During my layover at RDU I saw a line of uniformed men standing outside my departure gate. There was an elder gentleman with them, so I asked him what the occasion was. He informed me that the body of a Naval Chief Petty Officer was returning from Afghanistan, and that the local USO chapter was providing an honor guard. I moved over to the window, where I could see a baggage cart with a US flag printed on the curtain, and a couple of firetrucks. Not long after I’d gotten to the window, the gentleman announced what was happening on the local PA, and invited anyone who wanted to watch to the gate. I was surprised to see about 40 people quickly coalesce around the windows overlooking the tarmac.
Nothing happened for about 20 minutes, but I didn’t notice anyone leaving, either.
(A note on the images. The windows at RDU are striped to reduce insolation. The windows are 50% covered, and while the human eye can ‘ignore’ the striping relatively well, the human camera is more limited.)
After this there was more waiting as the people on the ground got organized. The operation seemed more ad hoc than I would have expected; I’m pretty sure that after 12 years of war, this isn’t the first fallen serviceman to come home on the airline.
The casket coming out of the plane.
I don’t know if this particular aircraft has a cargo door on the other side, but I can say that nothing came out of the hold on this side prior to the casket. It’s apparent there were some veterans among the airline staff.
There were about half a dozen family members present, some visibly distraught. This was painful to watch. I can’t imagine what it’s like to say goodbye to a son, a father, a husband, hale and hearty, as they leave to serve, and the next time you see them, they’re in a box. It was uncomfortable watching this most personal of tragedies, but those of us in the terminal represented our society bearing witness to the cost of our political decisions. It is important that we do this. We should own up to our decisions, and pay our respects to those who carry them out. I hope that in time the family realizes this, and doesn’t regard the dozens of strangers watching as leering voyeurs.
I’m glad I witnessed this, and in some miniscule way, pay my respects to a man I’ve never met, and to I family I don’t know. Rest in peace, Chief.