Editor's note: The Commercial begins its Top 10 stories of 2012 with the No. 10 story on a soldier who died in combat.

Editor’s note: The Commercial begins its Top 10 stories of 2012 with the No. 10 story on a soldier who died in combat.

U.S. Army Sgt. Michael J. Strachota, 28, of Pine Bluff, was killed near Kandahar, Afghanistan, June 24 in a vehicle accident, leaving behind his wife, Lauren Strachota, and their three-year-old son, William Strachota, among others.

Strachota’s death touched a nerve in the community as residents moved to support Strachota’s grieving family and to honor the fallen soldier and his sacrifice.

Strachota’s funeral with full military honors was held at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, July 7, and he was laid to rest near Grapevine later the same afternoon.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., threatened to protest the funeral over their stated belief that the deaths of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen in combat are God’s punishment for being from a country that supports gay rights.

To counter the planned pickets, several hundred members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club assembled in front of St. Joseph before the funeral to act as a buffer between the Strachota family and the protesters. The protesters never arrived and the PGR as well as members of several other motorcycle clubs served as a rolling escort for the funeral procession as it made its way to Grapevine.

Strachota was posthumously honored by the Army with a presentation of the Bronze Star Medal during his funeral service.

U. S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Terry made the announcement that Strachota had earned the Bronze Star for his service to Operation Enduring Freedom at the conclusion of prepared remarks in which he paid tribute to Strachota’s service and his respects to the Strachota family.

“Thank God Michael Strachota lived,” Terry said. “Our lives have been made better and safer thanks to his being here. Michael J. Strachota will never be forgotten. We are here to honor his service. A few days ago we marked our nation’s Independence Day and remembered the sacrifices of those who have fought to keep us free. Only a small percentage of Americans serve in the armed forces, but Michael was one of those brave Americans. Michael was a soldier’s soldier. In the book of Isaiah the Lord said ‘who shall I send?’ Michael answered that call and said, ‘here I am, send me.’ Michael clearly understood the costs associated with freedom. He knew that freedom is not free.”

Strachota’s son Will was selected to serve as the Grand Marshal of the 73rd annual Southeast Arkansas District Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade Sept. 27. Will was accompanied by his mother as well as the soldier’s brother and sister-in-law Matthew and Katie Tole and the U.S. Army Casualty Assistance Officer for Arkansas who worked with the family after Strachota’s death.

As they did on the day of the funeral service, members of the Patriot Guard Riders escorted the Strachota family.

“I was just honored to get the call to do it,” said Richard Grimmett, president of the Arkansas Fallen Riders Association. “I got chill bumps when I was asked to be a part of the parade with Will in honor of his father Michael.”