Honoring our Fallen Warriors

  • Published
  • By Maj. Joshua Zaker
  • 62nd Airlift Wing command post chief
There is one thing that causes everything to pause in a deployed C-17 pilot's day: a fallen American Hero. Usually the first indication that you will be transporting a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine who has paid the ultimate price is your parking spot. Each parking spot is more or less useful for different types of cargo because of where they are in relation to the other things on the airport.

After you land you will be met by a Chaplain and a Mortuary Affairs representative who give you details about the Fallen Warrior Ceremony. After the cargo is downloaded and the aircraft refueled, the cargo floor is "slicked" meaning the rollers and the rails for cargo pallets are stowed, seats flipped up and the area is cleaned. While deployed it is out of the ordinary to see a completely slick cargo compartment; the cargo compartment is the business end of the airplane. Usually there is cargo chained down in the cargo compartment, or in the process of being moved on or off. But now that the cargo compartment is clean, everything pauses.

After the aircraft's cargo bay is readied, the area behind the aircraft is prepared. Soon all of the chaplains on the base show up, there are maybe ten in all. The color guard unfurls Old Glory and checks their uniforms. A representative sets up two speakers and wires them up to a microphone. From the front of the cargo compartment looking back, my crew is lined up on the right side with me nearest the cargo door and ramp. The Chaplains are behind the aircraft, standing in formation on the left side. The ceremony begins and I call my crew to attention. The color guard marches the flag to the right spot and I give the command for my crew to salute. Next, two columns of military men and women march in, one on each side of the airplane, forming an aisle in between them for the flag-draped transfer case carrying the remains to proceed onto the airplane.

When everyone is in place, the entire formation is brought to attention and then to parade rest. Instead of a hearse, the flag-draped transfer case is brought to the end of the aisle in a brown armored vehicle. The ramp is still. The Chaplain steps to the podium and begins a quick sermon. In it, he talks about the Hero's family, his unit and quotes a Bible verse. He prays for the well-being of the family and prays for courage for the members of the Fallen Warrior's unit.

After the Chaplain's brief remarks a slow version of Amazing Grace begins. The pallbearers march to the rear of the vehicle and take the flag draped transfer case from it. The flag draped transfer case moves towards the airplane and the columns are brought to attention and ordered to salute. In my mind, I follow the music and say the lyrics to myself.

The flag draped transfer case begins up the ramp of the airplane and I command my crew to present arms. We salute, slowly, each of us silently counting to five as we raise our hands into position. The loadmaster makes a sharp facing movement and flips a switch to close the cargo door. As the door closes, "Taps" is playing. It fades out; the loud whir of the hydraulics is a testament to the weight of the door. The crowd outside watches as the door closes and their hero leaves them forever.

As the fallen hero passes in front of us, I wonder about his family, what his last post on Facebook was, and what he might have been doing just 24 hours ago. The flag draped transfer case makes it to the front of the plane, is gently placed on the cargo floor, and the pallbearers are dismissed. The only people remaining are a Chaplain and the highest ranking officer on the base. I give my crew the command to return to attention. The officer and the Chaplain are each down on one knee now, heads bowed, each with one hand on the flag-draped transfer case. After their prayer is finished, they stand back up, face the transfer case, salute one last time and are dismissed. I dismiss my detail and walk back towards the flag draped transfer case silently. The officer and the Chaplain come towards us and shake all of the crew members' hands.

"Thanks for taking him home."