It’s 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind is blowing at about 25 knots, sending a steady stream of sand and dust whipping across the Ali Base flight line into the faces of airmen and soldiers alike. Except for the wind, there is silence.
We stand at attention in two straight lines at the ramp of a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. We’re waiting to render honors. We ignore the heat, the wind, and the sand. We are humbled by the presence of one of our fallen countrymen.
Thirty minutes earlier, the day had begun much like any other Sunday, with physical training, then the routine work of getting planes and people moving. Next, I needed to get to the chapel service, time for personal prayer and reflection.
Three minutes into the service, the chaplain’s assistant tapped me on the shoulder. “Sir, the command post needs to speak with you immediately.”
Damn, I thought. After saying a quick prayer, I went to the chapel annex.
“Sir, we just got notified of an inbound ‘hero flight,’ due on the deck in 30 minutes,” said the emergency action controller. “They’re here to take a soldier home.”
I asked if the brigade and garrison commands had been notified. Our
installation is a joint base, and the respective service usually handles all the coordination.
“Sir, they’ve been notified; however, we’re unsure if they’ll have a team in place.” I said, “I’ll be on the flight line ramp in 10 minutes.”
Waiting on the ramp were three soldiers from the mortuary affairs platoon. They had worked through the night to prepare the young soldier, killed the day before, for his final journey.
The weather was deteriorating. The crew needed to be off the ground in 15 minutes. It was time to act quickly to get this soldier on his way home, but with the honor he deserved.
I radioed to ask an Ali Base chaplain to come quickly to the ramp. The crew was reconfiguring the aircraft to receive the fallen soldier. Several airmen from the terminal were nearby. I gathered them together and briefed them on the situation.
We didn’t know the soldier’s faith; the mortuary team had only a name and a unit. It didn’t matter. Chaplains try to meet the religious needs of every service member, regardless of faith. This was the chaplain’s first hero flight, but he knew exactly what to do.
• • •
“Group! Present arms!” Twenty arms rise simultaneously and hold the first of a series of final salutes to the soldier. The flag-draped casket, carried by three airmen and three soldiers, passes by silently and solemnly. The chaplain follows, praying as he walks. The pallbearers gently place the casket in the hold of the aircraft.
“Order arms!” Twenty arms slowly drop. The chaplain continues to pray for the soldier, his family, his friends, and his comrades in arms. We pray silently for the young man, so far from home and those who grieve for him.
“Group! Dismissed!” The small formation takes a step back, does an about face, and marches off silently. I thank the crew for allowing us to take the time to render honors to this fallen soldier.
As airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines, we routinely endure hardship and sacrifice on behalf of our countrymen. Unlike any other profession, ours comes with the realization that we may pay the ultimate price thousands of miles from home in a foreign land. We are duty- and honor-bound to protect the freedoms of our fellow citizens.
When one of our own makes the ultimate sacrifice, we must do everything we can to make sure he or she is given the highest level of honor and respect. Nothing interferes with that obligation. That is why—despite the heat, the sand, and the wind—we gathered one Sunday morning on a flight line in southern Iraq. It was what needed to be done.
Lt. Col. Richard J. Hughes ’88 is deployed as deputy commander of the 407th Air Expeditionary Group. His home station is Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.
This essay was originally published in Ohio State Alumni Magazine.