Air Force Master Sgt. Mark Booher and I were leaving Iraq after five months and a handful of days. We were heading home two weeks early and without getting “scuffed up;” happier for both conditions. Our first travel leg was to leave Baghdad on a C-130 out of Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, headed for Kuwait International Airport and then on to Qatar where our headquarters was located. As the PAX services Airman was driving us out to the aircraft, he said that the mission would also be handling “three HRs”… human remains, and that we needed to show respect. Nice of the young Airman to remind us, but the six travelers on the bus were of an age to know what was needed in that circumstance.
While we were driving up, I saw many people gathering in the darkness behind the main Air Force building, too many to just be hanging around at that time of night. I rightly guessed that they would be paying some tribute to the fallen. Wanting to pay my respects, I stepped out of the bus and took the position of parade rest in front of the bus, annoyingly lit up in bright amber every other second. After about 20 minutes of standing still, my feet began to go numb from the additional weight of the body armor we wear to fly out of Baghdad.
Returning to the bus and seeing what I was doing, the Airman asked if I would like to be part of the Patriot Honor Guard that would be assembling at the back of the aircraft. Choking back a more emotional response, I said, “I can do that.” He said to stay there and he would check with the people in charge and off he strode. He returned shortly and escorted me out to the back of the aircraft, giving me his reflective safety belt to wear … a tighter fit on me than him, but darn if I was going to give him the satisfaction of adjusting the length.
We approached the back of the aircraft. The loading ramps were down and two Army lieutenants were standing, one at either side of the ramp. Other people were inside the aircraft, but as I fell into the left of the tall female LT, she asked when should we salute, like I knew. I said unless someone told us otherwise, to come to attention as the aluminum travel caskets came near and salute just before they were in front of us. We then assumed parade rest, facing across the loading ramp, the interior of the 130 to our right. As the three of us waited, I wondered if the LT would be escorting the troops home and asked if she had any other function there than rendering honors. She said no. Slowly, a formation of Air Force personnel marched out of the night and into the glow cast from the aircraft’s interior lights where we stood.
At the far end of the line came sounds of a vehicle pulling up and people moving with a purpose. When the formation came to attention, so did we. And when the formation leader called all to “Present Arms,” we likewise saluted. The formation raised their salutes slowly, catching me unaware, but soon I learned their rhythms of respect. For each flag-draped box, we repeated our necessary ritual and I was grateful when number three came by. It had been a long day. But the formation stayed true as a fourth young American was brought out of the truck to join comrades headed home. I had heard a report of an improvised explosive device that had killed three soldiers outside of Baghdad the day before and assumed that these men were those unlucky souls. Now, with the fourth body, I couldn’t be sure.
With the final body on board, all present assembled in the aircraft, carefully avoiding the boxes as a chaplain spoke familiar words. It was hard to hear him at the rear of the open plane with Baghdad’s airport sounds competing for our ears. Just a few words floated back—fragments of comfort, bits of names and unit designations. All the fallen were members of the 101st Airborne Division, joining their select group of comrades in jump-qualified Valhalla.
After a snaking chorus of Amens, we left the aircraft and the Air Force members departed. The aircrew began preparations to take off. As I waited on the ramp for my fellow passengers to join me, I noticed the LT lingering, staring into the aircraft at the containers. She was a tall, strong, young woman, wearing the shoulder patch of the Screaming Eagles, the 101st. Seconds went by, and then a not much older captain from her unit came to her, followed by a lieutenant colonel with his sergeant major in tow.
Looking into the LT’s eyes and then at the containers, it seemed likely that she was the platoon leader of the fallen; their LT. Whoever the dead soldiers were, she was having a hard time letting go of them. But, despite her open grief, despite her sorrow, she remained tall, strong and proud. The Eagles joined hands, bowed heads and said a quiet prayer.
Then, an arm on her arm, another across her shoulders and with the sergeant major’s strong hand kneading the back of her neck, the group bore her away to continue leading their other Soldiers, still alive that night in Iraq.