On Sept. 3, days before sheriff's office officials announced Marine Staff Sgt. Cody Wade Smith had been killed in self-defense after killing his estranged wife's boyfriend, a retinue of motorcycles bearing American flags gave him a ceremonial funeral escort to his final resting place in Crossville, Tennessee.
Smith, 33, had an honorable 15-year military career that was cut short in what appears to be a horrific crime of passion.
According to official accounts, he was served with divorce papers Aug. 11 after returning home to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from a deployment to Europe. Some two weeks later, on Aug. 27, he came to his wife's new home near Richlands with intent to kill her and her boyfriend, 43-year-old Gregory Pearce.
Official accounts say he tied up his wife, Monica, fatally shot Pearce and set the house on fire before she broke free and shot him with his own handgun. Onslow County District Attorney Ernie Lee said in a Sept. 7 press conference that the county did not plan to charge her, as officials had found she acted in self-defense.
The tragic situation creates a philosophical dilemma: How does one honor a decorated service member whose life ends, not on the battlefield, but in the commission of a crime?
For the Patriot Guard Riders, a veteran-led organization of volunteers who provide thousands of honor escorts for troops' funerals each year, the lines are simply drawn.
David Westhorp, the Patriot Guard Riders state captain for Tennessee, told Military.com the riders attend funerals only at the request of family members. They accommodate requests with only one exception: if the deceased service member is a veteran who was discharged from the service under less-than-honorable circumstances.
That happens very rarely, Westhorp said.
"If we get a request, we don't go into a background check or anything in depth," he said. "We did do one [escort] for a veteran who died in a bar fight. And we didn't investigate whether or not he provoked the fight or anything else. The fact is, he died."
Westhorp said he had been made aware of the circumstances of Smith's death after the Sept. 7 announcement from the Onslow County Sheriff's Office about their findings. But even if he had had full information prior to getting the request for an honor escort, he said, the guard would have likely accommodated the request.
"We came to honor his military service, not whatever might have happened subsequently," he said. "We are not here to stand in judgment on this."
Smith's family, still reeling from grief and in disbelief about the circumstances surrounding his death, described him as an honorable Marine and a leader who had always wanted to be a Marine. Smith's father, Delbert Smith, of Smyrna, Tennessee, told Military.com he entered boot camp out of high school, just months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
A platoon sergeant attached to 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, he had completed 11 deployments, including two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
"He's been shot at, he's been blown up in a Humvee," Smith said. "And then for him to come home and to die this way, there's just, you never expect it to end like this."
Delbert Smith said hundreds of Marines who had served with his son at various points in his career had traveled to Tennessee to attend the funeral. Smith had been approved for promotion to gunnery sergeant, he said, and his new rank insignia were buried with him.
He said he didn't personally request the Patriot Guard Riders -- it's unclear who did -- but he was thankful for their presence.
"They were wonderful. They came out, showed up, paid their respects," he said. "It was a beautiful addition to the funeral. That's something that we will be forever grateful for."
Delbert Smith said a sheriff's deputy had called him personally and described the same account of the double-killing that was later made public. It's an account he said he can't and doesn't believe.
But even if the events of Aug. 27 unfolded just as described in the official account, he said they should not detract from his son's military service.
"Absolutely not," he said. "It has nothing to do with him and his service to the country. That's what bothers me the most."