New Orleans As we prepared to take off from Denver on the last leg of our flight on United Airlines, the pilot came on the intercom with an announcement that fortunately I had not heard in all my miles of air travel. He said that we were carrying an escort who was flying a solider home with us. He said that American soldiers pledge to stand between the enemies of our country and American citizens, and that we were carrying a soldier back home who had honored that pledge and made that sacrifice. He said that he would announce this again when we landed, though as it turned out it was not needed, but he asked that we would allow the escort to depart the plane first before rising to leave the plane on arrival in New Orleans.
I had seen a ramp worker walk the Air Force sergeant onto the plane before any other passengers. When we entered, he was seated on the aisle in a bank of three seats on the left side of the plane by himself in the first row that follows first class, only a couple of rows up from us. Before we departed, while the air conditioning was still coming on, I listened as the attendant approached the escort and asked if she could take his jacket. This was his uniform. He of course refused. He sat silently throughout the less than two hour flight without reading, talking, or rising from his seat. He never looked back, only forward.
Anyone who has ever flown knows that when the bell dings that the gate airway ramp has been lowered and the door is ready to open, it is a mad scramble as people get up from their seats and collect their bags, sometimes pushing forward to get a preferred place in line to leave. This was different. Looking forward there was no one rising. I turned to look towards the back of the plane, no one was standing. It wasn’t just a matter of keeping the aisle open, as the pilot had requested, which some might have done by rising and getting ready, but keeping out of the aisle. This time no one was moving, everyone was sitting silently, and waiting. Even after the escort rose and walked out of the plane there was a minute or two when no one moved still, making sure the way was clear.
Chaco and I walked up the airway ramp and into the large circular waiting area where a dozen gates departed. We stopped in front of the ticket counter near the bank of windows. We were not alone. There had been no announcement in the waiting area, but somehow people knew something was happening. There were hundreds of people standing up, standing on chairs, and watching the runway below where a black hearse was parked on the tarmac near the baggage chute. Two police cars had their lights flashing next to the hearse. Several ramp workers in orange vests were standing alongside two women, and off to the side behind them were a half-dozen blue uniformed Air Force personnel who stood straight and at attention.
The pallbearers marched towards the plane as the casket glided down the chute and took it to the hearse. The rain had begun to pour and a ramp worker walked a large umbrella over and raised it above the head of the two African-American women, perhaps a mother, a sister, a fiancé, a wife, but certainly two women who were locked in an embrace without moving from the moment the casket had left the plane with their loved one.
They had a private moment as hundreds watched in unknown silence. Some weeping. Many, me among them, with tears in our eyes. No one seemed to move until the hearse door was closed. A German couple next to us, looked at me and said, “So sad.”
We were all civilians. The public being protected. This was a tragedy. A reminder that the war and the killing go on, many thousands of miles away in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, where soldiers are lost and lives are sacrificed. For a moment we were all touched and jolted into the reality of war as this solider came home, and as we came home, and we all were welcomed into a lifetime of mourning for lives lost that had hardly begun.