Honoring the Fallen

By Scott Westerman
Listen to an audio version of this message.

“Before the people of the world – let it now be noted in our decision here that ..we stand for:  justice, truth… and the value of a single human being.” ~ Spenser Tracy in ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’

Johnny DiScala and I fly thousands of miles every year. Most trips are mundane. We hope the wifi works and keep our fingers crossed for an upgrade. But Johnny’s experience on Delta Flight 2255 from Atlanta to Los Angeles recently reminded me that, everyday, somewhere, someone’s life has just been irrevocably changed.

As Johnny tells the story,  “The captain got on the PA system about 45 minutes prior to landing, to tell us that we were transporting a fallen soldier. The plane went quiet as he explained that there was a military escort on-board and he asked that everyone remain seated for a couple of minutes so the soldiers could get off first. He also warned us not to be alarmed if we saw fire trucks since Los Angeles greets their fallen military with a water canon salute.

“A few minutes after touchdown, we did indeed have a water canon salute, which I’d previously only experienced on happy occasions like inaugural flights. This time, the water glistening on the windowpanes looked like tears.

“Passengers in the airport must have been worried when they saw our plane pull into gate 69A, as we had a full police and fire escort, front and back.”

Each military branch has its own honor guard, composed completely of carefully screened volunteers.

“When the jet door opened,” Johnny continues, “another military officer spoke quietly with  the escort who was standing at attention. He then stepped on the plane and told us passengers ‘I just addressed the escort. It is a sworn oath to bring home, to the family, the fallen.’ He paused and then said, ‘Today you all did that, you are all escorts, escorts of the heart.’ And then thanked us for our time and walked off the plane.

“As you can imagine, everyone was silent and no one got up…I’m sure most had meteor-sized lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes like I did.”

Normally, we hurry away from our gate. There are connections to catch, meetings to attend, lives to be lead. But that day at LAX the windows overlooking the tarmac were filled with people. The honor guard and family waited patiently while Delta baggage handlers and a military loadmaster gently removed the flag-draped casket from the cargo hold.

Johnny was one of those witnesses. “I’m not sure if it was the fallen soldier’s mother or wife who I watched slowly walk up to the coffin while a few other family members, wrapped in blankets, stood near with a dozen or so of the Honor Guards standing in salute.

“As soon as I saw her reach out to put her hand on her baby’s casket, I walked away.

“This ordinary flight, ” Johnny DiScala concludes, “became extraordinary and is one that I will never forget.”

We rightly hold our soldiers in high esteem because, if not for their sacrifice, the freedoms we take for granted would not exist. To serve in the military is the highest form of patriotism. I place our police officers, paramedics and fire fighters in this same rarefied group. These are the heroes who put their lives on the line every day, to preserve, protect and defend all that we hold dear.

But just for a moment, look about you. Every heart has known the meaning of grief. For some, these feelings may be right beneath the surface. Behind every smile there may be suffering. And the foundation of the American Miracle is that every human life is just as meaningful as is that brave soldier who came home for the final time on Delta Flight 2255.

I try to remember these things in my daily interactions. They fuel a little extra patience, calm my sometimes petulant temper, and help me work to more deeply understand the value that the people in my world, even those who are hard to deal with, add to my life.

What would happen if everyone treated one another with the same reverence we treat our fallen heroes? Ponder that one this week and you may find yourself looking at the world from a little different perspective.

With gratitude to everyone who wears a uniform to protect our freedom.