I stepped out from the van and onto the rain-drenched flightline, shivering from the cold that seemed to whip straight through my wool coat.
I had traveled to Dover Air Force Base, Del., in late February to write stories about the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center. I wasn't supposed to start working until morning, but I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to witness an event known as a dignified transfer, which marks the return of a servicemember who has died while supporting a combat operation overseas to U.S. soil.
I looked up and straight ahead sat a 757, nose lifted and lit to reveal two flag-draped transfer cases. Although covered in clear, waterproof material, the colors of the flag stood out in stark contrast to the night sky. All thoughts of discomfort dissolved as it sank in that two fallen soldiers lay within.
Army Staff Sgt. Michael David P. Cardenaz and Army Pfc. J.R. Salvacion had died just a few days before in Afghanistan. Cardenaz was killed when enemy forces attacked his unit with rocket-propelled grenades. Salvacion died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with a homemade bomb.
I thought about their service and sacrifice and what they had given up back home to serve. And I thought about my own two young sons and the unthinkable pain I would feel at their loss.
Moments later a bus pulled up, its windows tinted for privacy, carrying the soldiers' families and friends. It parked alongside me and the other media representatives, but they got out on the opposite side, tucked away from our curious looks and lenses.
The friendly banter among my colleagues ceased when they arrived, a sign of respect and an indication that the solemn event was ready to begin.
In the distance, an Army carry team dressed in camouflage, hands clad in white gloves, approached, only partially visible through the rain and fog. A group of servicemembers who made up the official transfer party followed closely behind. The wind whipped around them, but they seemed oblivious to the weather, their gazes set straight ahead as they marched toward their fallen comrades.
They entered the aircraft and stepped into position behind one of the cases. A chaplain rendered a prayer for the fallen servicemembers. I strained to hear, but his voice was too soft and his words were carried off in a gust of wind. The carry team stepped forward, gently lifted the case and moved it to the edge of the transfer device known as a "K-loader," and set it alongside the other.
The two cases were lowered to the tarmac, where the carry team was waiting. Three on each side and one at the end, the soldiers lifted the case, and with slow, measured movements, moved it into a transfer vehicle waiting with its doors open.
One of the family members cried out, overcome by her loss and by the sight of her loved one departing. I heard the depth of her pain, and I too began to cry, my tears mingling with the rain until it was impossible to distinguish between the two.
The other case followed, and a young airman shut the doors. With a call of "present arms," all military members saluted -- slowly and respectfully.
The transfer vehicle, with a military police escort, pulled off, followed by the official party and the carry team. I could hear the families board the bus to go. My escort nudged me. "We can go now," he said, but I felt unable to move. I stood there until I could no longer see the van or the servicemembers behind it.
It was only then that I realized I was shivering. I had forgotten about the cold.