Sacred Mission: Broadcaster shares experience in honoring the fallen|
Posted 5/10/2012 Updated 5/10/2012
Commentary by Master Sgt. Michael Stewart
141st Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
5/10/2012 - Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash -- I could hear the voice over the two-way radio call out "wheels rolling." That was everyone's cue to get into position and not move. Everyone was at parade rest waiting for the families to arrive.
I was nervous - more nervous than at any point in my military career. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure everyone on the flight line could hear it. I had to remind myself to even breathe. My ears could pick out every little sound, from the faint hum of my camera's internal motor to the buzzing of insects.
Why was I so nervous? I knew I would have some nervousness, who wouldn't? But, I had no clue it would be this strong. I had double and triple checked everything on my equipment; I ran the process through my mind a hundred times. The one thing I kept reminding myself was "don't forget to hit the record button."
I had heard about the dignified transfer mission at Dover Air Force Base, Del., while attending training in Tennessee. I was told it would be one of the most rewarding jobs you could ever do as a combat correspondent in public affairs and how it has touched so many people's lives, but I never dreamed it would change my life forever.
It had been 16 hours since I arrived at Dover; and, already, a notification had come in informing us that we would be receiving six fallen soldiers later that night. That evening, we loaded our gear and headed to the passenger terminal to wait for the arrival of their remains.
I was surprised to see that it was a commercial airliner and not a military aircraft. When I asked the other videographer why, he explained the remains of the fallen are returned to Dover by the most expedient means possible, which may mean a direct flight from theater on a civilian aircraft. The mission, he continued, is to return America's fallen to their loved ones as quickly as possible.
Once the aircraft taxied and parked at the designated spot, we drove out to set up our cameras, one camera on the flight line and one in the transfer vehicle. Once inside the vehicle, I was required to set up and level my tripod, frame and focus my camera, adjust exposure and white balance, and check my back-up recording device, all within 5 minutes. Even though it was very cold, I could not stop sweating because I was
When the call came in over the radio for "wheels rolling," it was at that point no one could leave there designated location or even move. If we forgot an item or had a camera malfunction, we only had access to what was in our camera bag. There was no room for mistakes.
In the distance, you could see the flashing lights of the security forces vehicle escorting the families out to the flightline. An Airman with two lighted batons precisely guided the surrey transporting the families into view of the aircraft.
As the families were approaching they could see the flag-draped cases ready to be lowered.
Because of the position and location of where I film from, I could not see the families when they parked, but I could hear the driver applying the buses' brakes, letting me know I would need to hit the record button very soon.
I checked my camera's focus position once again and waited for what seemed like an eternity. The families did not make a sound, or at least I could not hear them.
As I waited, I wondered how I would react in their situation. Would I cry? How would my family and friends respond if they were out in the cold waiting to watch me be transferred to a military vehicle?
After about 10 minutes, I could see out the driver's side window some movement along the flightline road, far off in the distance. The carry team and the official party were on their way.
With precision and dignity, they all marched in step down the long road toward the aircraft.
As the carry team marched around the transfer vehicle and positioned themselves at attention facing the families, is when I finally heard them - quietly at first, but very clearly, the cries of a lone woman calling out her soldier's name. As she became louder I started to hear other cries, more women and then children, over and over they cried "daddy, daddy - you promised me" an engulfing wall of grief. I no longer had to wonder how I would respond - I cried.
I had to stay focused. This wasn't about me, this was about the families. "Do what you were trained to do, stay focused," I repeated to myself. By the time the official party marched toward the transfer cases and stood in front for a moment of prayer, I quickly regained my composure. I had to. Not only was I responsible for the taping of the event, I also had to help position the transfer cases within the vehicle.
One by one, each fallen soldier was placed in the vehicle with the greatest of care. Every detail was thought through; even the order of the cases is done by position of honor or rank. I was never prouder than at that moment in my career to be able to witness this process. We could not bring their soldier back, but we could show the families through our actions that we appreciated the ultimate sacrifice that was made by their loved one.
After the last case was placed inside the vehicle, the carry team performed an about face and took about five steps out, stopped, and turned around to face there fallen comrades. The Airman responsible for closing the vehicle doors did so in a very slow and deliberate manner, walking the one side of the double door all the way in and securing it, before walking to the other side and closing the final door, until both doors were secure.
As the transfer vehicle started to drive away, the commander in charge ordered "present arms," every military person on the flight line rendered a three-second salute. The vehicle slowly headed toward the port mortuary with a security forces vehicle as its escort.
As I rode back in the vehicle, sitting inches from six men I never had the privilege to know, I reached out and placed my hand on one of the cases and thanked them for their sacrifice, not only for my family, but for those families sleeping soundly that night, who might never get the privilege of thanking these heroes.
Those six soldiers would be the first of 183 military men and women from all branches of service that I would thank for their service and sacrifice during my four-month tour at Dover AFB. My job there was because people were dying. It doesn't get any more sobering than that for me.
I've changed since that deployment. I hold my family a little tighter when we hug. I've learned to be more open with my emotions. And, I don't sweat the small stuff nearly as much as I used to.