ARLINGTON — Fred Phelps, a retired Army command sergeant major and founder of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, officials confirmed Friday.
“As a soldier who served the Army when his country called, Sgt. Maj. Phelps served our nation honorably and deserves to be buried in peace,” said Ian Wilson, an Arlington spokesman, in a written statement.
Phelps died of complications from AIDS on Wednesday at 11:15 p.m., according to a church spokesman. He was 84.
While known for his leadership of the Topeka-based church which often protested military funerals, many Americans were unaware of Phelps’ many years of service in the U.S. Army.
As war broke out in the Korean peninsula in 1950, then-21-year-old Phelps enlisted in the Army as a private, fighting in the Battles of Inchon and Unsan. Later joining the U.S. 1st Infantry Division as a combat replacement, Phelps distinguished himself in the liberation of Seoul with his battlefield heroics, earning him the Silver Star.
Following the war, Phelps transitioned from the active-duty Army to the Kansas National Guard, founding the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955 while continuing to serve until his retirement in 1970.
While a career Army man, Phelps clearly had issues with the military service he served for so long, eventually turning to protest funerals for troops killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
Often citing the latrine duty he was put on back in 1953, along with a negative performance report he received from a commanding officer he suspected was a homosexual in 1957, Phelps’ church sharply diverged from an uplifting Christian message of love to that of hatred for gays.
“That son of a bitch captain will pay, if not from me, then he’ll receive God’s wrath,” said Phelps, in a 1991 interview. “God hates prissy captains that try to fuck over enlisted folks.”