McCHORD FIELD, Wash. (AFNS - 10/19/2011) -- I had an
unforgettable day that I want to share with you. I know we've all
sat around and discussed in detail why we do what we do, and if we
will be willing to continue to do what we do, day in and day out
through deployments, retirement decisions, job opportunities, missed
birthdays, missed holidays, etc. This is something I want to share
and you were the people who came to mind. It's another reason I
continue to serve. I guess because many others do and sacrifice a
lot more, some even their lives.
My crew was alerted on this
particular day that our mission had changed. We were now a backup to
a high-priority mission originating from Afghanistan. When I asked
where we would be going the answer was "back to the states." Later,
I learned our destination was Dover Air Force Base, Del.
was the aircraft commander for one of two C-17 Globemaster IIIs that
transferred back home the crew of a downed CH-47 Chinook. The crew
that started this mission in Afghanistan would end up running out of
crew duty day and need another crew to continue the Soldiers'
journey. We just happened to be available.
being alerted and going through our normal sequence, I found myself
at the foot of the aircraft steps. Before I took my first step
upward, I noticed a transfer case close to the door. I had only seen
one in pictures. The American flag was tucked smartly, folded and
secured on top. I paused at the bottom of the stairs, took a deep
breath and continued up with my mind and eyes focusing on making it
to the next ladder leading to the cockpit. However, as I entered, I
couldn't help but notice the remaining 19 transfer cases in the
cargo compartment. The entire cargo compartment was filled with
identical transfer cases with American flags.
I made my way
up to the cockpit and received a briefing from the previous aircraft
commander. After the briefing we exchanged a handshake and the other
pilot was on his way.
I felt a need to ensure the crew
focused on its normal duties. I instructed the other two pilots to
begin the preflight. I went back down into the cargo compartment to
see what needed to be done and to find the paperwork I needed to
The cargo compartment was now filled with numerous
people from the mortuary affairs squadron. They were busy adjusting,
resetting and overall preparing the cases for their continued
flight. Before they began, I asked who was in charge because I knew
there was paperwork I needed to sign. I finally found a staff
sergeant who was working an issue with the paperwork. After it was
complete, he brought it up to the cockpit for me to review and sign.
There are moments in life I will never forget. For me, they are
the days my son and daughter were born. Another occurred five months
ago when I had to deliver the unthinkable news to a mother that her
son was killed in Afghanistan; and, although I didn't anticipate
another day like that this soon, this particular day was another. I
looked at the paperwork I was signing and realized the magnitude of
the day. I glanced over the paperwork and signed. In a way, I felt I
had taken ownership of these fallen Soldiers. It was now my duty to
ensure they made it home.
After confirming the preflight was
complete and the aircraft was fueled, I went outside to start my
walk around. As I walked down the steps, a bus had parked in front
of the aircraft and unloaded 11 passengers. The passengers were
fellow SEAL team members who were escorting the fallen back to the
states. I stood at the front of the aircraft and watched them board.
Every one of them walked off the bus with focus in their eyes and
determination in their steps; just as I imagine they do when they go
on a mission. I made eye contact with the lead SEAL, nodded my head
in respect and he nodded back.
Finishing my walk around, I
stopped at the bottom of the stairs. I looked up into the cargo
compartment: two American flags and one SEAL Team Six flag hung from
the top of the cargo compartment. There were three of 20 transfer
cases visible; one with an American flag and two with Afghan flags.
I looked up at my aircraft and saw, "United States Air Force"
painted on the side, and I stood trying to take it all in. I wanted
to make certain that I never forget these images. That I never
forget the faces of the SEALS, the smell of the cargo compartment or
the sun slowly rising over the landscape. It's important that I
don't forget. We need to honor the dead, honor the sacrifice of the
I understand my role in getting these fallen Soldiers
home is insignificant compared to the lives they lived and the
things they did for our country. Most of it we will never know. All
I know is every American should see what I've seen. Every American
should see the bus loads of families as they exit the freeway headed
for Dover AFB to reunite with their fallen or witness the amount of
time, effort, people and equipment that go into ensuring our fallen
have an honorable return.
The very next day we took the same
aircraft back overseas. We had leveled the aircraft at our cruise
altitude and I walked down to the cargo compartment. No more
American flags hung from the ceiling. All the transfer cases were
Instead I watched a father lie with his son, cradled on
his chest, on the same spot that only yesterday held a fallen
Soldier. I watched a young girl, clutching a teddy bear, sleeping
quietly where the fallen had lain. I realized so many Americans have
no idea where the fallen lie.
I'm honored to be one who does.
By USAF Maj. Jacob Thornburg
Air Mobility Command
Air Force News Service
Comment on this article