A fallen Marine comes home
With sad eyes and a broken heart, she watched as the flag covering her son's casket was slowly folded by the uniform-clad pallbearers and remembered the day Michael enlisted in the military. Within his heart burned a desire to be numbered among the few, the proud, the Marines. When she learned of his enlistment, she thought back over the way he struggled through school and had some behavior problems during adolescence. She felt this would be a great way to help her son become the man she knew he had the potential to be. He only needed someone with the right key to unlock it. She hoped the Marine Corps would have that key.
When Michael returned from boot camp, her hopes became reality as she saw the seeds of manhood sprouting out all over him. He was definitely on the road to maturity and she was excited about the changes she saw.
In time, Uncle Sam called his young nephew to a battlefield far away. Though she hated to see Michael go, she sensed this day would ultimately come. Her son tried to lessen her fear for his safety by reminding her how well the Marines had trained him. She forced a smile onto her face and did what she could to show its presence in her eyes as well. As she kissed Michael and waved goodbye, she hoped it would not be the last time she felt his embrace.
The day she hoped would never arrive did so about a year later with a strong knock. When she opened the front door, she was greeted by two Marines in their dress blues. Their presence and somber expressions immediately sent a cold chill through her body and caused her to let out a small scream. She covered her eyes and began to cry. Her husband, having heard her from the adjoining room, was immediately by her side and wrapped her in a strong embrace. He slowly escorted her away from the door and invited the Marines inside.
When the Casualty Assistance Call Officers walked in, they shared with the parents the fact their son, now a Lance Corporal had died as a result of hostilities involved with his mission.
"You're not supposed to bury your son! Your son is supposed to bury you," she cried. "It isn't supposed to be this way."
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As his family grieved, Michael began his journey home. From the time he left the mortuary in Dover until he arrived at the funeral home, he would be accompanied by a military escort. This Marine's duty would be to watch over him the entire trip, making sure Michael was treated with dignity and respect.
Reporting to Dover Air Force Base’s mortuary, the escort joined six others waiting for their charges. Before leaving, the escort was given Michael’s personal effects to take with him – dog tags, watch and a special little cross he carried with him at all times. When Michael was ready to go, a number of small ceremonies took place to mark his departure from the mortuary. As he was placed into the hearse for his trip to the airport, an announcement was broadcast over the PA system informing the service members of Michael's departure. The members immediately ceased what they were doing, lined the driveway and rendered honors as the hearse left the mortuary grounds.
Due to the size of the container in which Michael would travel, the logistics involved would require the container to be treated as cargo to some extent at the airport. The Marine escort was there to see to it the ‘cargo’ title was kept to a minimum.
While preparations were underway to load Michael into the cargo area of the plane, his escort went to the passenger terminal to prepare for the flight. As the ticketing agent began to ask him several questions, she was interrupted by a co-worker who explained to her the Marine was a military escort. Her co-worker handled the validation quickly and added a complimentary upgrade for first-class to the ticket.
Another airline employee approached the escort to let him know a member of the cargo staff was on the way to accompany him to the tarmac, so he could observe the process by which Michael would be put on the plane. Both employees found themselves struggling with their words as they spoke to the escort.
The tarmac crew was relatively silent, speaking only when necessary. As Michael moved up the conveyor into the aircraft, the Marine rendered honors. Baggage handlers and other crew members removed head coverings and stood silently during the process. The escort maintained his lookout until all luggage was loaded and the cargo door secured. Then he returned to the terminal to board the aircraft.
When he stepped inside the plane, he immediately sensed the reason for his presence was known by the entire crew. His carry-on bag had been hand-delivered by one of the pilots and the flight attendants seemed choked up as they directed him to his seat.
After the plane arrived at its destination on the first leg of Michael's journey home, the escort was accompanied by the captain to the tarmac to watch over Michael as he changed planes for the next portion of the trip. The Marine again rendered honors and the same respect shown to Michael by the previous tarmac crew was extended to him by this new group as well.
Due to destination and flight schedules, the trip involved a layover that evening. After making sure Michael was ‘settled in for the night,’ the escort was taken to his hotel and then picked up bright and early the next morning for the final leg of the trip.
Upon their arrival in Spokane, Washington, Michael’s shipping container would be the first item unloaded from the cargo area. Prior to pulling up to the gate, the captain, a former Navy pilot, stopped the plane temporarily and spoke to the passengers. He explained the reason for the Marine's presence and requested the passengers remain seated to allow the escort the opportunity to depart first. A bashful expression momentarily blanketed the escort's face as a hush fell over the entire cabin. All eyes were immediately on the Marine as he rose from his seat to walk down the aisle and exit the plane.
After Michael was moved from the plane to a secluded area, the escort began to remove the protective covering in which the coffin had traveled. During this time, the funeral director walked in and introduced himself. He had traveled from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Michael's final destination. They shook hands and then the Marine covered Michael’s casket with the American flag he received in Dover. He then rendered honors as the funeral director oversaw the transfer of the casket into the hearse. A car had been provided for the escort and was parked close by. While he followed behind the hearse during the trip to Coeur d’Alene, his thoughts centered on the things he would say to Michael’s family when they met.
At the funeral home, the escort presented the paperwork he received at Dover to the funeral director and plans for the following day were discussed. He also met with one of the two officers who had informed Michael’s family of his death. Before leaving to go to his hotel, the Marine requested the opportunity to make sure Michael’s uniform was squared away for tomorrow’s service.
As the casket was opened, he now "met" Michael for the first time. Looking over the young corporal’s uniform, he could tell the people in Dover were exceptionally skilled at their task because everything was immaculate.
The next morning as he donned his dress blues, the Marine continued to think over the way things might go when he met the family and what words he should use as he presented Michael’s personal effects to them. He said a small prayer and asked God to put the words in his mouth which the family needed to hear.
After arriving at the church, Michael was removed from the hearse by the pallbearers and the Marine again saluted his fallen comrade during the process. As the coffin came into view, some of the women nearby began to cry. Gender proved to have no control over tears that day because a heavy mist was seen in the eyes of some of the men as well, especially one elderly veteran sporting a DAV cap.
A childhood friend of Michael’s, himself in dress blues, soon arrived and saluted the escort. The corporal explained he and Michael were lifelong friends and enlisted on the same day, but their future training sent them in separate directions after boot camp. The young man fought hard to hold back the tears as he stared at the flag-draped coffin of his childhood partner-in-crime. He volunteered to watch over Michael so the escort could go get something to eat prior to the service.
When the Marine walked into the nearby restaurant and approached the hostess stand, he was caught off guard to see a framed photo of Michael in his dress blues on display with a black ribbon draped over it. The manager approached him and extended his hand, then led the escort to a vacant table. When the server arrived, the manager instructed her there would be no charge for his meal.
When he returned to the church, the Marine was immediately greeted by the pastor, who would conduct the service. As they walked together from the foyer to the pastor's private study, the escort ran over in his mind one more time how he would go about presenting Michael’s items to his family. What would he say? How would they react and how would he react to their reactions? This would definitely prove to be the hardest step involved with bringing Michael home.
When they entered the room, the pastor began the introductions. Michael’s father walked over and extended his hand, followed by Michael’s grandfather, uncle and older brother. Michael’s mother kissed the Marine’s cheek, then wiped away the lipstick smudge with the wad of damp tissues she held in her hand. Michael’s grandmother had been ill for some time, so she remained seated on the sofa behind the rest of the family. The Marine removed the red velveteen bag containing the personal effects from his pocket and handed it to Michael’s father. He began to share what he had learned about Michael from the people in Dover, then listened as the family reiterated a number of stories from his life.
The sanctuary was filled to capacity. Several mourners wore military uniforms, in addition to veterans wearing their red Marine Corps League jackets. During the service, Michael's uncle, one of the League members, stepped to the pulpit and shared some of the letters Michael sent his parents. In them, he described what it was like where he was stationed, the tasks assigned to him, and the reaction of the people in the area regarding the Marines’ presence. In one letter, Michael stated he felt by the time he returned stateside; he would require a blood transfusion due to the number of mosquitoes in the area. Thankfully, he knew he and his brother were the same blood type, so he already had a donor lined up. A soft smile was seen on his brother's face as a gentle chuckle was heard in the congregation.
After the service, the family followed the pallbearers as they carried Michael’s casket from the church. The escort and Michael’s friend stood across from each other nearby and rendered honors as the casket was placed back inside the hearse. By the time the hearse arrived at the edge of the parking lot for the trip to the cemetery, a large percentage of the mourners were lined up along both sides of the street holding American and Marine Corps flags to tell Michael goodbye. Proceeding through town, more people lined the street with flags in their hands. Some of the small boys who were dressed in camouflage clothing saluted as the hearse passed them.
The escort was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for Michael’s sacrifice and his family’s loss. He was left to wonder if this was because Michael was an exceptionally popular individual in Couer d'Alene or was this typical of a small town, as opposed to what he would have seen had Michael gone home to a city such as Detroit or Chicago.
When they arrived at the cemetery, the pallbearers removed the casket from the hearse while the escort and Michael’s friend once more rendered honors. Following the family's departure at the close of the graveside service, the Marine stood alone near the coffin for a few moments. He felt a light breeze with a bit of a chill in it hit his face as a cold reality settled in his heart. While Michael was in transit from Dover to Coeur d’Alene, he was “moving.” so he could be thought of as still being alive in some respects. However, when his coffin entered the ground, Michael's movements would come to a permanent halt. With a tear on his cheek, the Marine rendered honors one last time as he told Michael goodbye. Though in life, the escort had never known the young corporal, he now suddenly found himself wishing he had.
Back at the church, a covered dish luncheon was in progress. During the gathering, he observed the way many people hugged Michael’s family members and exchanged warm conversations with him as they thanked him for his service. A sense of closure began to permeate the crowd and a comforting peace settled over the Marine; reassuring him he had fulfilled his mission to bring Michael home to his family, with dignity and respect.
Lord, keep our servicemen and women safe, whether they serve at home or overseas.
hold them in Your loving hands and protect them as they protect us.
(Author’s note – Coeur d’Alene is used to represent any city in the US to where a fallen military individual goes home.)