Veterans' Voices: Airlines captain’s report

Veterans’ Voices is a new column directed toward veterans and their families who have given so much to ensure our freedom in this country. This is an area where you may share your experiences, or read of other veterans’ experiences. We thank you for your service, and hope that you know how much you are loved and appreciated.

 

This is a true story of a fallen soldier.


The American flag does not fly because the wind moves past it. It flies from the last breath of each military member who has died serving it.


My flight attendant came to me and said, “We have an H.R. on this flight.” (H.R. stands for Human Remains.) “Are they military? “I asked. “Yes,” she said. “Is there an escort?” I asked. “Yes, I’ve already assigned him a seat.”


“Would you please tell him to come to the Flight Deck? You can board him early,” I said.


A short while later a young Army sergeant entered the flight deck. He was an image of the perfectly dressed soldier. He introduced himself and I asked him about his soldier. The escorts of these fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and still with us. “My soldier is on his way back to Virginia,” he said. He proceeded to answer my questions but offered no words. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him, and he said, “no.” I told him that he had the toughest in the military, and that I appreciated the work that he does for the families of our fallen soldiers.


The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand. He left the Flight Deck to find his seat. We completed our preflight checks, pushed back and performed an uneventful departure. About 30 minutes into our flight, I received a call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin.


“I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying, is also on board,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me that the soldier’s father, mother, wife and 2-year-old daughter said that we are escorting their son, husband, and father home to Virginia. The family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left.


We were on our way to the major hub at which the family was going to wait four hours for the connecting flight home to Virginia. The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable to see him was way too much for him and the family to bear. He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival. The family wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken off the airplane. I could hear the desperation in the flight attendants voice when she asked me if there was anything I could do.


“I’m on it,” I said.


I told her that I would get back to her. I bypassed the system set up for our communication and called in to the Dispatcher. I explained the situation I had on board with the family and what the family wanted. He said he understood, and that he would get back to me. Two hours went by, and I had not heard anything, so I contacted him again. The dispatcher apologized for the delay, but said that it took a while to get an approval, but he finally got it.


He said upon your arrival, a dedicated team will meet the aircraft. The team will then escort the family to the ramp and the plane side. A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family. The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal, where the remains can be seen on the ramp. It is a private area for the family only. When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted onto the ramp and plane side to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home.


When we arrived to the connecting airport, we were told by the airport that all traffic was being held for us. There is a team in place to meet the aircraft. It looked like it was all coming together. Then, I realized that once we turn the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay the family from getting off the airplane. As we approached our gate, the plane stopped short of the ramp. The captain got on microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement. We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect. His name is Private XXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life. Private XXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold. Escorting him today is Army Sergeant XXXXXXX. Also on board are his father, mother, wife, and daughter. Your entire flight crew is asking all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first. Thank you.”


We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started our shutdown procedures. A couple of minutes later, I opened the cockpit door. I found the two forward flight attendants crying, something you just don’t see. I was told that after we came to a stop, every passenger on the aircraft would stay in their seats and wait for the family to exit the aircraft. When the family got up and gathered their things, a passenger slowly started to clap his hands. Moments later, more passengers joined in, and soon, the entire aircraft was clapping. Words of “God bless you,” “I’m sorry,” “Thank you,” “Be proud,” and other kind words were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out of the airplane. They were escorted down the ramp to finally be with their loved one.


Many of the passengers disembarking thanked us for the announcement I made. “They were just words,” I told them, I could say them over and over again, but nothing I could have said would have brought back that brave soldier.


I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this true event and the sacrifices that millions of our men and women have made to ensure our freedom and safety in these United States of America. They die for me and mine, and you and yours, and deserve our honor and respect. Thank you, all who have served, or are serving. We Will Not Forget!


If you have any recommendations, or just want to say “hi,” don’t hesitate to email me at aboutVets@yahoo.com.


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Royal D. Goodman,


U.S. Army


Vietnam 1st Cav/9th Infantry