Flying home with a fallen soldier

Editor’s note: Rick Sharkey, who comments here, offered this poignant story about flying home with a fallen soldier on Nov. 2. It appeared in the comments today below my post yesterday about the Grass Valley soldier who died in Afghanistan. It is worthy of a separate post and represents the quality of commentary here. Thank you Rick.

On Tuesday night, November 2, I flew home from a business trip from Charlotte, NC to SFO. As I entered the aircraft to take my seat, I noticed an Army Staff Sergeant sitting in Row 1, Seat 1 in First Class. What was notable was his uniform. He was not wearing camo fatigues which you frequently see but a very impressive looking “dress” uniform covered with ribbons and medals.

As we taxied out for takeoff, the pilot came on the loudspeaker to acknowledge “Staff Sergeant Anderson” in First Class. Sergeant Anderson’s mission on this flight was to accompany the casket of a fallen U.S. soldier who was heading “back home”. SFO was the final destination of this trip. The pilot asked that when we landed in San Francisco, the passengers of this completely full flight allow Sergeant Anderson the opportunity and courtesy of deplaning before everyone else.

As we taxied to the gate at SFO, the pilot again asked the passengers to wait until Sergeant Anderson could deplane first. I was sitting in a window seat near the wing on the right side of the aircraft. I could easily see the tarmac. Awaiting us at the gate was the hearse to pick up the casket and a full Army honor guard to accompany the casket to the funeral home.

The flag-draped casket was the first item to be unloaded from the cargo hold in the plane. Sergeant Anderson and the honor guard snapped to attention and saluted the casket as it slowly came down the conveyor belt to the waiting team of soldiers (men and women) who carefully carried, with precise steps, the casket to the hearse.

The entire crew of tarmac workers all stopped their work, lined up in a row, and placed their hands on their chests to acknowledge the casket as it was unloaded from the plane and transferred to the hearse.

Many passengers and the entire crew were lined up at the individual windows of the plane to silently watch this process. You could hear a pin drop on that entire plane. There wasn’t a dry eye amongst the men and women watching the very solemn process unfolding before us.

If you saw a movie on HBO earlier this summer called “Coming Home”, you’ll recognize what I’m describing here. The HBO movie was based on the true story of a fallen Marine coming home to his final resting place in a small Wyoming town. It is an emotional movie to watch.

However, seeing this process/ceremony “in person” is a very different experience. Regardless of one’s opinion of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan you will be affected emotionally when you witness this unfolding on the tarmac in front of you.

I learned the service members who accompany the fallen service members home are all volunteers. Imagine for a moment the privilege, honor, and responsibility that assignment entails. Every week these trips are being made across the country. When will these assignments ever end?

I have nothing but respect for those amongst us who volunteer for service in our military. Unfortunately, each week, some of those volunteers make their final trip home in the cargo hold of an aircraft accompanied by a fellow service member.

I believe, regardless of your personal opinions of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, the volunteers who serve in all branches of our military deserve our recognition, respect, and appreciation for their efforts and sacrifices.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.

8 thoughts on “Flying home with a fallen soldier”

  1. I got about halfway through reading and I couldn’t stop the tears. I can’t say more right now except thanks for sharing and allowing us to feel the reality, and pay our respects.

  2. VERY moving, thank you for sharing this with us.

    God bless those that serve our Country and those that stay home while their family members and friends wait, hoping and praying for their safe return.

  3. Jeff,

    I certainly say AMEN to that final point and would add that I think it is far past time that we fly almost all of our troops serving on foreign soils home in a much better way.


  4. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

    But I wonder, an in-law relation who lives up Chester way lost her 28 year old son about 20 days ago. Could this have been him, Frederick….?

  5. I see nothing but sadness and grief for the fallen man’s family and the life he might have had and good for the world and himself he might have done in these continuing deaths in the middle East wars, which are, my opinion, being fought to protect the nation’s wealth, which is very unequally distributed, so one might say, mostly to protect the nation’s wealthy. These wars, which have been going on for many years, are not like WW II, when our nation was attacked and all democratic nations in danger of takeover by the Axis coalition, who would have changed our way of government by the people to government by despots. I look to the day all of our troops will be home, or if abroad only pursueing the peaceful interests of our nation , we make our swords into plowshares and worry war no more.

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