Jim Sciutto: A Tiny Town Salutes Its Fallen

ABC's Senior Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto reports:

Today, the tiny British town of Wootton Bassett reached a sad milestone: the 100th time residents have saluted the return of fallen British soldiers from Afghanistan.

These powerful but unofficial ceremonies began two years ago when then mayor Percy Miles gave a spontaneous salute as he watched the coffins go by, on their way from nearby RAF Lyneham (where bodies arrive from Afghanistan) to a military hospital in Oxford. Other passers-by followed suit. And as word has spread since then, people from all over the UK come to Wootton Bassett to pay their respects: young and old, veterans and non-vets. And with each death, the phenomenon has grown.

"I think Wootton Bassett takes the place of all of Great Britain receiving troops back home," fmr. mayor Miles told me this morning. "Everyone's really rallied around, they really have."

It is an extremely powerful event to witness. The crowd of hundreds grew silent several minutes before the hearses arrived. The church bells started ringing and then, with a single marshal marching slowly in front of them, the hearses drove silently by carrying the bodies of Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas and Rifleman Andrew Fentimen, who died in separate incidents in Helmand province on Sunday.

100 may not seem like a large number for the US (it’s actually more than 200 individual victims who have come through Wootton since, like today, they often come in groups of two or more). But for the UK, with only 9,000 troops in Afghanistan and an overall military a fraction of the size of America's, it’s a significant milestone, especially as public support for the war here has dropped precipitously.

Still, this story is less about the numbers than how Britain commemorates the victims. The phenomenon in Wootton Bassett has become a national ritual, covered live on British television stations and attended by people from around the country. As an American living in the UK, I'm conscious of how there's no exact American equivalent. The US public is kept far away from bodies returning to Dover. Here, though, it's a chance for British citizens to publicly pay their respects and express their thanks.

"I believe it's my duty to be here," veteran Cornelius Rooney told me today. "I really do."

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