On August 2, 2007, twenty-four-year-old Army Specialist Cristian Rojas-Gallego of Loganville, Georgia, lost his life in Iraq. Surviving are his parents, his young widow and three very young children, ages three, two, and ten weeks. Spc. Rojas-Gallego was almost home when he was killed. This, his fourth tour in Iraq, was nearly at an end. Prior to enlisting in the Army, he served three tours in Iraq as a Marine. A combination of staunch patriotism, love of America and love for his growing family eventually led him to enlist in the Army after his Marine Corps service was over.
On Saturday, August 12, 2007, Spc. Cristian Rojas-Gallego came home for the final time. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders were present to escort Cristian and his family from the airport to the funeral home. The Patriot Guard Riders is a very diverse volunteer organization made up of people from all walks of life, the “faces of America.” Most members ride motorcycles; some, such as myself, do not. The mission of the Patriot Guard, in part, is “to show sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities,” at the invitation of the families. We were honored to be invited by Crisitan’s family to welcome him home this final time, and to escort him to his “final duty station.”
Saturday afternoon, 50 to 60 motorcycles (and two cars) made their way to the Peachtree DeKalb airport to await the arrival of the plane that would bring him home. It was hot – very hot. DeKalb County Police Officer J.E. Fox, who provided police motorcycles and cars to assist in our escort, cautioned us that the temperature outside was 100 degrees, and that the heat-absorbing black asphalt of the road and the runways registered a temperature of no less than 158 degrees.
We received word that the jet carrying Cristian’s body was only 12 minutes out – we needed to get into position. Quickly, all sixty of us grabbed our flagpoles bearing 3x5 American flags, and lined up on the tarmac to wait. The air was heavy… or was that my heart? Heat waves quivered and danced in front of us. The family of our fallen hero arrived and stood to the side, as well. Moisture trickled down my face…was it sweat, or was it tears? I could not tell.
After what seemed to be a long wait (but in reality wasn’t more than a few minutes), we caught sight of the chartered jet approaching the airport. The lump in my throat grew bigger. As I heard the whine of the jet engines, there was no mistaking tears for sweat. When the jet was brought to a stop in front of us, the Patriot Guard formed two lines – one from the nose of the jet to the hearse, and one from the tail of the jet to the hearse. Our hero would be taken through a corridor of flags, a corridor of honor, a corridor of respect.
The pilots, working with tremendous solemnity and respect, set about their task of getting ready to bring our hero out of the plane. It was several minutes before this happened. As we stood there silently, respectfully, I was again overcome by the enormity of the moment. I noted the jet sitting there, holding her precious cargo; I was acutely aware of the family, waiting for the pilots to bring out our hero. Again and again the thought ran through my mind that this is not how Cristian’s homecoming should be; I am certain it was not how anyone envisioned it. And my tears fell harder.
As the Army pallbearers reverently took the flag-draped casket to the hearse, we all stood at attention, and tears fell in earnest. The anguish of a family in this moment is not something that can be adequately expressed – nor should it be fodder for public consumption. Suffice it to say, none of us standing there will ever forget how we felt that day, and how we fervently hoped that our presence as we represented “the faces of America” provided some measure of comfort to the family.
The DeKalb County Police escorted us from the airport to Wages & Sons Funeral Home in Stone Mountain. Ever seen fifty or sixty motorcycles (and two cars) going down the road with American flags flying in the breeze? It’s an awe-inspiring sight, designed to pay tribute to those who have given their all in the service of our country. I-285, Hwy. 78 and every street along the route were essentially shut down for the procession. Police officers at intersections stood at attention, saluting. As we approached the funeral home, I saw the Mayor of Loganville, Tim Barron, and his family and other Loganville residents standing by the side of the road to pay their respect and honor our hero as he passed by.
Again holding our flags and standing at attention, the Patriot Guard stood in silent respect and honor as Spc. Rojas-Gallego was taken inside Wages & Sons. Once his family was inside, our mission for the day was complete.
With a raw and broken heart, I returned to my car and headed towards my home in Loganville.
Spc. Cristian Rojas-Gallego was home.
Rest in peace, Sir.
We will never forget.