|ALI BASE, Iraq, June 4, 2009 – It's 115
degrees Fahrenheit, and we're in the shade of an aircraft
silhouette. The wind is blowing steadily at about 25 knots.
It's like standing in front of a giant hair dryer.|
The weather forecaster says there are
gusts up to 35 knots. The wind is sending a steady stream of
sand and dust whipping across the flightline into the faces
of airmen and soldiers alike. There is silence, except for
Yet, we stand at attention in two straight lines, beginning
at the ramp of a C-130 Hercules. We're waiting to render
honors. We ignore the heat, the wind and the sand. We are
humbled by the presence of one of our countrymen.
Thirty minutes prior on this Sunday morning, the day began
very much like any other day, starting with physical
training then off to the group to get planes and people
moving. However, today I needed to get to the chapel for
religious services -- time for personal prayer and
Exactly three minutes into the service, the chaplain
assistant tapped me on the shoulder. “Sir, the command post
needs to speak with you immediately.”
“Damn,” I thought. “I just signed off the net five minutes
ago.” After saying a quick prayer, I went to the chapel
“Sir, we just got notified of an inbound ‘hero' flight, due
on the deck in 30 minutes,” the on-duty emergency action
controller said. “It was diverted in flight by the Combined
Air Operations Center, and they're here to take a soldier
home.” I asked if the brigade and garrison commands had been
notified. Our installation is a joint base, and the
respective service usually handles all the coordination.
“Sir, they've been notified; however, we're unsure if
they'll have a team in place,” the EAC said. I said I'd be
on the flightline ramp in 10 minutes.
Waiting on the ramp were three soldiers from the brigade
mortuary affairs platoon. They had prepared the remains of a
young soldier, killed the day before, for transport.
Moreover, they were tired, having worked throughout the
night to get him ready for his final journey.
The weather forecast indicated deteriorating conditions. The
crew needed to be off the ground in 15 minutes to beat the
weather, but would wait as long as possible. It was time to
act quickly to get this soldier home – but with the honor he
Calling over the radio net, I asked a base chaplain to come
quickly to the ramp. The aircrew was reconfiguring the
aircraft to receive the fallen soldier. Several airmen from
the terminal were nearby. I gathered them together and
briefed them on the situation.
The chaplain pulled up; this was his first ‘hero' flight. We
didn't know the soldier's faith; the Army mortuary affairs
team had only a name and unit. It didn't matter, because the
chaplain knew exactly what needed to be done. Chaplains
endeavor to meet the religious needs of every servicemember,
regardless of faith.
“Group! Present arms!” Twenty arms rise simultaneously and
hold the first of a series of final salutes to the soldier.
The flag-draped casket, carried by three airmen and three
soldiers, passes by silently and solemnly. The chaplain
follows slowly, saying prayers as he walks. The pallbearers
place the casket gently in the hold of the aircraft.
“Order arms!” Twenty arms slowly drop. The chaplain remains,
continuing to say prayers for the soldier, his family, his
friends and his comrades in arms. We pray silently to
ourselves for this young man, who is far from home and away
from those who know him and who are grieving their loss.
“Group! Dismissed!” The small formation takes a step back,
does an about face, and marches off silently. I thank the
crew for allowing us to take the time to render honors to
this fallen soldier.
As airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines, we routinely
endure hardship and sacrifice on behalf of our countrymen.
Unlike any other profession, ours comes with the realization
that we may pay the ultimate sacrifice thousands of miles
away from home, in a foreign land. We are duty- and
honor-bound to do whatever we must to protect and ensure the
freedoms of our citizens.
When one of our own makes that final, ultimate sacrifice, we
must do everything we can to make sure he or she is given
the highest level of honor and respect. Nothing interferes
with that obligation. That is why – despite the heat, the
sand and the wind – we gathered on a flightline in southern
Iraq. It is what needed to be done for a soldier who paid
the ultimate sacrifice – one who met a “higher calling.”