I returned from Afghanistan this week. I went as a guest of the Air Force to experience the remarkable work they do, first hand. "The grand ballet," the Commander of Air Mobility Command calls it. I flew on various types of aircraft on various kinds of missions. I watched an air drop, supplying soldiers on the ground with fuel, water and ammunition. I rode on an aeromedical evacuation as 37 wounded soldiers and marines were brought home, one in critical condition. There was one more mission I would join - one we didn't expect, one we didn't plan on joining. This was the flight that brought home a fallen soldier.
Just the three of us, me and the two Airmen with whom I traveled, were aboard the plane with the crew and the casket. One solitary, flag draped casket strapped to the middle of the cargo bay. The flight was nine and half hours long. We sat in the back staring at the casket for take off and landing. We slept in sleeping bags on the floor of the cargo bay, 10 feet away from the fallen soldier. It was a quiet trip. We didn't talk much. We all kept to ourselves. Now and then, I'd catch myself staring at the box. Now and then, I'd catch myself welling up...and if a tear fell, I'd let it. It was only right. It was an honor to bring him home.
I took a lot of pictures on this trip, but there are no pictures of the two missions that moved me most - the aeromedical evacuation and the HR mission, as it's officially called (HR stands for human remains). If you look at my pictures, you'd think my trip was fun. You'd think that going into a war zone is cool.
The work is hard. And the people are hard.
The pictures I wish I could bring home to share, so we can truly understand what war is like, don't exist. I have only my stories...and I will tell those stories whenever I can.
Someone I know at AMC forwarded an email that was sent to them today. It's from the pilot who flew 20 of the soldiers who were killed in the recent Chinook crash back home. I have been given permission to share his email on this blog. Every word is as he wrote it...only his name has been left out.
I don't know who he is but I'd like to thank him for sharing his story. His story doesn't replace the pictures we need to see...but it comes close.
I had an unforgettable day yesterday and wanted to share it with you. I
know we've all sat around and discussed in detail why we do what we do and
if we will be willing to continue to do what we do day in and day out
regardless of deployments, retirement decisions, job opportunities, missed
birthdays, missed holidays, etc. This is something I wanted to share and
you were the people that came to mind. It's another reason I continue to
serve.I guess because many others do and sacrifice a lot more, some even
My crew was alerted yesterday to find that our mission had changed. We
were now a backup to a high priority mission originating from Afghanistan.
When I asked where we would be going the answer was "back to the states".
Later I learned our destination was Dover.
I was the aircraft commander for one of two C-17s that transferred the
Chinook helicopter crash soldiers back home. The crew that started this
mission in Afghanistan would end up running out of crew duty day and need
another crew to continue the soldier's journey. We just happened to be
available. After being alerted and going through our normal sequence, I
found myself at the foot of the aircraft steps.
Before I took my first step upward I noticed a transfer case close to the
door. I had only seen one in pictures. The American Flag was tucked
smartly, folded and secured on top. I paused at the bottom of the stairs,
took a deep breath and continued up with my mind and eyes focusing on making it to the next ladder leading to the cockpit. However, as I entered, I
couldn't help but notice the remaining nineteen transfer cases in the cargo
compartment. The entire cargo compartment was filled with identical
transfer cases with American Flags. I made my way up to the cockpit and
received a briefing from the previous aircraft commander. After the
briefing we exchanged a handshake and the other pilot was on his way.
I felt a need to ensure the crew focused on their normal duties. I
instructed the other two pilots to began the preflight. I went back down
into the cargo compartment to see what needed to be done and find the
paperwork I needed to sign. The cargo compartment was now filled with
numerous people from the mortuary affairs squadron. They were busy
adjusting, resetting and overall preparing the cases for their continued
flight. Before they began I asked who was in charge because I knew there
was paperwork I needed to sign. I finally found a Staff Sergeant who was
working an issue with the paperwork. After it was complete, he brought it
up to the cockpit for me to review and sign.
There are moments in life I will never forget. For me, it's the days my son
and daughter were born. Another occurred five months ago when I had to
deliver the unthinkable news to a mother that her son was killed in
Afghanistan and although I didn't anticipate another day like that this
soon, yesterday was another. I looked at the paperwork I was signing and
realized the magnitude of the day. I glanced over the paperwork and signed.
In a way, I felt I had taken ownership of these fallen soldiers. It was now
my duty to ensure they make it home.
After confirming the preflight was complete and the aircraft was fueled, I
went outside to start my walk-around. As I walked down the steps, a bus had parked in front of the aircraft and unloaded eleven passengers. The
passengers were fellow SEAL team members who were escorting the fallen back to the states. I stood at the front of the aircraft and watched them board. Every one of them walked off the bus with focus in their eyes and
determination in their steps; just as I imagine they do when they go on a
mission. I made eye contact with the lead SEAL, nodded my head in respect
and he nodded back.
Finishing my walk-around, I stopped at the bottom of the stairs. I looked
up into the cargo compartment; two American Flags and one SEAL Team Six flag hung from the top of the cargo compartment. Three of twenty transfer cases visible; one with an American Flag and two with Afghan flags. I looked up at my aircraft and saw, "United States Air Force" painted on the side and I stood trying to take it all in. I wanted to make certain that I never
forget these images. That I never forget the faces of the SEALS, the smell
of the cargo compartment or the sun slowly rising over the landscape. It's
important that I don't forget. We need to honor the dead, honor the
sacrifice of the fallen.
I understand my role in getting these fallen soldiers home is insignificant
compared to the lives they lived and the things they did for our country.
Most of it we will never know. All I know is every American should see what
I've seen. Every American should see the bus loads of families as they exit
the freeway headed for Dover AFB to reunite with their fallen or witness the
amount of time, effort, people and equipment that go into ensuring our
fallen have a honorable return.
The very next day we took the same aircraft back overseas. We had leveled
the aircraft at our cruise altitude and I walked down to the cargo
compartment. No more American Flags hung from the ceiling. All the
transfer cases were gone.
Instead I watched a father lay with his son, cradled on his chest, on the
same spot that only yesterday held a fallen soldier. I watched a young
girl, clutching a teddy bear, sleeping quietly where the fallen had laid. I
realized so many Americans have no idea where the fallen lay.
I'm honored to be one that does.