friend, was so overcome by the emotional outpouring that he even asked one attractive lady wearing a maroon tee shirt – who he thought might be close to his age – if she had ever known Roy Tisdale. “He’s the son of Aggieland, sir. There are no strangers on this road.”

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