Honoring the fallen, quietly
 


By Jonathan Evans

There are no reporters on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base. The public is not allowed to witness the military tradition of "receiving the remains." Instead, there are soldiers, roused at dark hours to stand in the confines of what seems like a secret as the dead are brought home.

I am one of the soldiers. Nearly every day we learn of another death in Iraq. In our collective consciousness, we tally the statistics of dead and wounded. The number is over 500 now. But none of our conjurings are as real and tangible as the Stars and Stripes folded perfectly over a coffin cradling one of those statistics on his or her way home.  It does not matter where somebody stands politically on the war, but I believe that all who have an opinion should know the cost of that opinion. When a soldier dies in a foreign land, his or her remains are returned to the United States for their final rest. The remains arrive in Dover, Del., without fanfare. No family member is present. There are no young children to feel sad or confused. Just a small group of soldiers waiting to do their duty and honor the fallen.

"Dover flights" are met by soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, the storied Old Guard. They are true soldiers, assigned to an esteemed regiment, but it is a unit defined by polish, not mud. It seems that they quietly long to be tested with their comrades "over there." But it is clear to me as I watch them that they find immense pride in honoring their country this way.

Silence. I am a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, and it is my job to have the honor guard at Dover at whatever hour a flight arrives. In military-speak, the plane's grim contents are referred to as "HRs"-"human remains." Once the plane arrives, conversation ends. The soldiers form a squad of two even ranks and march out to the tarmac. A general follows, flanked by a chaplain and the ranking representative from the service in which the fallen soldier served.

The plane's cargo door opens slowly revealing a cavernous space.  The honor guard steps onto a mobile platform that is raised to the cargo bay. The soldiers enter in lock-step formation and place themselves on both sides of the casket. The squad lifts, the soldiers buckling slightly under the weight. The remains have been packed on ice into metal containers that can easily exceed 500 pounds. The squad moves slowly back onto the elevated platform and deposits the casket with a care that evokes an image of fraternal empathy. It is the only emotion they betray, but their gentleness is unmistakable and compelling. The process continues until the last casket is removed from the plane. On bad nights, this can take over an hour. The few of us observing say nothing, the silence absolute, underscored by something sacred. There is no rule or order that dictates it, but the silence is maintained with a discipline that needs no command.  The caskets are lowered together to the earth, where the soldiers lift them into a van, one by one. The doors close, and the squad moves out.
 
Just before the van rounds the corner, someone speaks in a voice just above a whisper. We snap to and extend a sharp salute.  There are those who would politicize this scene, making it the device of an argument over the freedom of the press.
But if this scene were ever to be exploited by the lights and cameras of our "infotainment" industry, it would be offensive. Still, the story must be told. A democracy's lifeblood, after all, is an informed citizenry, and this image is nowhere in the public mind. The men and women arriving in flag-draped caskets do not deserve the disrespect of arriving in the dark confines of secrecy. But it is a soldier's story, and it must be told through a soldier's eyes. In the military, we seldom discuss whether we are for or against the war.

Instead, we know intimately its cost. For those of us standing on the tarmac at Dover in those still and inky nights, our feelings have nothing to do with politics. They are feelings of sadness, of empathy. And there is nothing abstract about them.