Like you, I juggle many demands on my time each day. Time seems to be at a premium for everyone these days as life gets busier and more demanding. Indeed we seem to be stretched thinner on a regular basis. The time for family activities, other items we would prioritize as important, and the things we often just want to do, doesn’t seem to be there. Our time is quietly encroached upon by work and demands of responsibility.
This week was no different for me – until it was.
I had a business meeting in Oklahoma City this week. I am not fond of being away from my family. When I travel for business, I always do so with a focus on my purpose and an eye on the clock to ensure smooth travel arrangements, no delays and make the intended outcome successful. I am fortunate to have a supportive family who understands my need to travel at times and that I miss them on my time away. They even gave me a small coin with a custom message on it, which I carry with me every time I travel. It has an engraving that reads, “Be Safe. I need you here with me.”
For my business trip this week, I boarded Southwest Airlines flight 1486 scheduled to depart Nashville Tennessee at 10:25 am. It would carry me to Dallas where I would catch my connecting flight to my final destination of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on flight 6204.
As I boarded the plane, I saw the front two seats were blocked off with yellow tape and signs that read “Reserved.” Referencing my previous travel experience, I thought maybe they need to keep those places empty for proper balance or maybe there are going to be celebrities on this flight? I took my usual aisle seat in the second row, which today was behind the mentioned reserved seats.
As everyone appeared to be onboard, and the airline attendants were doing final passenger counts, we seemed to be right on time. Then there was a noticeable discussion going on between several of the crew members and the time ticked onward. Ten minutes lapsed past our scheduled departure time, and I could see one of the crew members was teary-eyed in the midst of the discussion. I heard one of them say to another, “there’s one more person- he’s at the bottom of the ramp.” The thought crossed my mind, “that one person may get left behind if they don’t come on.” An announcement then came over the speaker system. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. We are awaiting the arrival of our Captain and a special guest; then we’ll be on our way.”
I thought to myself, “yep must be a celebrity.”
Shortly after, the Captain stepped on the plane and took the microphone to address us all. We were now about fifteen minutes late. The Captain stood front and center of the aisle and began his announcement standing in plain view of everyone.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. Today we have a special guest and distinct honor.” About that time a man entered the plane in a uniform. Not a camo battle dress uniform but a dress uniform often called an ASU- Active Service Uniform. It is the uniform worn by personnel in situations where formal dress is called for.
Flight attendants now removed the tape from the front two reserved seats, and the decorated soldier assumed one of the spots.
The Captain resumed.
“Today we have the distinct privilege and honor of having Staff Sergeant Robinson flying with us. He is carrying home one of our fallen soldiers to his final resting place in Oklahoma City.” The Captain then added a few short comments with respect and appreciation. I felt an emptiness and sorrow within me, which seemed to suddenly fill with regret and the need for repentance of my earlier impatience.
This week was suddenly different. I had a new perspective on my own life, job, and time away from my family.
- The morning family chaos of everyone getting ready and my couple days away from home suddenly seemed insignificant.
- The time I had placed at a premium, this soldier had dedicated to providing me the freedom to spend mine as I chose.
- My reference to time with family, he now no longer had the opportunity to experience for himself.
- Where my family supported me in my travels and reminded me to “Be safe,” they needed me with them, he had been in harm’s way and would never return to his family with the same privilege as I.
From my seated vantage point, I was able to see and hear the well-dressed escort who sat in the front row. The empty seat next to him gave me the appearance that it was the seat of the fallen soldier as if the escort was beside him all the way. The entire length of our flight, the Sergeant said nothing other than to politely respond “no thank you” when offered something to drink by the attendants. He remained solemn and dedicated to his purpose the entire flight. He sat quiet and reverent – as if there only for his comrade. I could feel the service and provision of honor he was delivering.
Upon arrival in Dallas, we were asked to allow the Sergeant and Captain to deplane first. Everyone complied. When my flight from Dallas to Oklahoma City boarded, the same announcements and reverence transpired as when the Sergeant boarded my initial flight with one difference. This time the Captain instead of saying “…carrying home one of our fallen soldiers to his final resting place“, he simply said, “...carrying one of our fallen soldiers home.” You could feel the personal connection that was forming with this fallen soldier. The escort Sergeant displayed the same reverence and dedication on this flight as well.
Once we landed in Oklahoma City and taxied toward the terminal, a Hearse came into view. It was flanked by saluting well-dressed soldiers in the ceremonial uniforms. They stood at attention next to what appeared to be family members of the fallen, dressed in their Sunday best.
Many of the passengers were seeing the awaiting precession on the tarmac, and a spirit of reverence began to fill the plane that was felt by all. As the airplane came to a stop at the terminal, another announcement was made asking that the Staff Sergeant and Captain be allowed to deplane first. The flight was full with approximately four hundred people on it. The usual activity and scrambling to retrieve carry on items from the overhead bins was not occurring. It was quiet and solemn, even with four hundred people. Everyone remained seated until the Sergeant and Captain had exited.
With the plane at a stop and passengers offloading, the spirit of reverence and recognition for the sacrifices of this solder moved upon many of the passengers. There were many, including myself, who remained on the airplane just watching this soldier’s reception as he reunited with those awaiting his return. There was an awareness of his sacrifice and that of his family also. They had longed for his safe return from work- as my own family does for me. But his return home to his family was not what they expected or hoped for.
I remembered seeing a movie with Kevin Bacon called “Taking Chance.” It documented the story of a military escort of a fallen hero named Chance Phelps. It helped me understand some of what was happening. For instance, the Sergeant deplaning first. This allowed him to be present at the tarmac as the fallen soldier was carried to the next location of his journey. Along every step of the way home, when the returning soldier was being moved, the escort stood present, to salute him to pay proper respect.
Many of us sat watching in what felt like the only way we could pay tribute. Several cried. The witnessing of events and our paying attention seemed to be the only payment we could make against a debt we owed him. In that movie I mentioned, there is one scene where the Sergeant escorting Chance feels the inadequacy of tribute in comparison to what the fallen soldier deserves and questions why he is there. One of the hometown citizens that knew Chance then tells the escort, “You are his witness now. Without a witness, they just disappear.” Indeed we were witnesses of this soldier now arriving home. We were indebted strangers who recognized the debt we owed and we stood as his witness.
The family approached the planes lower compartment where the fallen hero awaited. What appeared to be a young mother with an infant in her arms then retreated.
The Military Pallbearers marched to the plane- then slowly and rhythmically, in step, moved toward the Hearse with the coffin in hand.
My morning chaos at home and the family conflicts we all tend to experience, had consumed my heart and mind earlier in the day. They now seemed to disappear in the perspective of what I was seeing. I longed to be with my own family even more and felt indebted to this solder and his.
Maybe part of my draw was that my daughter had served in the ROTC. Or that I knew so many that had served. I’ve always had a general awareness and gratitude for our military. I am aware of Veterans Day and recognize it each year. I’ve seen the wreath placed on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier many times. I’ve often said and meant the words “thank you for your service.” But this felt like a new level of appreciation and connection.
The respect I witnessed from the crew and passengers and our connection with this man prompted me to try to find out who the fallen soldier was- so that I would know his name. It now felt personal to me. When I later inquired, the only information shared, out of privacy and respect for the family, was that there were “human remains” on that flight. I still don’t know his name. I now had my own connection with an unknown soldier.
The travel coin my family gave me, a constant reminder to be safe and return, now has added meaning. I’ve shared this experience with my family who then also felt a connection to this Unknown Soldier and his sacrifice. They shared it with several of our friends and families of veterans who also demonstrated a personal interest and empathy for this soldier and his family.
I opened by remarking how busy we all are and that it often feels like there isn’t time to do everything we’d like to. For me, I’ve struggled the past year to find the time needed to write as I work toward the completion of my first novel. The truth is it all comes down to prioritizing what we do with our time. It was once said, “you always have time for what is most important to you.” So while I have not written something to share in several months, this man’s service and the sacrifice his family continues to live with are a priority today, and I am writing it now as a small tribute to them. Yes, I am still very busy this week. This week was no different for me – until it was.
One last reference from that movie. In it, when returning the personal belongings of the fallen soldier Chance Phelps to his family, the Sergeant escort tells the family members, “I want you to know, today you do not mourn alone.”
Whoever that soldier was on Southwest flight 6204 with me to Oklahoma City this week, now my Unknown Soldier, I have a message for his family. This message is to you on behalf of many.
- From myself and all of those that looked onward from the airplane with a spirit of indebtedness and gratitude.
- From the four hundred on the aircraft who honored the Captains announcements to remain seated.
- From the crew members.
- From my own family and those, we shared this with.
- From all who read this tribute and all of those who share it with others.
The message is, I want you to know, you do not mourn alone!
Until Next time Remember,
“In Life, Family, Faith or Finance-Your Success is in the Details”- Doug