An Airplane Captain’s Memorial Day Story

Dignified Transfer at Dover AFB

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. I asked, “Is there an escort?” She replied, “Yes, I’ve already assigned him a seat.” I said, “Please tell him to come to the Flight Deck. You can board him early.”

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 additional 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 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 preflight 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 also on board,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and two-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 attendant’s voice when she asked me if there was anything I could do. “I’m on it,” I said, and told her that I would get back to her.

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the form of electronic 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 dispatcher’s telephone. I was in direct contact with the dispatcher and explained the situation I had on board with the family and what 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, so I sent a text message asking for an update. I saved the return message from the dispatcher. Here 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 but 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 XXXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life. Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold. Escorting him today is Army Sergeant XXXXXX.  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 minutes later I opened the cockpit door and 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 like “God bless you.” “I’m so 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 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.”

On this Memorial Day weekend I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this event and the sacrifices many of our nation’s men and women have made to ensure our freedom and safety in these United States of America.

At such a time as this, the words of Jesus are amazingly powerful: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

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Charity. Generosity. Stewardship.

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Today’s quote is from Francis Quarles, an English poet who was born May 8, 1592 and died September 8, 1644: “Proportion thy charity to the strength of thy estate, lest God proportion thy estate to the weakness of thy charity. Let the lips of the poor be the trumpet of thy gift, lest in seeking applause thou lose thy reward. Nothing is more pleasing to God than an open hand and a closed mouth.”

These are powerful statements, each of which is corroborated by the following equally powerful Scripture passages:

Luke 6:38: Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you … For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”

1 Cor. 13:3: Paul wrote, “If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

Luke 21:2: Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Luke 18:9-14: The Pharisee boasted about his tithe but the tax collector dared not to lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” Jesus said, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

2 Cor. 9:7, 11: “God loves a cheerful giver … You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way.”

God bless your generosity through charitable giving, demonstrating your faithful stewardship of the blessings he has entrusted to your care!

The Head. The Guest. The Listener.

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Today’s quote is from Confucius: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.”

All-knowing Wikipedia says Confucius was born in 551 BC and died in 479 BC.  He was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher who emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, and sincerity.

In addition to being quoted frequently in Chinese fortune cookies, Confucius is traditionally credited with having authored or edited many of the Chinese classic texts, emphasizing common Chinese tradition and belief. He championed strong family loyalty, ancestor veneration, and respect of elders by their children and of husbands by their wives.

He also recommended family as a basis for ideal government and espoused the well-known Golden Rule principle, stated a bit differently from the more familiar rendition: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

Better than the words of Confucius are the words of the plaque on the wall of my childhood home: “Christ is the head of this home, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.” Wouldn’t it be great if that plaque were hanging on the wall in every home?

And how about what Jesus said to the man who asked, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?” Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.”

If those who looked at the words on that plaque and who held the words of Jesus in their heart would take them seriously, putting the world in order would be not only possible but also feasible and attainable.

That’s a big “if” in our world today! But we have to start somewhere. How about in your home and heart … and in mine? Love Jesus with all you are and all you have! Invite him to be The Head, The Listener, The Guest in your home!

Loneliness and Fear

Lonely Bench

Today’s quote is from Holy Scripture in the words of King David: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am lonely and afflicted.” Psalm 25:16

There are many reasons people become lonely, three of which are on my mind today. The first is loneliness that develops at the time of death of a loved one. The second is loneliness that occurs when one has been diagnosed with a serious, even fatal disease. The third is loneliness simply from living alone, whether at home or in an extended care facility.

In each circumstance the loneliness is often accompanied by feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, hunger, boredom, despair, or even depression. The initial loneliness is often exacerbated by the absence of family or friends with whom the lonely person can share the feelings listed above.

To make matters worse, more often than not such friends and even family members are reluctant to call or visit the person whose affliction has produced the loneliness. One reason for such reluctance is uncertainty about what to say or do that will make the afflicted person feel better.

My encouragement is for you to pick up the phone and call that person in your life described by this article. Perhaps begin with something like: “I heard of your loss/illness/move (or it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other) and just wanted to call to let you know that you are in my heart and in my prayers. Is there anything I might be able to do for you at this time?”

Then simply let the person talk. Avoid trying to make him or her feel better by referring to your own experiences with loneliness. Instead, try to think of things to say that will convey your sincere concern and that might stimulate further conversation, no matter how brief.

If you feel confident doing so, conclude the conversation with a prayer for God’s comfort, love, and guidance. If you’re not confident in actually praying aloud, simply assure the person with whom you’re speaking of your prayers and love. Then follow through on that assurance with a note or another call or a personal visit to provide further encouragement and support.

David cried out in his loneliness to the Lord, who responded with comfort and blessing. That caused David to exclaim a couple chapters later: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)