This story first published in Proud to Be: Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2 (2013)
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. On behalf of Delta Airlines, I would like to welcome you to San Antonio, Texas. The local time is eleven-twenty-three AM, and it is currently seventy-eight degrees and sunny. We will be pulling up to the jet way momentarily, but we ask that you please remain in your seats. Today, we have the honor of carrying the remains of a fallen American soldier. Please remain seated until his casket can be off-loaded. Thank you for your patience and thanks again for flying Delta Airlines.”
The flight attendants were up moving around the cabin, and one of them approached my seat. “Thanks for what you’re doing,” she said. “If you would like to go ahead and grab your carry-on, you can move up to the door.”
I unfastened my seat belt and reached up to grab my bag from the overhead bin. The passengers sitting near me suddenly looked very uncomfortable. The young woman whom I had sat next to for the last few hours had told me all about her hometown, her work, and how much she loved running. She had asked me about where I lived, if I had been overseas, and what it was like to jump out of airplanes. We had talked off and on for most of the flight, but now she looked at me sympathetically. She hadn’t thought to ask why I was flying to San Antonio.
“Once again, we appreciate your patience, ladies and gentlemen. Please remain in your seats, and we will deplane momentarily.”
As I stood up, I straightened my necktie and pulled at the hem of my green jacket. Once everything was in place, I moved forward. As I walked toward the door some of the passengers looked at me with sorrowful faces, others checked their watches as if waiting was a huge inconvenience. A few older gentlemen looked at me and nodded. As I reached the door of the aircraft, I was met by the pilot. He put his hat on, and I slipped on a pair of white gloves and pulled my black beret onto my head making sure that the folds were just right.
I followed him out onto the jet way and then through a side door that led outside. We walked down a flight of metal steps onto the tarmac where a charcoal-gray hearse was backed up next to the conveyor belt that would carry luggage out of the plane’s cargo hold. The driver stepped out, opened its rear door and walked over to us. He was an older man, dressed in a black suit, and walking with a limp. On his left lapel he wore an American flag pin.
He shook hands with the pilot, and then reached for my hand. “Good mornin’, Sergeant. I’m Bill Meyers. Once we get the casket loaded, I’ll take ya on around to pick-up your luggage.”
I reached out and shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Sir. I’m Staff Sergeant Taylor.”
The pilot nodded to the ground crewman who was standing in the entrance of the plane’s cargo hold. Looking up at the plane I could see passengers’ faces in the windows. They were all looking down, trying to see what was happening. Behind me, in the airport terminal, some people had stood and were watching.
I stood there thinking about how much I hated this part of the job, and how later I would have to meet this kid’s parents. How the hell did I get picked for this one anyway? He wasn’t even in my squad.
As the ground crew worked to prepare the luggage carts, a long rectangular box came into view. The man inside the fuselage cut the shipping bands and lifted the top off. Inside was a soldier’s casket with an American flag stretched over it and held tight by an elastic band. Private-First-Class James Anthony Smith Junior, barely twenty years old and dead. A hero’s homecoming for a kid who had never even been to war; I wondered how these people would respond if they knew he had died in a hotel room after getting drunk and overdosing on prescription pain killers. It must have been some party. Unfortunately for his mother, the hotel housekeeping staff had found him on the bathroom floor on Sunday morning. It was Mothers’ Day.
With the help of the mechanical wheels in the plane’s cargo area, the man maneuvered the casket to the top of the conveyor belt. Another crewman turned it on, and the casket slowly descended from the aircraft toward the waiting hearse.
I snapped to attention and raised a slow ceremonial salute. The pilot saluted as well. When the casket reached the bottom of the conveyor, ground crewmen and Mr. Meyers slid it into the back of the hearse. I dropped my salute. The pilot shook my hand and thanked me for my service, and then he turned and walked under the plane heading back to the stairs. I walked over to the hearse. Mr. Meyers was fastening the casket onto the rollers and straightening the flag.
In his Texas drawl he said, “Hey, Sarge, go ahead and get on in the passenger seat there. It’s a good forty-five minute drive down to the funeral home. The family’s gonna meet us there.”
I opened the door and sat down on the leather seat. I took off my gloves and my beret, and I waited.
After closing the back door, Bill walked around and climbed into the driver’s seat. “Which luggage carousel do you need to go to, Sarge?”
“Carousel A, please.”
“Alright.” He shifted into drive and started following an airport-security vehicle toward the gates to the flight line.
“Are you familiar with the Smith family, sir?” It wasn’t my first time meeting grieving family members, but I wondered what I was getting into. I absolutely hated delivering the body of a young soldier to his mother and father.
“Yeah, I have known them for years. We’re actually headin’ to a small town outside of San Antonio. It’s a pretty close community.”
“How are they doing with all of this?”
“Well, Jimmy’s dad has been doin’ alright, but his mother, well she’s pretty well devastated.”
We pulled up to the baggage claim and parked. I stepped out and went inside to retrieve my bag. I came back out and slipped it into the back of the hearse next to the casket, and we drove on. Bill and I talked some on the way to the funeral home. He asked about the Army, and told me that he had served many years earlier.
“Jimmy’s father retired from the Navy about ten years ago. He was real proud that Jimmy decided to enlist. He never could understand why the boy wanted to join the infantry, though. Sure is a shame how he died.”
I sat there talking, but really I was thinking about how this first meeting with Jimmy’s mom and dad would go. I had no idea what to expect. I wondered if they would blame me for their son’s death. They let him go off into the Army, and his leaders allowed this happen.
We arrived at the funeral home, and there were several cars there waiting for us. As we pulled up next to the double doors a woman got out of the passenger side of a blue truck. Bill gestured towards her. “That’s Jimmy’s mom, Wendy, there.”
Mrs. Smith looked to be in her mid-forties. She was short and appeared to be in good shape. Her hair was blonde, but there was some gray in her roots. She wore a black dress, and her makeup had been smeared. I could see that her eyes were red and puffy from crying.
The funeral director came out through the double-doors to meet us with a rolling cart. Bill opened the back door to the hearse, and they pushed the cart up to the back bumper. After unfastening the clamp that held the casket in place, Bill and the funeral director slid the casket onto the cart and pushed it inside. I walked in behind them.
Jimmy’s mom followed us inside. I quietly asked Bill to keep her occupied and away from the casket for just a moment. Part of my job was to open the casket and check the uniform. I had to make sure that everything was neat and crisp, and double check the placement of all of the medals and badges. Funeral homes made mistakes sometimes, and occasionally things shifted in flight. Usually everything came out okay. Regardless, I really didn’t want a dead soldier’s mother watching while I checked his uniform and made adjustments to it.
Bill tried to talk to her, but Jimmy’s mom demanded to see the body. She stood at the center of the casket while the funeral director opened the lid. She immediately became hysterical. Even I was surprised at what I saw. The makeup was caked on Jimmy’s face like paste. His fingers were shriveled as if he had spent too much time in a bathtub, and they were still stained black from postmortem fingerprinting. Doctors had performed an autopsy, and Jimmy’s fresh military buzz cut did nothing to hide the sutures that ran over his crown from one ear to the other. It looked like the thick red stitching that holds the leather in place on an old baseball.
I took a deep breath and glanced over the uniform hoping that everything was correct. Jimmy’s mother was weeping in the arms of another family member who had come into the viewing room. Damn it! Of course there would be something wrong, I thought. The unit crest that was supposed to be centered over Jimmy’s right breast pocket was crooked. I was really hoping that I wouldn’t need to move anything on his uniform.
Jimmy’s mom watched closely while I unbuttoned his jacket. As I reached inside to remove the pin backs, I felt the stubble on his cold dead jaw scratch against my wrist. I carefully adjusted the pin, and then I buttoned his jacket. I turned to his mother and promised to find some white gloves to cover his hands. Through tears she thanked me for bringing him home and turned back to her family.
I walked to the back of the viewing room. I was angry that I had been picked for this escort detail, and I wanted to tell someone at the casualty assistance office that the preparing funeral home had done a really lousy job on the makeup. The funeral director walked up and said that his makeup artist would clean up Jimmy’s face and hands before the visitation the following day. I thanked him and stood alone at the back of the room.
A minute later the side door opened again, and Jimmy’s dad walked in. Jim Sr. was a brawny man with hair over his ears and collar and a thick graying beard. He had big tattooed arms and wore biker boots, faded jeans, and a plaid button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his biceps. It looked like he could have come straight out of a biker magazine. Jim walked into the room, and the handful of gathered family members parted for him to walk through. He approached Jimmy’s casket, and I heard him mumble something.
With his hands on the rail of the casket, he leaned over it and said, “That’s not my Jimmy.” He repeated it more loudly and finally turned to his wife. “It can’t be him. That can’t be my son.”
They held each other sobbing, but his gaze searched the room and found me standing near the back wall. I straightened up a bit, and he stepped around his wife in my direction. His face was filled with hurt and wet with tears. He walked toward me like a man on a mission, and as he got closer, I wondered what was going to happen. When he was only a few steps away and still hadn’t slowed his pace, I half expected him to swing at me. Instead, he ran right into me, wrapping his arms around me and crying on my shoulder. He sobbed loudly and thanked me over and over for bringing his boy home. Relieved that he didn’t try to take out his sadness and anger on me, I returned his hug and expressed my condolences.
Soon after the initial shock, the family thanked me again and began to clear out. I was glad when Bill said he was ready to drive me back into San Antonio. Jimmy’s mother offered to make arrangements for me to stay with someone in the family, but I politely declined.
Climbing into one of the funeral home’s black Cadillac sedans, Bill said, “You gonna get a rental car, Sarge, or are you gonna need a ride for the visitation and funeral services?”
“I’ll have a rental car for the rest of the week. You can actually just drop me back at the airport, and I’ll be fine from there.”
“No problem, Sarge.”
The ride back to the airport was quiet. I thanked Bill and double checked the times for the visitation the following day, and then we parted ways. I checked into my hotel room and found a nearby bar. I was hungry and tired, and I needed a drink. I hated escort detail, and it bothered me to think that this kid was getting the same military honors that were performed for my friends who were killed in action. I raised my glass in a private toast to myself for another mission accomplished and then a drink for Jimmy. “Welcome home, kid. Pills and booze, what a dumbass way to die.”