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Archive for January 24th, 2008

Last summer (summer of 2007), in the midst of a run of casualties suffered by Alaska based troops, I happened to travel to Anchorage on a business trip. During that time period it was fairly common for me to go from Fairbanks to Anchorage and back home again in a days time, catching the 6:00am flight down (to Anchorage) and an afternoon or evening flight home to Fairbanks. The meetings and trip down were uneventful, I can’t even recall now what the meetings were for. The return flight proved eventful, putting an exclamation point on an otherwise forgettable day.

I had come to dread the flights back and forth, yet cherished them as well. Over a course of time, and repeated flights, I had started feeling like I’d used all my ‘lucky’ flights up. On those days, I would lay in bed until I had overcome my phobia, then quietly get out bed, and head on out to Fairbanks International to catch the 6:00am early flight. What I enjoyed about the flights was the quiet time. That is, time without phones, children, spouse, or co-workers breaking into my thought process. It was an opportunity to write in my journal, to ponder the future, to read, and yes, to nap. Especially nap.

This day was no different. I checked in, headed down the familiar concourse of the Anchorage airport, to the familiar Alaska Airlines gate and on to the airplane. I took my seat, and started resting my eyes, reflecting on life, work, and how much I would like to nod off before the plane got off the ground.

Soon we pulled away from the gate, and began to make our way across the tarmac to the runway. Suddenly, the airplane stopped. Not unusual, though not a typical stopping point either.

A couple minutes later the Captain came onto the speaker and announced that one of the recently fallen soldiers based out of Fort Richardson would be passing by the plane on the left side in their motorcade. He requested our silence, though needlessly. The plane had suddenly taken on the solemness of a funeral, and rightly so.

Fortunately I was seated on the left side of the plan, by the window. I was able to observe the procession as it crept by. Other passengers unbuckled and looked over the window passenger’s shoulders, anxious to pay thanks to the returning soldier. Throughout this time, not a word was spoken nor a sound made.

For a moment everyone on that plane ceased to be Republican, Democrat, pro-war or anti-war; we were all Americans. It is one of the few times after the weeks following 9/11 I’ve felt this way.

As the motorcade passed, passengers returned to their seats. People began to murmur quietly to each other, clearly affected by the flag draped coffin as it had passed.

Eventually, someone in the plane began to clap. It is one of the most bizarre instances of applause I will ever witness, or participate in. Soon, everyone was clapping. It wasn’t the raucous cheering at a baseball game, or the polite tap-tap after a mediocre performance. The applause was brief, subdued, but intense and heartfelt.

It was nothing less that a communal sharing of grief, and of thanks. Everyone on that plane, though we could or did not exchange hugs or glances, shared that moment; the grief, the pride, the anger, and sorrow of a life ending too soon.

I think often of that solider, and that plane full of people. Every time I pickup the newspaper or check the news online and see more casualties. Sometimes I consider looking up his or her name, getting to know who he/she was, who they left behind. But I don’t.

Personally, I think it is because I like to picture each casualty I hear about as that young man or woman, moving slowly by, forever still beneath the flag. It makes each new death more tangible, more personable, more than a number or name in a paper that is easily tossed out with the daily trash. I fear if this soldier were to lose his/her anonymity, I would lose my ability to transpose that experience.

Then again, it may be as simple as me wanting to avoid feeling the sadness of death, more than I already do. And I know as deeply as it has moved me, what I feel is incomparable to the grief felt by his or her loved ones. What could I possibly do to comfort them?

I know that experience, and the honor and gratitude expressed by everyone on that plane, was possible because someone stood up to the president and insisted that the soldiers be brought home with respect and dignity, not under the cover of darkness. I am grateful to them for giving me that experience.

But mostly I’m grateful to that young man or woman, a fallen soldier, who gave something none of us will ever be able to return to him or her.

Last, I would encourage anyone who has an opportunity to observe the motorcade of a returning fallen soldier, please take the time to do so. It will put your daily worries in their proper perspective, and provide a chance to bond with strangers, your fellow Americans.

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