A Dignified Final Ride for Fallen Heroes
Monday, April 16, 2012
By Malini Wilkes
Ken Tigges was shocked and troubled when he saw how the coffin of a service member killed in Iraq was handled as it came off a plane at the Raleigh-Durham airport back in 2006.
Crews simply loaded the crate onto a regular old baggage cart and hauled it away like any other luggage.
“That was it,” says Tigges, 77, a Vietnam veteran and volunteer at the USO of North Carolina. “No ceremony, not a very dignified or honorable transfer.”
What was worse, he thought – the widow who arrived to receive her husband’s remains wasn’t even allowed on the tarmac. She watched the crate being dragged around from a terminal window.
Tigges was determined to make some changes. “In my mind, we could do much better,” he says.
After talking with the airlines, the TSA, the military, even local funeral homes, he formed the USO Honors Support Team, with all parties committed to making sure fallen heroes and their families are treated with the respect they deserve.
Now every time a crate containing a deceased service member comes through the airport, an honor guard is standing by to salute the coffin and escort it on or off the plane. The crates are transported on specially built baggage carts decorated with an American flag and the service emblems.
The team has grown to 14 caring volunteers. Some are veterans, some are not. Two are gold star mothers. They’ve been called into action nearly 240 times in the last six years.
“I can’t think of anything more I can do for these young people than honor them this way,” says team co-leader Joe Donnelly, also a Vietnam vet.
The volunteers have developed a carefully choreographed system of support that starts with meeting the hearse. Someone always stays with the coffin as it makes its way through the cargo area and eventually to the tarmac.
The USO coordinates with the TSA to fast-track the military escort and any family members through a separate security line, and the airlines routinely upgrade them to first class. If there’s no room in first class, Donnelly says, he’s seen passengers volunteer to give up their tickets and sit in coach.
From the tarmac, he often sees rows of people watching quietly from the windows, as an honor guard escorts the red, white and blue baggage cart to the plane, lifts out the crate, folds the flag and offers a final solemn salute.
Because of budget constraints, the National Guard can no longer provide a full honor guard every time, so the USO has helped train TSA agents to fill in. Many are veterans themselves and eager to volunteer.
The Raleigh-Durham USO tries to adapt its procedures to fit any situation, and it has created a separate six-person Family Support Team to assist grieving families traveling to and from Dover Air Force Base. In 2009, a second honors and family support team began serving the Charlotte airport.
“You want to make sure it happens right for the family,” says Richard Steeves, who heads the 15-person Charlotte team. “I mean that’s the whole deal.”
Steeves, 73, also served in Vietnam and remembers how returning troops were treated years ago. He wants something better for today’s fallen heroes – a final homecoming worthy of their sacrifice. And the USO is helping to provide that.
“When they notice the honor guard, people will stand up, sometimes clap,” says Steeves. “It’s good to see that. That’s the way it should be.”
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Photo caption: Members of the North Carolina National Guard stand at attention with the casket of a fallen soldier at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. (Photo courtesy: Ken Tigges)
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