Slain contractor returned home

James W. “Will” Coker

Sarah Bates // The Post and Courier

The Joint Base Honor Guard carries Will Coker’s casket to the hearse at the Charleston Air Force Base on Wednesday morning. Coker, a Pentagon-contracted civilian, was killed Sept. 5 in Kabul.

Military personnel in dress blues and whites looked on as nearly two dozen family members walked onto the tarmac at the Charleston Air Force Base and over to James W. "Will" Coker's flag-draped casket.

They formed a circle so tight that, for a moment, the onlookers couldn't see the reason for their sadness at the center.

They took a long look, their first time in Coker's presence since he left for Afghanistan about three months ago, and then stepped away holding onto one another. Coker, 59, was scheduled to return home in a matter of days.

The beloved Mount Pleasant father and grandfather, kidnapped and murdered in Afghanistan, received military honors Wednesday usually reserved for fallen service members. But he wasn't a soldier, a sailor, an airman or a Marine.

Coker was only the third Pentagon-contracted civilian to perish in the past decade of war in Afghanistan. The U.S. Defense Department allows civilians who volunteer for the type of work Coker performed for his country to receive the same honors as those who served in the military.

Coker reportedly was abducted from a power plant near Kabul and possibly strangled or beheaded. Defense Department officials said the circumstances of his Sept. 5 death remain under investigation.

Wednesday morning, a white charter plane with Coker's remains on board took off from the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the U.S. military brings home all its war dead in a process known as "dignified transfer." The plane landed at Charleston Air Force Base as the sun burned off the morning haze.

The plane's pilot pulled down a ladder and then lifted out something black and wheeled.

A family member cried out. The black platform then folded up and into position to receive Coker's casket, to bring him back to Charleston where he will be laid to rest.

He leaves behind a wife, a son, two daughters, a stepdaughter and five grandchildren. He began a career in federal service in 1989 as a construction representative for the Air Force and also built houses locally. Before his Afghanistan deployment with the Army Corps of Engineers, he served as an engineering technician at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Africa, working for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

Bill Dean, who works with the civil engineer squadron at Charleston Air Force Base, remembered Coker as a man with a strong work ethic balanced by a sense of humor.

"We would be intensely talking about some problem that came up on a construction site and, whether we agreed or disagreed, we generally ended up laughing about something about it," Dean said. "He really lived out what he believed."

He believed in God above all else.

"He went on two missions when I knew him -- on personal vacation time and, I think, largely at his own expense," Dean said. "To me, that says volumes about the type of person he was." Some of his colleagues in Afghanistan who held a memorial for him sang "Amazing Grace."

Coker's body was returned to Charleston on Wednesday to the base where he worked for nearly 20 years prior to his more recent assignments. There, the honor guard escorted his casket to a black hearse.

A police motorcade led the hearse and Coker's family away from the base, while a line of military officers watched and saluted.

Coker's visitation will be held Friday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at McAlister-Smith Funeral Home, 869 St. James Blvd. in Goose Creek. His funeral service takes place there Saturday at 11 a.m., and he will be buried at Whispering Pines Memorial Gardens, 3011 Old Highway 53 in Moncks Corner.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or on Twitter at @allysonjbird.