By Air Force Lt. Col. Richard J. Hughes
Special to American Forces Press Service
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 the wind.
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 reflection.
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 annex.
"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 deserved.
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."
(Air Force Lt. Col. Richard J. Hughes serves as the 407th Air Expeditionary Group's deputy commander.)