A long way home…

by Staff Sgt. Chuck Holman
86th Maintenance Squadron

This summer, I was asked to represent the Air Force on a very sensitive mission.  A friend of mine, Staff Sgt. Keith Lombardi, had passed away in a vehicle accident, and the Air Force needed someone to escort him home.  I felt hopeless during this horrible time. I felt the only thing I could do for him now was make sure he got home alright, so I accepted the mission.
Keith was an only child and left behind a civilian wife.  The only family they had overseas were those they adopted, such as friends in martial arts classes or work.  I was in constant communication with his family in the States to keep them informed about every detail.

I ensured the transportation of his remains to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where he was prepared for final burial.  I was in Delaware for five days and had a long time to sit alone and think about him.  He was a 25-year-old staff sergeant who had plans on staying in the Air Force until retirement.  His goals included making the rank of chief and having a family.  He left behind friends who loved him and a wife who adored him.  This was a guy who lived life to the fullest every day.  Now, he is being prepared for burial.

I have worked in maintenance the last 10 years; and I never knew about this side of the military.  The way the military presents the fallen was very emotional. The details in every presentation made it evident that the individual giving me the briefing had done this  many times.  Even knowing this, that individual still showed compassion and professionalism when delivering the information.  I was thankful he did this.

The time had come to take my friend home. I was met by the driver of the hearse and as Keith was transported onto his carriage, there was a small siren that rang out.  The parking lot immediately filled with random people and as we left, they all rendered salutes to the vehicle.  This was the same across the base.  It was a small sign of what to expect for the rest of the day.
When we arrived at the Philadelphia International airport, I was met by management from the airline that would carry Keith’s body home.  His arrival was anticipated and the airline wanted to ensure me that he would be taken care of.  His casket would only be carried by those who previously served in the military. One of the representatives also informed me that the majority of the airline was prior service, so it was a huge honor for them to be part of his transportation. As he was loaded, several of the flight line crews came over and rendered their salutes.  It was starting to hit me emotionally, but Keith needed me now to make sure he made it home and I promised him I would do that.  

During the flight an attendant handed me a pen and paper and asked me to write down some information about Keith.  I had been writing down or verbally expressing this information for what seems like the longest week in history.  And as I am writing down these answers, I looked up to see the reaction on her face when I finished writing “Age 25.” Her eyes filled up and her hands began to shake.  It seemed to me that she had kids not too far from that age.  Her reactions started to clue the other passengers on why I was there. 

I couldn’t stop thinking of the last four years.  How Keith impacted my life.  How if it wasn’t for him and his wife, I wouldn’t be married to my wife now.  The dinners and weekend events they hosted.  The professionalism he would exude at work and the commitment to the service he performed.  He humbled those who were more experienced with his work ethic and attitude.

He made every day a joy.  I finally started to break down and accept what had happened.
Before we entered the unloading area, one of the flight attendants made an announcement. This wasn’t like any announcement most people get when they arrive at their destination.  This was an announcement that had a message.  The flight attendant started to mention that this flight was a special flight.  She then explained that this flight had the honor of bringing home one of the fallen.  As she continued to brief this man’s past from his name, to where he worked, and when he died, she started to stammer when she got to his age.  When she started to sound “25,” she remarked that she would not be able to continue and handed the announcement over to the captain.  The plane was in complete silence.

The captain finished the biography of the fallen Airman and followed up with a request. He asked the passengers that when we taxi to the unloading zone that they remain in their seats as this fallen Airman had an escort and he needed to be let off first so that proper military honors could be rendered.  It was at this moment I felt a little weak in the knees.  It was finally time to complete my mission.

I started noticing when the people sitting around were starting to sneak peaks at my uniform. It’s at these times that I feel the most proud of serving in the military.
The plane started to make the turn around the corner to the unloading area.  The first thing I saw was two fire trucks parked in front of the unloading area.  One fire truck had a banner that was stretched out which read “Welcome Home, Son!” and the other had an American Flag (I think the largest I’ve ever seen) hanging down from an extended ladder.  The scene was like something out of a movie. There was a sea of people awaiting his arrival. In attendance were cops, firefighters, civil service and military personnel. 

I took one step in the aisle and then in unison, everyone started to clap. The clapping turned to vigor of applause I had not experienced before. They were cheering for Keith and the sacrifice he made for their freedom. I tried to keep my head up as I was walking down the aisle way.
I was met by several representatives from the Phoenix Sheriffs’ department. They escorted me off the plane and introduced me to Luke Air Force Base’s Honor Guard detail. We went over the formation and as my friend’s body was unloaded, the crowd immediately fell silent and salutes were rendered. It was the most proud I have ever felt.  My friend was welcomed home.  I had to bury my friend, colleague and brother in arms.  He lived a great life, but it was a short life. 

Before I took on this mission, I asked my father what he thought I should do, as far as taking care of my friend’s family. He said, “Your main mission in life is to help them now that he can’t.” In the profession of arms, we are all family.  We have lives that cost us emotionally, spiritually and physically.  
This is the cornerstone of our bond.  He understood this because he was prior military as well.

When Keith was buried, the small town he grew up in mourned greatly.  
So much so, that for the rest of the week I was there, the flags of Cottonwood, Ariz., were at half mast.