Saturday, May 12, 2007

Welcoming Home a Hero.....

I'm not quite sure exactly where to begin this post. For weeks, I've been plagued by (apparently stress-induced) writer's block or something... I look at a piece of paper or a computer screen and can't come up with a single thing to put down. But, I've got to give it a try this time... after a Patriot Guard Rider mission, blogging about it is my main coping mechanism for dealing with the very intense grief I've witnessed and felt. So... here goes.

Recently, Georgia lost another Hero in Iraq. Today, a private, chartered plane brought him home (they are getting away from using commercial airliners now). The Georgia PGR had the privilege of being in attendance with the family to stand in honor of this Soldier, and then provide an escort from the airport to the funeral home some 25-30 miles away.

The day started bright & early. I woke up at 7:30 and was on my way out the door by 8:15, stopping to fill up my car, get a couple bags of ice, some bottled water and some donuts for the other PGRs. I met up with several of the guys at a gas station by 10, and proceeded to follow them to the Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville, Georgia (where other PGRs joined us). It's a small airport with only a few runways... nothing like the insanity of the mega-huge Hartsfield Atlanta airport. I'm not sure how many of us there ended up being - 8 or 10 or so would be my guess.

We arrived at the airport at 11, so the ride captains could coordinate with the family and the funeral directors, etc. The plane was scheduled to land at 12:06 p.m. While the ride captains worked out the details of the escort, etc., the rest of us stood around outside, just waiting. Good thing I brough all that botteled water, because it was HOT outside... hot, hot, hot - and humid, too. While we waited, the words of Robert Stokely describing how he went to the airport (in Atlanta) to greet the plane bearing the body of his son in 2005, echoed in my mind over and over again. (Click HERE to read his account of when his boy came home for the last time, and you'll see why I kept flashing back to these words all day.) We eventually got word that the plane would land at 12:30, a little behind schedule. The closer the time got to the plane's arrival, the heavier my heart grew. I knew this would be a difficult mission, and fully realized what a high honor it was to be there with the family, when their loved one came home for the final time. Already, some of the family members had come up to us and expressed how much it meant to them that we were there... that it was giving them strength. (No... thank YOU... it was our honor and privilege to be there....and we will never forget the sacrifice your loved one gave!)

It came time for us to all get into position... the plane was only a couple miles out. The hearse was parked by the gates leading from the parking lot to the runways, and we were to line up on both sides of the hearse, holding our flags. I was directed to be on the other side of the hearse, from where I was standing currently, so I began walking around the hearse to get to where I was needed. I was kinda sandwhiched in between the hearse and the building... I discovered some uneven pavement when suddenly, my ankle twisted hard and I stumbled and did a swan dive - SPLAT! I was sprawled out on the pavement, flag & all, much to my utter horror and chagrin. My first thought was, "Oh crap, my flag is on the ground!!!!!" and my second thought was, "Oh no... I've embarrassed the PGR!!!!" Well, the funeral director came running over to help me up, and I apologized profusely... My one consolation is that the plane hadn't even landed yet, and there was still a lot going on, so hopefully I didn't disrupt things too terribly badly. :(

I finally made it over to where I was supposed to be standing, and everyone else settled into position. We stood somberly, the family assembled off to our left, the hearse and several soldiers who would be receiving the casket and loading it into the hearse between us. A few minutes later, the high-pitched whine of the jet engine was heard, and we saw our plane taxi in our direction, and park. It seemed to take forever for them to get ready to bring our hero down off the plane... for a long time (it seemed, though really it was but a few minutes), nothing happened as the pilots took care of, well, pilot stuff, I guess, in preparation. As the minutes dragged on, my heart was breaking. I could see from the corner of my eye the family off to my left, and the plane in front of me. The anticipation (though that is not quite the right word) was heavy in the air... just waiting for them to open the door, and bring our Hero out. My mind was positively screaming, over and over, "NO! NO! DAMMIT, NO! THIS IS NOT HOW A HOMECOMING IS SUPPOSED TO BE! He's supposed to jump outta the plane and run to his waiting family, who will rejoice and celebrate that he's home safe! HE'S NOT SUPPOSED TO COME HOME IN A FLAG-DRAPED CASKET! THIS IS NOT HOW HIS HOMECOMING WAS SUPPOSED TO BE!!!!" I knew that this would be the very first time the family would see that flag-draped casket. I kept thinking, not intentionally, just sort of feeling... that once that door opened, reality would hit them like a ton of bricks... that then there was no denying that it was all some horrible dream, that there hadn't been some kind of terrible mistake... that yes, he really wasn't coming home any more after this. A few silent tears escaped, and we waited...

Finally the door opened and after a somewhat lengthy process, they brought out the casket... I cried more, cried hard. Truth be told.. this was the closest I'd ever come to losing it... the heart-breaking wails of the family members upon seeing their Hero, coupled with my own emotions... it was hard. Somehow I kept it together, though I have to admit, I'm sorry, barely. I wasn't hysterical, I didn't lose it, but it was hard. I kept telling myself, "the family needs me to keep it together for them! It won't help them if I fall apart!" and so... close eyes...deep breath in, deep breath out.... repeat.... and I held it together. Once the casket was in the hearse, the guys (and the other gal who was there) went to their bikes, and I to my car, to get ready for the escort to the funeral home. Once I was safely ensconsed in the relative anonimity of my car (where the family could NOT see me) - I let myself go for a few minutes... then kicked myself back into shape to be ready to go. Had to be absolutely focused on driving - no room for error. There was a cop car leading the procession, then two bikers (one on either side in front of the hearse), then the hearse, two bikers on either side of the back of the hearse, then the rest of the bikers, several family members' cars, with me as the very last car, followed by 2-3 police cars completeing the escort.

We drove slowly from Gainesville to Clarkesville, Georgia, to the funeral home. It was 25 or 30 miles at most. I noticed that the area was beautiful - neat mountains, lovely small towns.... police blocking the intersections along the way for us, standing at attention and saluting... Finally, we reached the funeral home, where once again we lined up on both sides of the hearse as the Hero was removed from the hearse and taken inside. By this time, I was completely and totally "together" - I think the long-ish drive from airport to funeral home helped, gave me some time to decompress.

Once the Hero was safely inside the funeral home, we all got ready to leave... the father of the Fallen Hero (himself a retired Soldier) came out and shook each of our hands.. he reiterated that our presence there meant more to them than we would ever know. (It was our honor to be there... how could we not be? We will never forget, never take for granted the fact that freedom is not free... we will be there every chance we have, to honor our heroes... we owe them that, and so much more....)

And so, finally, we all left for home. I arrived back home around 4 p.m. and, totally drained, laid down for an hour's nap before we all went out for dinner (cuz I sure as heck didn't feel up to cooking tonight).

God bless the USA.

Never forget what freedom costs.



David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 05/14/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

chtrbx said...

Kat,tears run down my face as I read this account of a hero's homecoming. What a privilege it was for you to be part of that homecoming to honor the soldier and support the family. As the rest of us celebrated Mother's Day the mother of this hero had her son come home to her for the last time. He came home honorably and having the PGR there to honor him I know meant the world to his family. Working where I do I have had occasion to come close to loosing it also,and I am sure it took all you had not to,but I know in private you did,and understandably so..for how could you not for this hero,and his family who has given so much for our freedom....Once again I leave my promise to this hero and his family to never,ever take my freedoms for granted ever again,and to always remember those who have served so bravely and unselfishly.

Kat said...

chtrbx - i came VERY close to losing it - i mean, VERY VERY close. Thankfully, I pulled it together - but I was definitely not dry-eyed and stoic, for sure...

I dreamed about it that night even...

I think this goes into the "Life-changing experiences" category - something I will never forget and feel deeply honored to have been able to be a part of.

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