FALLEN SOLDIER, THE REST OF THE STORY
My post, “Fallen Soldier”, received thousands of views this past weekend. I am writing this post to tell you what happened after that flight and some things I have just come to know.
After the family was taken off the aircraft, they were immediately escorted down to the ramp and the cargo door. I found out last week that the team of escorts that met the aircraft to assist the family, are employee volunteers. These employees come from all areas of the airline for the single purpose of giving a fallen soldier the honor, respect, and dignity they deserve during their final journey home. I am proud to tell you that the corporation I work for unconditionally supports the efforts of this group of volunteers.
They call themselves the Patriot Guard Riders and have all volunteer teams in Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, Norfolk, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. The Atlanta team has special jumpsuits made by a uniform supplier, displaying a military seal on the back. The team members render honors along with the military escorts and pay last respects to deceased service men and women as they are transported through the airport. Most volunteers are former service men and women or have family who are or were in the military. They have flags and when possible present a commemorative medallion on behalf of my company to the soldier’s family with the inscription: “We will not forget their sacrifice.”
I found this quote on the company's employee website, written by the senior vice president of customer service. I have replaced names with the letter “X”, to remain anonymous in my writing. “Were proud of our honor guard volunteers who represent XXXXX in paying special honors to the men and women who have served our country. The ceremony is not only meaningful to the families, but for everyone who has the privilege of seeing it.”
The article on the website was about the return of U.S Air Force Capt. Lorenza Conner, a pilot killed when he was shot down in Vietnam, in 1967. According to the article, his remains were discovered and identified last year. Apparently Capt Conner is a Georgia native and his remains were returning home for burial. One of our pilots, a Vietnam vet himself, piloted the last leg home from Honolulu. One of the Guard Riders was quoted, “I am doing this in part as a XXXXX employee, but I ride escort as a Ride Captain with the Patriot Guard Riders, escorting fallen soldiers home during funeral services.” Some of these volunteers use their free time to ride along with the remains to their final destination, all the way to burial.
I must throw in a thumbs up for the countless flight attendants who go out of their way to thank every service member in uniform as they exit the aircraft upon arrival. I listen to boarding announcements where along with the normal words, a statement is made to the cabin that there are military members on board today and that their service is appreciated.
Back to the family and their journey home with their son, husband and father. The team escorted the family to the cargo hold. After thanking the rest of the passengers, I proceeded to the pilot lounge as I had a couple of hours to go before my next flight. The lounge is a large area with computers, lockers, tables, chairs, etc. There normally is a lot of traffic there. I saw a friend of mine who was in my original training class twenty years ago. I have always liked Dave, he and I have bantered back and forth for years.
You see, Dave was a fighter pilot and I flew the heavy cargo planes. Dave was a dashing young fighter pilot in the day, crazy as they come and damn good at what he did. He taught fighter pilots, how to teach fighter pilots. His weapon of choice was the F-16. I flew cargo all over the world; doing some things I will never be able to tell you. My weapon of choice was a small Swiss army knife. It could open a can of beefaroni or a bottle of beer. My mission was to constantly seek the ultimate beaches, rivers, ice fields, and other naturally spectacular places, wherever I went.
Although Dave was an Air Force pilot, he managed to learn to swear like a sailor. Dave is now in his fifties and I can attest to the simple fact that he has officially made the transition to being a loud and crusty old fighter pilot. I had not seen him in a while so I walked up and pinched his left nipple as hard as I could. “Jesus, you dumb bastard, let me kick you in the nuts!”, he said, while not one other pilot bothered to look our way. “Hey, I was just making sure you were still alive. That stupid ass grin you keep on that pasty white sheet, you call a face, makes you look like a mannequin”, I said. And so it goes for a few minutes. We finally settle down and catch up on life, his in Florida, mine in California. I asked him if he had time to get a bite to eat. He said, “Yeah, I don’t sign in for a few hours, I work a flight to Norfolk at 4:30.”
“Norfolk!” I said. “Is it flight XXXX?” I said. Dave was flying the soldier home on his last leg. I proceeded to tell Dave what had happened on my flight. At one point, Dave flushed crimson red, and then tears welled up in his eyes. “Fuck, I cry like a god damn baby every time I hear stories like that”, he said. “Well listen up soldier, you have the honor of taking him home and I have a mission for you”, I said. We talked a bit longer and I had to leave. Dave knew the family was going to be escorted back down to the cargo hold to watch the soldiers’ remains be put aboard his aircraft. Dave was planning on getting to the gate early to introduce himself to the family and escort. He wanted to be standing with them outside, if the family wanted that. That crusty ass fighter pilot was on a mission and nothing was going to stop him from doing anything and everything he could for that family. They could not have been in better hands.
I have not seen Dave since that day. Somewhere down the road we will catch up with each other and I will ask him how the rest of that day went. In the mean time, the honor, respect, and dignity that our fallen soldiers deserve, will continue 24/7 at my company. I am sure other airlines have good people doing the same type of thing. As of Saturday, October 25th, the U.S. deaths in Iraq totaled 4,187. The U.S. deaths in Afghanistan totaled 549. Spc Deon L. Taylor, 30, Bronx, N.Y., Cpl Adrian Robles, 21, Scottsbluff, Neb. and Lance Cpl San Sim, 23, Santa Ana, Ca, who died this week in service to their country, deserve nothing less.