When one of our Michigan Army National Guard units deployed for the first time to Iraq one of our soldiers was killed by a sniper. Stationed here at home my unit commander called me and asked if I would escort our fallen soldier to his home in Ovid, Michigan, from the Dover Air Force Base mortuary in Maryland. It was one of the most difficult tasks I had to perform during my 27 years of military service.
The Dover Air Force Base mortuary is the largest military mortuary in the Department of Defense, with the primary duty of processing military personnel killed in both war and peacetime; the remains of those killed overseas are traditionally brought to Dover before being transferred to family.
I flew from Detroit Metropolitan Airport dressed as a civilian with my military uniform in a suit bag. Arriving at the mortuary behind the front doors, there is an atrium with plants and a fountain. “Dignity, Honor and Respect” reads the motto on the stone wall, above a display that commemorates moments in a journey that ultimately ended at Dover before the Soldier, Sailor, Airmen or Marine’s last and final deployment home.
I was directed to view the remains through heavy steel doors into a large room. The remains were placed in a wood casket and he was dressed meticulously in his formal dress Army uniform. His military awards and other accoutrements precisely aligned. I checked my notes to ensure his awards were as listed on his military records. They were of course.
The final part of Dover’s mission is placement of the creaseless flag that are pressed in the mortuary’s uniform shop. They are longer than a standard flag, nine-and-half feet long by five-feet-wide, a different proportion from the traditional eight-by-five and they are always draped the same way, with the stars over the soldier’s heart.
My soldier’s remains were digitally photographed and archived before I arrived. His personal effects were barcoded to ensure nothing is lost and I examined his personal belongings as each item was placed into a bag then into the casket before they closed it. I signed a receipt accepting responsibility for his remains and personal items.
I was asked to shave again and they trimmed my hair. After changing from my civilian travel attire into my Class-A dress uniform the mortuary folks had freshly pressed, the mortuary crew inspected my uniform again. Any loose threads or awards out of order was promptly removed or adjusted. They replaced one slightly frayed ribbon and my Combat Infantry Badge had a small scratch and they exchanged it for a newer brighter one. Everything had to be perfect.
I rode in the mortuary vehicle to a special location at the airport to check-in. I escorted my charge to the civilian passenger Jet, stood at attention solemnly saluting watching the remains move gently up the conveyor into the jet’s bottom cargo and baggage compartment. The Jet’s ground crew and several others working on the jet at the nearby gate stopped what they were doing and came over to stand at attention with me with their hands placed solemnly over their hearts.
I was the last person to board the jet and guided to a first-class seat for the ride home. I was later told the airlines always upgrade seating for military escorts to first Class. The pilot, co-pilot and stewardess understood my mission. It was obvious they had done this before. They solemnly thanked me for my service as I made my way to my seat.
We made two more solemn transfers prior to our arrival and last stop at Capitol City Airport in Lansing. Each dignified transfer during our journey I was the first to deplane and then escorted by a ground crew to the Jet’s cargo area before anyone else in the plane departed. During each transfer I stood at solemn attention slowly saluting as our precious cargo was unloaded and then uploaded again for the next portion of our trip. At each stop the Jet’s ground crew and the ground crews working on Jets at the nearby gates stopped work and came over to join me in reverent dignified respect for our fallen soldier as others had done at the beginning of the journey. I was always the last on the jet to take my seat.
We arrived at Capitol City Airport about 1:00 A. M. and met by a non-commissioned officer responsible for the affairs of the fallen and his family. I thought to myself my job wasn’t as tough in comparison to his responsibilities. The funeral director with his transport vehicle was also there as well as a young officer from my unit who was tasked to escort me back to my truck parked at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport. I did not stay for the funeral. I was mentally exhausted from the long solemn trip.
As a member of the United States House of Representatives for the 113th Congress I noticed a list of names of our soldiers who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan above the main entrance door in the Congressional House Office Building. My soldier’s name is on that long list including other members of the Michigan Army National Guard who fell. All were part-time weekend warriors who left family and friends when they were called to join in the fight.
The young soldier I escorted was the only member of our unit in that deployment killed in action. There were several Purple Hearts awarded during that tour of duty but no one else died. When I hear of celebrities failing to stand for our flag I think of my escort duty. The blood and sacrifice of so many whose casket is draped in the red, white and blue makes me stand up. I do it for them who made it all matter.