Friday, July 04, 2008

Fallen Soldier

Another 4th of July is here and all across the nation, millions of us will celebrate in thousands of different ways.  Our military members around the world will miss out on hometown celebrations, instead, performing the duties assigned to them.  This story is in honor of them.

 

As a commercial pilot, I too see the effects of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Last month I showed up to start a trip and was approached by a gate agent.  “Captain, good morning, I wanted to inform you that we have H.R. on this flight”, she said.  H.R. stands for human remains.  “Are they military?”, I asked.  “Yes”, she said.  “Is there and escort?”, I asked.  “Yes, I already assigned him a seat”, she said.  “Would you please tell him to come to the flight deck, you can board him early”, I said.

 

A short while later, a young army sergeant entered the flight deck.  He was the image of the perfectly dressed soldier.  He introduced himself and I asked him about his soldier.  The escorts of these fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and with us.  “My soldier is on his way back to Virginia”, he said.  He proceeded to answer my questions, but offered no words on his own.  I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no.  I told him that he has the toughest job in the military and that I appreciated the work that he does for the families of our fallen soldiers.  The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand.  He left the flight deck to find his seat.

 

We completed our preflight checks, pushed back and performed an uneventful departure.  About 30 minutes into our flight I received a call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin.  “I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying, is onboard”, he said.  He then proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and 2-year-old daughter were escorting their son, husband, and father home.  The family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left.  We were on our way to a major hub at which the family was going to wait 4 hours for the connecting flight home to Virginia. The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable to see him was too much for him and the family to bare.  He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival.  The family wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken off the airplane.  I could hear the desperation in the flight attendants voice when he asked me if there was anything I could do.  “I’m on it”, I said.  I told him that I would get back to him.

 

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the form of email like messages.  I decided to bypass this system and contact my flight dispatcher directly on a secondary radio. There is a radio operator in the operations control center who connects you to the telephone of the dispatcher.  I was in direct contact with the dispatcher.  I explained the situation I had onboard with the family and what it was the family wanted.  He said he understood and that he would get back to me.

 

Two hours went by and I had not heard from the dispatcher.  We were going to get busy soon and I needed to know what to tell the family.  I sent a text message asking for an update.  I saved the return message from the dispatcher and this following is the text.

“Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you.  There is policy on this now and I had to check on a few things.  Upon your arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft.  The team will escort the family to the ramp and planeside.  A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family.  The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal where the remains can be seen on the ramp.  It is a private area for the family only.  When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted onto the ramp and planeside to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home.  Captain, most of us here in flight control are veterans.  Please pass our condolences on to the family, thanks.”

 

I sent a message back telling flight control thanks for a good job.  I printed out the message and gave it to the lead flight attendant to pass on to the father.  The lead flight attendant was very thankful and told me, “You have no idea how much this will mean to them.”  Things started getting busy for the descent, approach and landing. 

 

After landing, we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp area.  The ramp is huge with 15 gates on either side of the alleyway.  It is always a busy area with aircraft maneuvering every which way to enter and exit.  When we entered the ramp and checked in with the ramp controller, we were told that all traffic was being held for us.  “There is a team in place to meet the aircraft”, we were told.  It looked like it was all coming together, then I realized that once we turned the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay the family from getting off the airplane.  As we approached our gate, I asked the copilot to tell the ramp controller we were going to stop short of the gate to make an announcement to the passengers.  He did that and the ramp controller said, “Take your time.” 

 

I stopped the aircraft and set the parking brake.  I pushed the public address button and said, “Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking.  I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement.  We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect.  His name is private XXXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life.  Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold.  Escorting him today is army sergeant XXXXXXX.  Also onboard are his father, mother, wife, and daughter.  Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first.  Thank you.”

 

We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started our shutdown procedures.  A couple of minutes later I opened the cockpit door.  I found the two forward flight attendants crying, something you just do not see.  I was told that after we came to a stop, every passenger on the aircraft stayed in their seats, waiting for the family to exit the aircraft.  When the family got up and gathered their things, a passenger slowly started to clap their hands.  Moments later more passengers joined in and soon the entire aircraft was clapping.  Words of “God Bless You, I’m sorry, Thank you, Be proud, and other kind words were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out of the airplane.  They were escorted down to the ramp to finally be with the loved one lost. 

 

I never did see the family.  Another soldier died, another family grieved and we did what we could.  That is the way it works sometimes.  I get a call from the cabin and we work as a team to do what we can.  That day everybody from the flight crew, to the operations center, to the 184 passengers onboard, we did what we could.  Many of the passengers disembarking thanked me for the announcement I made.  They were just words, I could say them over and over again, but nothing I say will bring that soldier back.  I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this day and the sacrifices that millions of men and women have made to ensure our freedom, safety, and the right to live a good life.

 

Be safe,

 

FlyGuy.

52 Comments:

Anonymous Lenman said...

Outstanding. Thanks for posting and for doing what you did.

11:35 PM  
Blogger ProPilots said...

Thanks for being a great American!

Darren

4:00 PM  
Blogger Marion said...

I'm tearing up reading this inteh airport. Thanks for the post.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Mellentine said...

Unbelievable story. Please continue to share all aspects of a Captain's life, stories both funny (cheap bastards), emotional (fallen soldier), and all those in between. Cheers

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing that story. It was incredibly moving and reminds us all we have to be thankful for.

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remind me not to read these stories at work.

Thanks. I forwarded it along to some of my non-pilot, ex-military buddies.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Good Post

I have forwarded this to my good friend at work, he is a army vet.

He will be very moved.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous keith said...

Great post!

10:16 PM  
Blogger Roman General said...

While the family was going through an extremely rough time you gave them an incredible honor. You have honored every American life lost in the war for the past five years.

We owe our life, liberty and freedom to those that gave their all.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing that. Our soldiers deserve it to come back home in honor. If you can, please share this story with other fellow pilots at www.flightcrewnetwork.com.

Mike

10:43 AM  
Anonymous David M said...

Thank you

David M
Editor: The Thunder Run

12:03 PM  
Blogger lela said...

As the mother of a Marine and an Air Force pilot, I want to say thank you, so much, for your kindness to the fallen Soldier and his family. By honoring those who have given all, you've shown true patriotism. Thank you.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Garth Farkley said...

Thank you. I'm a old dog faced soldier too I'm choked up too.

7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fuckin-A.

thanks for sharing this.

i am moving it to everyone in my email address book, many of whom are Mideast Vets.

10:47 AM  
Blogger J.D. Long said...

I'm saluting as I write this; no mean trick.

Good job, sir. Good job.

~~JD~~
US Army, SSG, (ret)

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That makes me even prouder to be an American. I'm so glad that the men and women of our armed forces are being treat so well. It's a lot better than being spit on and called baby killers.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous sfcmac said...

Rest easy, Soldier.

Duty, Honor, Country

1:26 PM  
Anonymous savage_nation said...

Thank God for men like these.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous laurie said...

The flight attendants weren't the only ones crying by the end of the story.
Thank you for this post.

7:17 PM  
Blogger MMC said...

And may God bless you.
You did a wonderful thing.

8:22 AM  
Blogger suzierod said...

Hi, FlyGuy - This is your sister speaking. What an incredible post; it made me cry. I'm proud of you.

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing what you do, and for sharing that beautiful story! God bless America and may God bless all of our men and women who serve our country.

5:11 AM  
Blogger kt said...

google reader suggested your blog to me. This post definitely brought a few tears to my eyes. What a great story! Thanks for sharing!

5:32 AM  
Anonymous fyrfitrmedic said...

Damned eyes must be getting old, got a bit blurry for a bit...

Outstanding, sir.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Mom said...

I wouldn't have expected anything less from you.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watched an HBO special movie last night called Taking Chase!. made me stop and think about you. If you get a chance check it out. You are a true inspiration to us all.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous pfc shiff said...

from a soldier who has lost more friends than i can take, including my bunk mate from training, thank you so much, i was in tears by the end of reading this, people like you remind me that there is some good left in this world

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This retired Navy CDR is having trouble writing this due to the tears in my eyes. Thank you Sir for showing such respect to those who "Gave their All" God Bless.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

AS A VETERAN OF WWII, KOREA AND VIET NAM I SALUTE THIS AIRLINE CREW. I HAD THE TASK (HONOR) OF BRINGING MY BUDDY HOME FROM VIET NAM TO HIS FAMILY IN 1969 AND THINGS WERE A LITTLE DIFFERENT THEN. I THANK YOU FOR ALL THE FALLEN WARRIORS. GOD BLESS AMERICA LAND OF THE FREE AND HOME OF THE BRAVE. CMSGT LOU T

10:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this a confirmed story? I am a VET and was forwarded this one... if true it is a gret show of compassion to the family and a great final honor for the soldier.

My only question is in the details... where was the body being flown from that they boarded in one city (with the family) were stopping at a big hub and then were flying on to Virginia (or a city close enough to drive into VA)?

They do a damn fine job of precessing the remains quickly and getting them to their final resting place, so it is difficult for a family to get somewhere to escort them back.

Knowing how HR's are handled, it just isn't adding up for me. The author is under no obligation to clarify, just a curious soldier wanting to know.

Thanks

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the Captain was just assuming he died in the Middle East. Could have died here in the States training or something like that and was being flown east to VA.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Critical Alpha said...

Thanks for a great blog. I see such a difference between how people in your country feel about things like this and the way people in Australia do.
I've blogged a bit about the difference and I'd really appreciate your comments.

http://criticalalpha.blogspot.com/2009/07/patriotism.html

CA

5:41 AM  
Blogger marinemom said...

This Marine Mom would like to say Thank You for the kindness you showed to our Soldier and his Family.Our Soldiers deserve to come back home with Honor, and what a incredible honor that was. Thank You again,and May God Bless you and that Family.

Semper Fi

God Bless America!

6:22 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

this blog was read on the air this morning on KOA-Denver on the Mike Rosen show... very cool!

9:29 AM  
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2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story to make you think. Our soldiers need our respect wheather they be alive or deceised. They are the ones putting their lives on the line for us to have freedom, kinda like how Jesus died for us so we could be saved and have eternal life. Love it

4:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need more people like you out there! Our Military is the best of the best!!!!We need to show them how much they are appreciated. Although they don't expect it, they need to hear it!

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outstanding Sir! As a daughter of a retired military person and the wife of a retired military guy, thank you, thank you, thank you!

To all of the Armed Forces, active or retired - thank you for your service! You are much appreciated!!!

3:48 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

God bless you sir. It wasn't like that when my first husband, a USMC pilot, was KIA in Nam in 1969.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is so touching thanks for posting

4:16 PM  
Blogger RichardShatto said...

Thanks Fly Guy. I hope you don't mind if I repost this on my own blog.
RS

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you fly boy

RET CMSGT USAF

11:24 AM  
Blogger Leila said...

I cried ~ our son-in-law just returned home from a tour of duty in Afganistan - he walked off the plane into our daughter's arms! I cried for those who did not.
Thanks your for your part in hornoring one who didn't walk.

8:07 PM  
Blogger MADISON VA NEEDS said...

Thank YOU from the bottom of my heart for showing honor to the greatest Asset America will have, our Soldiers AND their family. When a soldier serves, his family serves with him. All gave some, some gave all. Thanks for giving all you could to share a great honor.

8:32 AM  
Blogger pastorleo said...

Thank you so much for making this available. It will stir many hearts to being thankful for what our military do for us. I am thankful for this blog and for you being a GREAT American.
Pastor Leo J Chaput

4:47 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

Truely amazing. I posted this on my facebook, hope you don't mind, Military men and women deserve acts like this for showing our thanks for the sacrifices they and the family's have made.

10:26 AM  
Blogger FirstFreedom76 said...

This just came to me via email yesterday. Thank you, Sir.

As a retired soldier, and having been an Escort Officer myself on two occasions, it is never an "easy" duty to work with the survivors of a soldier who has died. It is rewarding, personally, and an honor to perform that duty. The original text of the subject of the email was "May God Bless this Airline Captain". I agree. I changed the title to "May God Bless These Soldiers, Their Families and Those Who Honor Them".

First - honor the young soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to this country.

Second - honor the family members of the soldier who paid that sacrifice. I wish they never had to go through that experience.

Third - honor the Escort Officer - It is a very difficult duty to help deal with the famiy members' grief and to ensure due respect to the soldier who has died.

Fourth - honor the Captain, crew and company of the airline that went the extra mile to show respect for my fallen comrade.

Fifth - honor the other passengers who recognized the sacrifice and the respect they showed.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i lost my nephew in aphganistan....you have no idea what this means....thank you so very much......D.vanover

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son made his final flight last July and was treated like the hero he was, God bless you for what you all do for our military fallen.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Mike Golch said...

Fantanstic.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Anthony Sandoval said...

Best story I've heard and as a father of a marine I'm proud to say Semper Fi.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous North Phoenix Blogger said...

They read this story on the Elvis station on XM Radio on Memorial Day Weekend 2013 and I knew I remembered reading it here first! Gets better every time. Thank you for sharing.

9:58 PM  

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