In the movies, military and first responder funerals focus on the service and aftermath: the folding and presentation of the Flag to the next of kin, “Taps” on a single bugle for fallen military, bagpipes playing “Going Home” for fallen police and fire fighters, and The 21 gun salute. Earlier this week, I had the honor and privilege of helping escort one of our fallen soldiers on his journey home.
As my crew walked through the concourse, we were approached by airport personnel, and that was when I saw the Marine Honor Guard standing vigil at our gate. The wind felt crushed from my lungs with each step I took. We stood as a crew, facing the family, the honor guard, and the passengers. Looking at the soldiers in their formal dress uniforms, my eyes started to water. My nails dug into my hands, as I tried to maintain my composure. The cold air creeping up from the jet bridge couldn’t shake my breaking heart. Once given clearance to enter the jet bridge, I tried walking as gracefully as possible, despite my knees shaking. I plowed down the jet bridge, but my bag suddenly felt three times heavier.
From the windows of the cabin, we kept our vigil. As the curtain was drawn back, revealing a flag-draped box, I gave up on fighting my tears. The intense precision of the Honor Guards’ movement was incredibly beautiful. Without hesitation, my hand covered my heart, as the flag was removed and lovingly folded into a triangle. The cargo bay door blocked my view of the family, but it didn’t lessen the blow of watching the Flag presented to the next of kin.
The slow salute of the Flag each time it was handed off, looked surreal. I wanted to salute, but my hand remained firmly clutched to my wings pinned to my blazer. It is acceptable for civilians to salute in this situation? I didn’t know, so I simply pressed my empty hand against the window. The cold seeped through the glass, but I felt completely numb inside. Is this what
“Do you girls need a minute before we board the family?” the Gate Agent asked, trying to give us as much privacy as possible.
“Just give us a minute… that’s all we need.”
He mercifully gave us two.
Quickly, we each hopped into the lavatories, batting the tears from our eyes, wiping our wet cheeks dry, and trying to pulled ourselves back together for the sake of the grieving family, the military escorts, our passengers, and each other. Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” played in my throbbing head, as I stared at myself in the mirror. Giving myself a five-count, I swallowed hard, blew my nose, washed my hands, turned on my heel, and stepped back into the cabin.
Taking our boarding positions, I was thankful I could throw myself into the pre-departure task list for our first class passengers: hanging coats, making and delivering drink orders, and setting up the galley. Mindless, detailed oriented tasks were the only thing keeping me together. I smiled harder than I should have, but it was the only way to cope. The passengers saw my puffy eyes and shaking hand, but showered us with nothing but kindness. Their patience and support meant the world to me, and even though it was a short flight back to Atlanta, it felt like one of the longest flights I’ve ever flown.
My thoughts go out to the family of the young man, especially to his little boy. He broke our hearts when he told us, “My Daddy is downstairs,” pointing to the floor. Honestly, I am glad it was said to one of the other ladies because I would have started bawling. When I pushed the cart down the aisle, I saw his sweatshirt: “My Daddy is a HERO!” You’re damn right he is, Kid. With delicate situations such as these, I often feel helpless and frustrated because the Girl Scout in me wants to do something to help, and all I have at my disposal are soft drinks and junk food. I’ve been on flights transporting fallen soldiers before, but this was my first time witnessing the process from start to finish.
Once our arrival duties were complete, I asked the flight leader if I could join the other flight attendant at the boarding door. I wanted to see the family off, there isn’t much I could do, but I could do that. Without the right words, I simply smiled. Upon the deplaning of our light passenger load, our crew sat by the windows in coach and watched the plain clothes Honor Guard complete their duties, by “carrying off” the fallen solider. I cried again, envious that the Captain and First Officer were able to join the group plane side. It was one of the only times I was relieved to have a lengthy sit in between flights.
When we finally stepped out of the jet bridge and into the concourse, we put on our Concourse Faces and held our heads high. When an out bound passenger casually asked, “What took them so long?” The Captain made my millennium:
“Those ladies were doing their job until the very end.”
When I see the sacrifices our soldiers and their families make, I honestly do not know how they handle it. I have friends in several of the branches of the military, I cannot bear to think that one day I could be escorting them home. Being a part of this made me want to jump a plane to see each one of my friends in the Armed Forces and hug them and their families. For the time being, I hope my recounting this will serve in the time being. I am infinitely thankful for the safe and secure life I live because of the bravery and dedication of our military, as well as the sacrifices their families make.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Armed Forces, I salute you.
I thank you.
I love each and everyone of you.