I came across this write up from awhile back and felt it fitting to repost today. A good eight or so years have gone by since the Iraq War was declared over, but the memories of covering the sad homecomings of fallen soldiers can be recalled as if it were yesterday. Now, as I read this recollection, I have a very different perspective. I am a mother myself…and my heart breaks all over again.
I shiver as I stand on the tarmac. It’s 8am and less than 30 degrees out. Next to me, my photographer ducks deeper into his coat. We’ve been waiting here more than an hour, with nothing to do but stare at our own breath. Then we hear it…the engine of an approaching plane. As it comes into view, I can see “Kalitta Charters” written in large letters across the side. The still cameras in front of me quickly snap off a dozen photos. I look at the family to my right. They’re at least one hundred feet away but it’s still not far enough. It never is. I want them to know we don’t mean to intrude. I want them to know I’d rather be anywhere but here.
The flight crew hustles and in minutes, a flag draped coffin is lowered down to the Honor Guard below. They’re pallbearers who didn’t even know him, but brothers just the same. They hoist him onto their shoulders. As they walk, the click of their heels echoes on the pavement. Their faces don’t reveal emotion. I bite my lip hard, focusing in on the red white and blue…
He was in his 20s. He played ball in high school and enlisted after 9-11. He had a fiancé. I bet he wrote her every week…carried her picture in his pocket. I look back at the family. That must be her…the pretty blonde. She’s leaning on the young man next to her. Maybe that’s his brother. Maybe it’s his best friend.
I look back at the honor guard…click, click, click…closer with every step. They’re at the hearse now. I hear a sob. It’s piercing, from deep within. It’s the kind of sound you never forget and I know in an instant it’s his mother. She’s clinging onto her husband, his arm around her waist, holding her up. I bite my lip again and this time I taste a little blood. I’m not supposed to cry. I’ve seen this a dozen times before. But I can’t help it…he was my age. He could’ve been my friend, my brother, my loved one. A home town hero is what they will call him. I quickly wipe away the hot tears that start to run down my face.
The coffin is inside the hearse now. Mom won’t let go. She’s hugging it, her cheek pressed against the flag. You can hear her crying. Hushed voices comfort her as they pull her away and close the doors.
Once again, it’s silent. The family gets into a waiting car. It’s black with dark windows and I can no longer see their faces. It slowly pulls out, the hearse close behind. I look next to me and see my photographer is already packing up his sticks. We’ve got to rush now if we want to get ahead of the procession. More than two hundred Patriot Guard Riders are waiting at the road and I can hear their engines start to rumble, their motorcycles decorated with flags and their leather covered in patches. “Standing For Those Who Stood For Us” the writing says. I think about them…Vietnam era vets. They weren’t welcomed home like they should’ve been. My eyes tear up again…
“Man, I’m being such a girl,” I say to my photographer, playing it cool as we climb into the car. But his eyes are red too. “It’s OK,” he says and gives my shoulder a squeeze, as we head off to the cemetery.
For all the times I’ve stood watching a 21-gun salute…
For all the times I’ve heard the lone bugler play taps…
For every tightly folded flag I’ve seen handed over to someone left behind…
I consider myself blessed.
I am blessed to be a journalist.
I am blessed by the families who let me share their story.
And I am grateful to bear witness to that flag draped coffin as it returns home.
Because now I see more than just a number…
I see a face that I will never forget.
Beautifully written Cait! Early morning tears!❤️
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Cait – this is just beautiful. ❤️🇺🇸❤️
Thank you Denise!