Friday, February 25, 2005

Final Tribute

I participated in a ceremony the other night to honor two soldiers that had fallen. It is called the "Patriot" detail and is organized by the Air Force to honor the remains of fallen soldiers being transported out of Iraq.

We met at a small building at the edge of the runway. It was about 9:00pm, and the wind was blowing bitterly cold. There were about 70 Soldiers and Airmen standing patiently awaiting instructions. An Air Force Sergeant came out to brief us that a flight was inbound to initiate the journey home for the remains of two soldiers that had recently died. He gave us a brief set of instructions, and we all stood silently waiting for the plane. Not long after, a C-130 landed and taxied toward our location.

I anxiously waited for some type of rehearsal knowing the importance of the event, but there was none. The group was a mix of volunteers from all over the post that had heard of the need for participation in the small but meaningful ceremony. With a single command the group formed two even ranks, and we began to march towards the plane. The engines shut down, and the tail of the aircraft opened.

The Load Masters prepared the ramps, as we approached the aircraft in two long lines. Once we were in place, the two lines stopped and faced each other. We went to parade rest and waited. The night air was cuttingly cold, and the openness of the concrete runway dropped the temperature a few more degrees.

As I stood there facing another Soldier, the magnitude of what we were there for overwhelmed me. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the row of Soldiers and Airmen standing motionless and silent. The light from the back of the aircraft extended about halfway to my position, and then the darkness took over. I did not know the identity of those we were about to honor, just that besides a ceremony at their individual unit location, this was another way to honor the sacrifice of two soldiers going home.

After a few minutes I could see three vehicles with flashing lights approaching the end of our formation. A few Soldiers exited the vehicles and after a brief discussion, we were given the command to come to attention. The back doors of the second vehicle opened, and the soldiers carefully secured the Flag-covered container within. As they began their march through our formation, the command "Present Arms" was sounded. Without any rehearsal, the group executed the command in slow motion to perfection.

As the flag slowly passed my position, I thought to myself that this individual woke up less than 24 hours ago with no idea that today would be his last here on earth. I could not help but think of the family. Had they been notified yet? How were they coping with the news? What impact would this loss have on them and the soldier's unit? The Flag-covered container was placed in the aircraft, and the bearers returned to the back of the third vehicle. They secured the second Flag-covered container, and with the precision of a practiced drill team, the group again came to present arms.

Once secured, the two lines faced the aircraft, and we all boarded to say our own farewell. A Chaplain read a scripture and said a beautiful prayer, followed by a moment of silence. The group walked silently back to the small building where we originally met, and everyone dispersed from there without a word. I was deeply touched by the way these two soldiers were honored on their final journey home. I've attended ceremonies at Arlington and at Fort Bragg, and although this ceremony was not meant to be their last, it was comforting to know that the military gives this type of care and respect for remains until they reach their final destination. The Military and its members truly honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

Take Care and God Bless.