The Bond of Veterans Day

Veterans Day is a day our nation sets aside to honor veterans. It is also about the bond of service.

Recently I had the honor of participating in a Dignified Transfer ceremony at Dover Air Force Base to honor a fallen Soldier.

The Soldier had been killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Afghanistan. In the military community, this process of returning the fallen is called a “Dignified Transfer.” Most Americans recognize this ceremony, having seen the occasional media coverage.

A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Oklahoma Army National Guard Soldier. (U.S. Air Force photo/Steve Kotecki)

Each Dignified Transfer is extremely moving, with each fallen warrior, and the family in attendance, receiving the care and respect appropriate to an event of such gravity. The strength and gratitude of the nation are on portent display in this traditional ritual.

As Chief of the Military District of Washington’s Medical Evacuation to continental United States (CONUS) Hospitals team, I wanted to better understand how this process compares to our Wounded Warrior Flight operations at Andrews AFB. Andrews AFB, Maryland, receives almost all our returning wounded; and Dover AFB, Delaware, is where America’s war dead come home.

Prior to the Dignified Transfer ceremony, I was afforded the opportunity to go inside the aircraft and pay my respects. A few minutes before the arrival of the family, we move the flag-draped metal casket from inside the aircraft out onto a red-carpeted platform extended from the aircraft. As the family arrives by police-escorted bus to the tarmac, their first view of the casket is in this elevated solitary position, exposed by the aircraft as if on an altar. I find myself thinking of this platform as the outstretched hands of a mourning nation, returning the family’s loved one. The bus parks. The family dismounts carefully, as if climbing down an unlit cavern. They take prepositioned seats. The parked bus shields the family from the media present. The mother is clearly distraught. It looks as if she hangs nearly her whole weight onto the shoulder of the father, her husband. She frequently buries her face in his shoulder. The Chaplain speaks quietly over the remains. The commands are given. The Army ceremonial team conducts the formal ceremony. We render a slow salute. The flag-draped casket, carried by six white-gloved soldiers, passes before the family and the reviewing party, and is lifted into a waiting mortuary transport truck.

It is said that there is no loss greater than a parent’s loss of a child. No other experience can compare. Though all experience is ultimately individual, in losing a child one loses a piece of the self. Watching the parents that day at Dover, I’m sure that sentiment circulated through all that were in observance.

The solemnity of the ceremony is made extraordinarily profound by the slow pace at which each act is executed. The bus drives slowly. The ceremonial soldiers move slowly. Even the doors of the mortuary truck are closed slowly. It is as if every second of time is extended so that one might silently celebrate service, and scorn death.

The family turns to watch the mortuary truck and the slowly marching soldiers move off the tarmac. This movement takes at least 5 minutes. The family gazes in tearful stillness, surely remembering, trying to absorb what they have lost, and will never have again. The senior officer present tells me later that in talking to one of the families prior, they say to him: “This really is real, isn’t it?” He answers respectfully in the way it has to be answered, that “this is as real as it gets.”

Airmen from the 79th Aeromedical Staging Facility offload patients from a medical evacuation flight at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. The patients will be transported to various medical treatment facilities in the National Capital Region. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Suzanne M. Day)

During the next week two other Soldiers wounded in the same attack return home. The Soldier that was killed was their team leader. Our team meets them and the others arriving on the Wounded Warrior Flight to Andrews AFB. One of these warriors suffered significant injuries to the skull, neck, and eyes. The Army had arranged for his mother to join him at the Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and she accompanied him home on the C17 aircraft. On the aircraft, the warrior recognizes my presence, but his medication and wounds prevent him from speaking. His mother stood stoically beside his litter. She watched over him, and served as his voice. Her eyes said she would stay by him as long as necessary. His father is a veteran, she said. So she knew instinctively the nature of the commitment and sacrifice asked of our Soldiers, and intended to continue to serve now as protector and advocate.

Her son’s treatment was going well, she said. The medical staff in Germany and on the aircraft had provided superb care and attention. She was confident her son would recover well, and that he was proud he’d served with honor. Then she described a special reunion that had occurred just prior to their departure from Germany.  Her son had been able to briefly reunite with the other Soldier wounded in the attack, who was also scheduled to be evacuated home. She told us that that brief meeting – reconnecting the bond with a unit brother – had an electric affect, and made her son very happy.

As we prepare to celebrate Veterans Day 2011, I found myself reflecting again on the incredible bond forged between warriors. There is no stronger bond. Our Veterans, past and present, share that bond. And our Military District of Washington team is honored to welcome our Wounded Warriors home.

Blog Post submitted by, COL Claude Schmid Team Chief, Medical Evacuation to CONUS Hospitals

Joint Forces Headquarters National Capitol Region