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If you've been reading Milblogs for a while you're probably familiar with Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Strobl's account from last year of his duties as escort officer accompanying the remains of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Dover AFB, Delaware to his hometown of Dubois, Wyoming for his funeral. If you haven't read it before, here's the complete story.
And here's an excerpt:
We received a brief covering our duties, the proper handling of the remains, the procedures for draping a flag over a casket, and of course, the paperwork attendant to our task. We were shown pictures of the shipping container and told that each one contained, in addition to the casket, a flag. I was given an extra flag since Phelps’s parents were divorced. This way they would each get one. I didn’t like the idea of stuffing the flag into my luggage but I couldn’t see carrying a large flag, folded for presentation to the next of kin, through an airport while in my Alpha uniform. It barely fit into my suitcase.
It turned out that I was the last escort to leave on Thursday. This meant that I repeatedly got to participate in the small ceremonies that mark all departures from the Dover AFB mortuary.
Most of the remains are taken from Dover AFB by hearse to the airport in Philadelphia for air transport to their final destination. When the remains of a service member are loaded onto a hearse and ready to leave the Dover mortuary, there is an announcement made over the building’s intercom system. With the announcement, all service members working at the mortuary, regardless of service branch, stop work and form up along the driveway to render a slow ceremonial salute as the hearse departs. Escorts also participated in each formation until it was their time to leave.
On this day there were some civilian workers doing construction on the mortuary grounds. As each hearse passed, they would stop working and place their hard hats over their hearts. This was my first sign that my mission with PFC Phelps was larger than the Marine Corps and that his family and friends were not grieving alone.
Eventually I was the last escort remaining in the lounge. The Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant in charge of the Marine liaison there came to see me. He had Chance Phelps’s personal effects. He removed each item; a large watch, a wooden cross with a lanyard, two loose dog tags, two dog tags on a chain, and a Saint Christopher medal on a silver chain. Although we had been briefed that we might be carrying some personal effects of the deceased, this set me aback. Holding his personal effects, I was starting to get to know Chance Phelps.
Finally we were ready. I grabbed my bags and went outside. I was somewhat startled when I saw the shipping container, loaded three-quarters of the way in to the back of a black Chevy Suburban that had been modified to carry such cargo. This was the first time I saw my “cargo” and I was surprised at how large the shipping container was. The Master Gunnery Sergeant and I verified that the name on the container was Phelps’s then they pushed him the rest of the way in and we left. Now it was PFC Chance Phelps’s turn to receive the military—and construction workers’—honors. He was finally moving towards home.
As I chatted with the driver on the hour-long trip to Philadelphia, it became clear that he considered it an honor to be able to contribute in getting Chance home. He offered his sympathy to the family. I was glad to finally be moving yet apprehensive about what things would be like at the airport. I didn’t want this package to be treated like ordinary cargo, but I knew that the simple logistics of moving around a box this large would have to overrule my preferences.
When we got to the Northwest Airlines cargo terminal at the Philadelphia airport, the cargo handler and hearse driver pulled the shipping container onto a loading bay while I stood to the side and executed a slow salute. Once Chance was safely in the cargo area, and I was satisfied that he would be treated with due care and respect, the hearse driver drove me over to the passenger terminal and dropped me off.
As I walked up to the ticketing counter in my uniform, a Northwest employee started to ask me if I knew how to use the automated boarding pass dispenser. Before she could finish another ticketing agent interrupted her. He told me to go straight to the counter then explained to the woman that I was a military escort. She seemed embarrassed. The woman behind the counter already had tears in her eyes as I was pulling out my government travel voucher. She struggled to find words but managed to express her sympathy for the family and thank me for my service. She upgraded my ticket to first class.
After clearing security, I was met by another Northwest Airline employee at the gate. She told me a representative from cargo would be up to take me down to the tarmac to observe the movement and loading of PFC Phelps. I hadn’t really told any of them what my mission was but they all knew.
When the man from the cargo crew met me, he, too, struggled for words. On the tarmac, he told me stories of his childhood as a military brat and repeatedly told me that he was sorry for my loss. I was starting to understand that, even here in Philadelphia, far away from Chance’s hometown, people were mourning with his family.
On the tarmac, the cargo crew was silent except for occasional instructions to each other. I stood to the side and saluted as the conveyor moved Chance to the aircraft. I was relieved when he was finally settled into place. The rest of the bags were loaded and I watched them shut the cargo bay door before heading back up to board the aircraft.
One of the pilots had taken my carry-on bag himself and had it stored next to the cockpit door so he could watch it while I was on the tarmac. As I boarded the plane, I could tell immediately that the flight attendants had already been informed of my mission. They seemed a little choked up as they led me to my seat.
About 45 minutes into our flight I still hadn’t spoken to anyone except to tell the first class flight attendant that I would prefer water. I was surprised when the flight attendant from the back of the plane suddenly appeared and leaned down to grab my hands. She said, “I want you to have this” as she pushed a small gold crucifix, with a relief of Jesus, into my hand. It was her lapel pin and it looked somewhat worn. I suspected it had been hers for quite some time. That was the only thing she said to me the entire flight.
When we landed in Minneapolis, I was the first one off the plane. The pilot himself escorted me straight down the side stairs of the exit tunnel to the tarmac. The cargo crew there already knew what was on this plane. They were unloading some of the luggage when an Army sergeant, a fellow escort who had left Dover earlier that day, appeared next to me. His “cargo” was going to be loaded onto my plane for its continuing leg. We stood side by side in the dark and executed a slow salute as Chance was removed from the plane. The cargo crew at Minneapolis kept Phelps’s shipping case separate from all the other luggage as they waited to take us to the cargo area. I waited with the soldier and we saluted together as his fallen comrade was loaded onto the plane.
Dead heroes are supposed to come home with their coffins draped with the American flag -- greeted by a color guard.Several readers pointed me to this story, citing it as an example of how poorly fallen soldiers are treated.
But in reality, many are arriving as freight on commercial airliners -- stuffed in the belly of a plane with suitcases and other cargo.
John Holley and his wife, Stacey, were stunned when they found out the body of their only child, Matthew John Holley, who died in Iraq last month, would be arriving at Lindbergh Field as freight.
John and Stacey Holley, who were both in the Army, made some calls, and with the help of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, Matthew was greeted with honor and respect.
After pausing only long enough to alert the media, Senator Boxer sent a letter to Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey demanding an investigation, noting that she “would like to spare other families from this terrible experience.” That early report claimed that a representative of the Defense Department said she "did not know why this is happening".
But today's news reveals that the Army has already discovered exactly who's responsible:
Shari Lawrence, deputy public affairs officer for Army Human Resources, said military aircraft are prohibited, legally, from providing services already available through commercial flyers, as spelled out in laws governing noncompetition between the military and the private sector.So, that part is explained. Now if Senator Boxer can discover who's responsible for making those damned public laws...
“We don’t expect everyone to be happy about that,” she said. “We do have families who get upset, and we tell them it’s OK to be mad at us. … But it’s part of public law.”
In a separate statement, a defense official said the practice is “not at all disrespectful” and that commercial airlines “have historically been able to bring our fallen heroes home more quickly than if moved aboard military airlift.”
Lawrence said the bodies of nearly all troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are brought to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification and preparation of the remains, then sent to their final resting place from there.
Defense officials said every body that leaves Dover is accompanied by an escort, either a servicemember or a member of the deceased’s family.
If the family is within a day’s drive of Delaware, the body is usually driven to the appropriate funeral home. If not, the casket is usually driven to Philadelphia International Airport, and a domestic flyer is paid by the department to carry the body.
Lawrence said the procedure mirrors what would happen if a civilian casket was being transported. The military coffin is loaded into a shipping case, and the escort accompanies the body until a family member or a funeral home takes over.
Contrary to popular belief, the Army does not have a formal ceremony for when the bodies of soldiers arrive at the base or when they are delivered to the family, she said.
“If the Army is going to pay its respects, that would be at the funeral or a memorial service,” Lawrence said.
Taking Chance Home - read the whole thing.
By the way, if the military was to transport the fallen all the way to their home towns, they would use the same aircraft they use to bring them to Dover - cargo planes. It's all we've got.
Update: 280 blogs linked that original story, and based on my sampling every one of them fell for Boxer's stunt.
Inside a limousine parked on the airport tarmac, Katherine Cathey looked out at the clear night sky and felt a kick.More here. (Via Lex)
"He's moving," she said. "Come feel him. He's moving."
Her two best friends leaned forward on the soft leather seats and put their hands on her stomach.
"I felt it," one of them said. "I felt it."
Outside, the whine of jet engines swelled.
"Oh, sweetie," her friend said. "I think this is his plane."
As the three young women peered through the tinted windows, Katherine squeezed a set of dog tags stamped with the same name as her unborn son:
James J. Cathey.
"He wasn't supposed to come home this way," she said, tightening her grip on the tags, which were linked by a necklace to her husband's wedding ring.
The women looked through the back window. Then the 23-year-old placed her hand on her pregnant belly.
"Everything that made me happy is on that plane," she said.
They watched as airport workers rolled a conveyor belt to the rear of the plane, followed by six solemn Marines.
Katherine turned from the window and closed her eyes.
"I don't want it to be dark right now. I wish it was daytime," she said. "I wish it was daytime for the rest of my life. The night is just too hard."
Suddenly, the car door opened. A white-gloved hand reached into the limousine from outside - the same hand that had knocked on Katherine's door in Brighton five days earlier.
The man in the deep blue uniform knelt down to meet her eyes, speaking in a soft, steady voice.
"Katherine," said Maj. Steve Beck, "it's time."
When a young Marine in dress uniform had boarded the plane to Reno, the passengers smiled and nodded politely. None knew he had just come from the plane's cargo hold, after watching his best friend's casket loaded onboard.
At 24 years old, Sgt. Gavin Conley was only seven days younger than the man in the coffin. The two had met as 17-year-olds on another plane - the one to boot camp in California. They had slept in adjoining top bunks, the two youngest recruits in the barracks.
All Marines call each other brother. Conley and Jim Cathey could have been. They finished each other's sentences, had matching infantry tattoos etched on their shoulders, and cracked on each other as if they had grown up together - which, in some ways, they had.
When the airline crew found out about Conley's mission, they bumped him to first-class. He had never flown there before. Neither had Jim Cathey.
When the plane landed in Nevada, the pilot asked the passengers to remain seated while Conley disembarked alone. Then the pilot told them why.
The passengers pressed their faces against the windows. Outside, a procession walked toward the plane. Passengers in window seats leaned back to give others a better view. One held a child up to watch.
"There are moments in this experience that energize you, and there are moments that suck you dry," Beck said. "Those moments are short, but they're so defining.
"And you're about to see one of them."
As jet engines roared around him, Beck looked at the plane. The Marines marched to the cargo hold, toward the casket.
"See the people in the windows? They'll sit right there in the plane, watching those Marines," Beck said. "You gotta wonder what's going through their minds, knowing that they're on the plane that brought him home."
Most people will never see the Transportation Security Administration officials standing on the tarmac with their hands over their hearts as a body is unloaded. They won't see the airport police and firefighters lined up alongside their cars and engines, lights flashing, saluting the hearse on its way out.
Occasionally, a planeload of passengers is briefly exposed to the hard reality outside the cabin.
"They're going to remember being on that plane for the rest of their lives," Beck said, looking back at the passengers. "They're going to remember bringing that Marine home.
"And they should."
"There's no way that doing one of these funerals can't make you a better person. I think everyone in the military should have to do at least one."
Still, it doesn't end at the cemetery.
"People think that after the funeral, we're finished," Beck said. "It's not over. It's not over at all. We have to keep taking care of the families."
From the Rocky Mountain News, Nov 9, 2005 and linked by Blackfive on Veterans Day.
"There is no rule requiring airports to allow a family into a secure area to receive the body of a fallen service member, and some airports around the country have refused, Beck said, shaking his head."
The issue here is with civilian laws, and procedures by civilian airports or airlines.
Our local airport and the airlines we dealt with have gone well out of their way for our soldiers. We experienced it at every step, from those at the check in desks to the pilots and crew. We experienced it throughout the deployment and we experienced it when a friend and member of my husbands' squad was escorted home.
The information on military procedures are there for those who care to look. Military notification procedures and escort procedures are all available online.
I'm not going to go any further into our personal experience, but I will say 3 things.
I have no issues with the way things were handled by the military personel involved.
I have huge issues with the way that friends and family members were treated by some members of the press. The words disrespectful, dishonest and unforgivable come to mind.
And finally..Most people in this world can only dream of being treated with the respect, honor, and love that the fallen treated with by their comrades. It doesn't begin with, nor end with, the funeral.
Most will never understand, and in all honesty, I hope they will never be in a position where they do.
I have read these stories several times and I have cried like a baby for the young people involved and the service they gave to their country. Where do we grow young men like these who will give their all. This current generation is such a credit to the American nation and all we stand for. I hope they take over soon. We will be better for it. We have truly raised a generation that matches the Greatest Generation of WW II somehow.Posted by dick at December 14, 2005 07:24 PM
When I read this report yesterday, the impression that I got was that the body was without escort, and it implied that if it wasn't for his parents, he would have been alone on his final journey home.
The MSM and the left must be really grasping at straws to try to throw this story out for all to see.Posted by Mike at December 14, 2005 11:30 PM
I found it very interesting that the 10news article doesn't actually contradict anything in the first story you quote. It just leaves it all out.Posted by Nick at December 15, 2005 09:06 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(4) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)