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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Freedom Isn’t Free

Flags Lowered

This past Tuesday would have been my father’s 100th birthday. Martin served in the U.S. Navy in San Diego in World War II. He was not assigned to combat duty and returned to his family at the end of the war with life and limb. Not all who defended our country were blessed in that way.

Sometime ago I read the following poem, author unknown:

I watched the flag pass by one day. It fluttered in the breeze.
A young Marine saluted it, and then he stood at ease.
I looked at him in uniform, so young, so tall, so proud.
With hair cut square and eyes alert, he’d stand out in a crowd.

I thought how many men like him had fallen through the years.
How many died on foreign soil, how many mothers’ tears?
How many pilots’ planes shot down? How many died at sea?
How many foxholes were soldiers’ graves? No, freedom isn’t free!

I heard the sound of Taps one night, when everything was still.
I listened to the bugler play and felt a sudden chill.
I wondered just how many times that Taps had meant ‘Amen.’
When a flag had draped a coffin of a brother or a friend.

I thought of all the children, of the mothers and the wives,
Of fathers, sons and husbands with interrupted lives.
I thought about a graveyard at the bottom of the sea;
Of unmarked graves in Arlington. No, freedom isn’t free!

God bless the women and men who put their lives on the line every day to protect our freedom and safety. Because of their sacrifices we can celebrate the 4th of July in peace and security, always remembering that freedom isn’t free!

In the Mansions of the Lord

Fort LoganTerry and I will be moving to our new home this week. For that and other obvious reasons I thought it appropriate to send this week’s edition of Perspectives today, Memorial Day.

I’m including below the words of this moving video and song, just over eight minutes in length. Theological purists, please show a bit of grace when viewing this link: http://worriersanonymous.org/Share/Mansions.htm.

This DVD is dedicated to the U.S. servicemen and women who paid for our freedom with their lives. Music is by West Point Military Academy Cadet Glee Club and Metro Voices, Tenor Ronan Tynan and Sgt. MacKenzie. DVD is by John Langskov.

In the Mansions of the Lord

To fallen soldiers let us sing, where no rockets fly nor bullets wing. Our broken brothers let us bring, to the mansions of the Lord.

No more weeping, no more fight, no prayers pleading through the night. Just divine embrace, eternal light, in the mansions of the Lord.

I pray in the night, deep shadows fall. My heart surrenders all, hush of the evening bells toll.

Where no mothers cry and no children weep, we will stand and guard though the angels sleep. All through the ages safely keep, the mansions of the Lord.

Way up to heaven floats my plea, calling the world far beyond. Angels sing with me, so sweet in reverie.

Lay me down in the cold, cold ground, where before many more have gone. Once a year say a prayer for me. Close your eyes and remember me.

  • American Cemetery, Luxembourg: 5,076 buried
  • WW II Memorial, Washington, D.C.
  • Korean War Memorial, Washington, D.C.
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
  • Vietnam Three Soldiers Statue
  • Pentagon 911 Memorial
  • Manila American Cemetery: 17,201 WW II buried, 36,285 names missing in action listed
  • American Cemetery, Brittany, France: 4,410 buried
  • American Cemetery, Aisne-Marne, France: 2,289 buried
  • American Cemetery, Henri-Chapelle, Belgium: 7,992 buried
  • American Cemetery, Normandy, France: 9,387 buried
  • American Cemetery, Meuse-Argonne, France: 14,246 buried

May no soldier go unloved.

May no soldier walk alone.

May no soldier be forgotten.

Until they all come home.

SoldiersAngels.org

This day and every day, thank God for our servicemen and women, past, present and future.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2Memorial Day was first officially observed on May 5, 1868. On that day, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation establishing May 30 as the annual observance of this occasion. He spoke of honoring soldiers, sailors and marines who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and became an official federal holiday in 1971, dedicated to honor Civil War soldiers. Today we honor the memory of all who fought for, defended and died for our country’s freedoms while serving in the U.S. military

A May 28, 2007, Memorial Day communication of unknown origin states: To those who died securing peace and freedom, who served in conflict to protect our land and sacrificed their dreams of the day to preserve the hope of our nation to keep America the land of the free for over two centuries, we owe our thanks and our honor. It is important not only to recognize their service but also to respect their devotion to duty and to ensure that the purpose for which they fought will never be forgotten.

Willingness to sacrifice even life itself was demonstrated early in the War for Independence, as Captain Nathan Hale was captured by the British and executed as a spy. His dying words were: “I only regret that I have but one life to give/lose for my country.”

Those words exemplify the resolve of America’s soldiers, airmen, marines, National Guard and naval personnel—men and women who are willing to sacrifice life and limb to protect and defend the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.

In a much more significant way, with eternal ramifications, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

It is always both appropriate and important to thank God for those in our military services who died while defending and protecting our country and to pray for those who still do. I invite you to join in the Prayer for Armed Forces of our Nation (LSB, p. 315):

Lord God of hosts, stretch forth your almighty arm to strengthen and protect those who serve in the armed forces of our country. Support them in times of war, and in times of peace keep them from all evil, giving them courage and loyalty. Grant that in all things they may serve with integrity and with honor; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.