By J.D. Denton
As the wars wind down, much debate has occurred about the billions of dollars spent to wage them over the past dozen years, about how to pay the debt, and whether it was worth it. There is, however, another cost we continue to bear that cannot be so easily measured.
Returning from a brief business trip to North Carolina last week, I had a long day of flying from Raleigh-Durham to Sacramento, via Dallas. Both flights were on time and uneventful until we landed in Sacramento. The American Airlines flight was full, about 140 passengers, all looking forward to getting out of their seats and off the plane.
As we neared the gate watching for the seatbelt light to go off, the captain came on the intercom and requested that everyone remain in their seats out of respect for Army PFC (I couldn’t hear the name in the noisy cabin), a fallen soldier coming home from Afghanistan. He said the Army escort officer would deplane first.
It was then that I looked out the window to the right of the aircraft and saw an honor guard of six soldiers in dress uniform lined up on the tarmac, waiting. The plane stopped and all passengers remained seated, the usual end-of-flight conversations and cell phone calls trickled down quickly to silence as everyone on board came to realize what was happening.
The escort officer left his seat in first class and exited the aircraft. We all sat quietly, not a sound in the entire packed cabin, as the baggage handlers and two soldiers in fatigues climbed into the underbelly of the plane. We heard sounds from down below for several minutes before the flag-draped coffin appeared on the conveyor belt. The soldiers marched to the bottom of the belt and were assisted by the baggage handlers in carefully and gently removing the coffin. The soldiers then slowly and very ceremoniously carried it to a waiting trailer. After placing the coffin inside, they stepped back, saluted, then turned and marched away.
The captain came on the intercom, thanked us for our patience, and turned off the seatbelt sign. Everyone moved to deplane, still very quiet, a few sniffles could be heard, but not a word was spoken. As I neared the exit, I saw the flight attendants standing in position with tears in their eyes. I wondered how often they had been through this.
It was a moving experience, very sad but very respectful. That plane was full of all kinds of people, all religions, races, political leanings, whatever … the usual diverse crowd of weary travelers who are eager to get off the plane after four hours in the air. And yet they all waited patiently to honor a fallen soldier who had just completed his final flight. I was proud of them and proud to be one of them.
We could all now get on with our lives, but this young soldier was going home to a heartbroken family to be laid to rest. I hope his family learns of the love and respect that was demonstrated for their son-brother-husband-father all along the way as he made this final journey. His loss is one we all share.
— J.D. Denton is a Davis resident and businessman.