Honoring the fallen a personal obligation of reverence, respect

  • Published
  • By Bob Tullgren
  • Air Force Personnel Center,
Paying respect to fallen military veterans is a personal obligation and one that signifies reverence for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to pay for the freedoms we enjoy each day. Recently, and with mixed emotions, I had the honor of joining others in escorting the remains of two military veterans who passed away due to wounds received while serving in Afghanistan.

"Dignified departures," or "dignified transfers," as they are commonly called, are done with military precision, respect and pride. Serving this call of duty, the Patriot Guard police (comprised of officers from Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph as well as Live Oak and Universal City, Texas), coordinators from military mortuary affairs, public affairs and others met at the designated rally point.

While the escort group waited for one of the fallen soldiers to arrive, I walked among them and heard them share their pride in the mission they were about to undertake. As they talked, I learned how much each one sacrificed to be there to send their brother or sister home. Some took personal leave from work to participate; some rode for hours in the dark, rain, heat, and cold, all to ensure that our fallen veterans' families, friends and former unit teammates could see the respect and esteem others felt for their loved one and his or her ultimate sacrifice. The time they gave was personal and an unspoken symbol of respect.

At each event, we could quickly identify who was the deceased's designated uniformed escort. We could see the hefty weight of responsibility they willingly carried in their heart as they escorted their friend, a member of their unit, to a final resting place. We could see the turmoil of emotion while they faithfully and skillfully carried out their friend's last mission.

The recent events were just as prideful as those in the past. As the call to assemble was given, the lump in my throat tightened. The police blew a warning siren, lights flashing, as they stopped traffic, allowing us to pull out of the parking lot and ease toward the base and waiting aircraft. At the turn onto Pat Booker Road, we saw residents from Live Oak and Universal City lining the route, some patriotically waving American flags; also, long-retired veterans rendered a salute that would make today's basic training instructor proud. Children too young to even attend school stood with tiny hands over their hearts, mimicking their parents and other adults.

As we merged onto the highway, local police stopped traffic and honored the fallen with a salute as the flag-festooned procession passed. Other drivers - strangers to the deceased - stopped along the roadway. Many drivers got out of their vehicles to render respect.

As we entered JBSA-Randolph, all sound faded into insignificance at the sight of the impressive "Taj," where a mammoth American flag at half-staff snaps crisply in the breeze.

As we neared the roundabout, through eyes blurry with tears, I saw recognizable faces of civilians and military members lining the streets, at attention, extending respect for the deceased. Those able to attend marked the moment with hands clasped with their neighbor, extended in prayer, in a salute or covering their hearts.

The crowd grew as we neared the flightline, and entire organizations stopped their daily grind to make time to share a final farewell and pay respect to a fallen comrade.

A full honor guard in service dress waited for us at the passenger terminal. Terminal and flight line personnel stood stiffly at attention before the aircraft that would receive America's fallen son or daughter. The attending officers snapped a salute as the casket was solemnly carried aboard the plane, and as the aircraft doors closed, the pilot accepted his mission to safely transport the fallen soldier home.

Thank you, on behalf of the families, for your participation. The memory of you standing curbside ignites emotions that cannot be explained. To those who put aside your task for a moment to render your respect, to the Patriot Guard and police officers who guided us safely through the streets, and to the local residents who honor the level of service our young men and women in uniform give daily, thank you and bless you.

While I do not wish a return of the circumstances that make such events necessary, should there be another case of a fallen soldier escorted home along this path, please join me curbside as we share our personal expression of respect.