Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Honoring America's Fallen War Heroes

This message of Honor and Respect was sent to me yesterday by a member of Gold Star Wives of America as written by a Vietnam War veteran.  Let me share it with you just as  it came to me.

This Vietnam War Veteran  writes: My lead flight attendant came to me and said, "We  have an H.R. on this flight." (H.R. stands for human remains.) 

"Are they military?" I  asked.

 'Yes',  she said.

 'Is there an escort?' I asked.

 'Yes, I already assigned him a seat'.

 '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 still with us.

 'My soldier is on his way back to Virginia,'  he said.  He proceeded to answer my questions,  but offered no words.

 I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no.  I told him that he had 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 pre-flight 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 on board', she said.  She 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 four 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 bear.  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 she  asked me if there was anything I could do.. 'I'm on  it', I said. I told her that I would get back to her.

 Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the  form of  e-mail 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 on board 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 the 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 plane side.  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 plane side 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 X,  a soldier who recently lost his life.   Private X is  under your feet in the cargo hold.  Escorting him today is  Army Sergeant.  Also, on board 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 his 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  their loved one.

 Many of the passengers disembarking thanked me for the  announcement I  had made.  They were just words, I  told them,  I could  say them over and over again,  but nothing I say will bring back  that brave soldier.

I  respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this event  and the  sacrifices that millions of our men and women  have made to ensure  our freedom and safety in these  United  States of AMERICA .

Foot note:
As a Viet Nam Veteran I can only think of all the veterans  including the ones that rode below the deck on their way home and how they were treated. When I read things like this I am proud  that our country has not turned their backs on our soldiers returning from the various war zones today and give them the respect they so deserve. I know every one who has served their country who reads this will have tears in their eyes, including  me." 

On a personal note it was on February 28th, 1968  that Major Richard McDaniels assumed the duty to escort my husband, Captain James Eddie Reed (killed in action on February1, 1968 at Don Rach Cat, Long An Province, Vietnam) home to Kingsport, Tennessee.  

Major McDaniels began his duties at Travis Air Force Base greeting Eddie as he disembarked from his flight from Saigon.  They then rode rogether in a hearse to the Oakland Army Depot Mortuary where Eddie was further prepared for his final trip home.  Eddie and Maj. McDaniels then drove across the San Francisco Bay Bridge to San Francisco International Airport.  Major McDaniels oversaw Eddie's placement in the hold of a Delta Airlines flight and together they flew into Atlanta, Georgia.  Major McDaniel then made sure Eddie was properly removed and transferred to another plane for what they thought was the final trek into   TriCities Airport in Kingsport, Tennessee.  Due to severe weather conditions the plane into TriCities was diverted into Knoxville, Tennessee.  There Major McDaniels saw to it that Eddie again disembarked with honor and respect.  A hearse that had come one hundred miles through the snow from Kingsport waited for them on the tarmac.  Though the journey had been long, Major McDaniels again perfectly executed his duties and together the driver, his assistant, the Major and his soldier headed northeast up Highway 11W as the snow continued to fall.  

As fate would have it -- or the angels -- near Rogersville, Tennessee an overturned tractor trailer truck blocked the highway.  The Tennessee Highway Patrol diverted Eddie and his escorts to a small state highway named West Carter's Valley Road. Eddie grew up in West Carter's Valley and drove on that road nearly everyday of his childhood and college years.  The hearse took Eddie by the Reed farm where he grew up, by his favorite fishing hole in the North Holston River, the meadows where he hunted arrowheads and played cowboys and Indians or rode his pony, by his favorite hunting grounds, by Bell Ridge Elementary School, and where he played with his brothers.  At Lynn Garden community they turned right onto Lynn Garden Drive and went past Lynn View High where Eddie ran track and pole vaulted, past the small apartment where my son and I lived.  They headed into downtown Kingsport.  The driver of the hearse took him down the icy streets past the Texas Steer Drive-in where we had gone on our first date.  Together the men and their soldier slowly cruised Broad Street one last time before arriving at 1:30 A.M. at the Hamlett Dobson Funeral Home.  Though dead tired Major McDaniels stayed with his soldier as his family slowly arrived to welcome their soldier home, just not the way they wanted. 

Though Eddie didn't have his family on board his flights from Vietnam to Knoxville, Tennessee, Eddie did see the people and places he loved.  He had his final goodbye. We are deeply grateful that Eddie had a wonderful escort who stayed with him until he was peacefully interred at Oak Hill Cemetery in Kingsport, Tennessee on March 2nd 1968.

I have always been grateful that our friend, Dick McDaniels, whom we had known from Fort Ord, accompanied Eddie on his journey home.  I don't know where he is today but I remain grateful for the loving consideration, the honor and respect he gave to Eddie --- that Eddie had a friend by his side as he rejoined his family in Tennessee.

Join me in honoring the Military Escorts of America's Fallen Heroes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i am honored to have served with such brave men ron barker.danang.1970