Warrior Wednesday Salutes…

…Never leaving a man behind.

Those of you who are a part of the regular HB family know how much our men and women in service do for our country and for others around the world, and that’s partly what I appreciate so much about folks here- they love and realize our military are exceptional.

I’d like to shift focus for today to honor not only those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country, but to those who either care for them while they lay on the battlefield, bring them home, or present the Flag to their families during the final goodbye.

I will understand if some don’t want to read the following stories, as they are heart wrenching and realities of war, so please don’t feel obligated to read if you’d rather skip to leaving your thoughts in the comments. But some stories- all stories deserve to be told no matter how hard and brutally honest they might be.

A lot has been said about the hell of war, from all sides. I will always honor those who willingly give their lives to our country no matter what capacity they serve. It’s not that I view (as some do) casualties of war as a waste- but as a sacrifice given. I can’t bear the thought when one of our best dies in service to this nation, but I am grateful for their incredible dedication and selflessness. So I don’t look at the following stories as a negative of war- more as a part of it, whether we at home agree with war or not.  I look at the love, care and respect of fellow service members and prefer to honor that part of war, when it brings death.

The following is the process of retrieving the fallen, preparing them for the last journey, and their homecoming, including  a couple of stories in their own words (content warning- may be disturbing, but it’s war after all) linked to the original sites on which they were told…

In Country

“How did it come to this madness and chaos?”

The AAV (amphibious assault vehicle) belonged to Charley Company and was racing away from their fight at the northern bridge with casualties for medevac. They had been hit hard and had headed through Ambush Alley looking for help from us at our position. We all knew it was very, very serious when a young Marine fell out of the back of the vehicle and he was on fire.

The vehicle came to a rolling halt right in front of us, not more than 30 meters away, and I saw the crewmen who were on fire but still moving. They were hanging out of the hatches or maybe trying to climb out, and the men that were in the back were falling out, and they were on fire. There were seven to nine Marines in there. … Doc and I ran over, and I’ll never forget how dumb we were because we didn’t have our helmets or flak vests or anything — not even our weapons, just his medical pack.

The first thing I saw was the severed leg of a Marine lying on the ramp, so I picked that up, and I handed it to Doc. I said, “Lay this off to the side because we’re going to find who that belongs to.” I thought that if the Marine is still alive, the leg could be reattached.

There was black smoke billowing out, and we could barely see, but we started triage, and I went to pull a Marine out of the back, and as I was pulling him, his upper torso separated from his bottom torso, and all I had in my hands was his upper body. I handed Doc half of a Marine and said, “Put this in the back of the Humvee because Marines don’t leave our dead and wounded on the battlefield; everybody comes home.”

Even if it’s a piece of you, I have a responsibility to your mom and dad to bring everything back.” So, the Marine grabbed it, and his eyes were wide open, but he did exactly what he was told to do. … We went digging around and found a live Marine underneath two bodies. They were lying on top of him, so we pulled them off and looked down, and from the base of this guy’s neck, all the way up to the top of his forehead, it looked like somebody had just taken a saber and cut his head open. We got him up, and Doc pinched the skin of his head together, and we started to try to pull him out of this vehicle, but we couldn’t do it. We worked in there for what somebody said later was almost 45 minutes. Getting him out of the vehicle took about three or four of the Marines who had showed up. We yanked him out of there and put him into the back of my AAV.

Justin LeHew, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment “Task Force Tarawa,” March-June 2003, Nasiriya, recipient of Navy Cross. LeHew served a second tour of Iraq from May 2004 to February 2005.

Leaving.

The news. No doubt many of us have thought what it must be like when a Blue Star family officially becomes a Gold Star family. The news comes now in person by a military chaplain and a service member in full dress uniform. A sure sign of news that no parent, spouse, sibling or friend ever wants.

The service member is already being prepared to come home before the news arrives at the family’s doorstep. Diligent care and utmost respect is given the fallen no matter what rank they were, and for those who have seen or witnessed a military funeral, the same tradition, solemnity and dignity is given to the fallen from the time they are taken from the battlefield to when the flag is presented to the family.

The service member’s remains are packed in ice inside an aluminum, flag-draped “transfer case”, transported by military cargo plane and arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware. When landing at Dover, the remains are carried off the plane and transferred under care of the escort to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations center at Dover.

The remains are prepared for burial at this time and incredible care and respect for detail is given to dressing the deceased in full dress uniform.

Before 2007, the remains were taken only as far as the major airport nearest to the burial place and then transported by hearse which sometimes meant the family coming to meet the plane had a considerable trip to make. The National Defense Appropriations Act of 2007 now requires a direct flight on a military or military-contracted plane from Dover to the closest airport, no matter the size. A military escort also is required by law although the family can request that a commercial plane be used and no escort accompanies the remains.

By tradition, the remains travel feet-first whenever they must be moved, and there are military personnel standing at attention and saluting at each transfer point however sometimes the Military Escort is the only one who is in attendance to give honors.

For all active duty deaths, a small honor guard will provide honors for the remains when they arrive at their final destination airport. This honor guard of at least two military personnel may include the escort and one other uniformed service member.

The duties of the military escort are complete when the remains are delivered to the funeral home where the fallen service member will be buried.

This Army Escort Briefing lays out the rules and regulations on how escorts bring the fallen back home.

For another look at escorting the fallen, the movie “Taking Chance” based on a true story. It stars Kevin Bacon portraying Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a volunteer military escort who accompanies the body of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps to his hometown in Wyoming.  If you haven’t seen this, I couldn’t recommend it more-it is incredible and shows the amazing and deep respect to the fallen along the whole process.

Some of you may remember a story a couple of years ago about Delta Airlines Honor Guard, you can read a little more about what they do and why here.

Home.

“If I died, I died.”

At the Marine Corps funerals here in Connecticut, I always volunteer to present the flag. Some of the  guys hate presenting, but I like it.

Everything we do at the graveside is ceremonial slow. Instead of the normal salute and cut — that’s what we call it — we hold the salute and bring it back down slowly. Once they lower the casket into the ground, myself and the other Marine begin the flag folding. We each take a spot at the head or the foot of the casket. When I am the one who will present the flag, I stand at the head of the casket because that is where the stars are. The stars with the blue background are always over the heart of the deceased. The stars are always over the heart for love of country.

Once the religious service is over, myself and the other Marine grab the corners of the flag and hold it up in the air about chest height, stretch it out above the casket while taps plays. That’s usually when everybody gets really emotional. … The funerals are a reality check. They are a constant reminder that life is fragile. I have so many friends whom I’m so close to, and if they died I would be such a mess. When a young Marine dies, I wonder if he had a girlfriend. When I do the funerals of young Marines who get killed in Iraq, I feel like I should be back over there. I should be with them. If I died, I died. That’s my job. That’s a big part of why I joined. If I died doing something that I liked to do, people should just be happy for me.

We’re protecting freedoms all over the world.

Joseph Darling, flag presenter, Connecticut Marine Corps funerals. Darling did two tours of Iraq. His first was from March to July 2003. He returned in January to September 2005.

God Bless our Troops and Veterans. Thank You for giving up your peace so we could have it.