Continental Flight 1889 left Houston, Texas, on May 29th, 2007, at 6:25 p.m. local, and arrived at Sacramento, California, at 8:29 p.m. local. On board were two pilots, four flight attendants, about 160 passengers, several hundred pounds of luggage, and one fallen American.
Our soldier was homebound for the final time, barely 24 hours after his death in Iraq. He flew enclosed in a casket in the cargo hold, and he was accompanied by a stony-faced Sergeant First Class who sat in row four. Before boarding, an elderly woman approached the SFC in the passenger lounge, asking to shake his hand and thank him for his service. The SFC complied, but did not smile, nor even speak: his mind was elsewhere, and I think I know why. I had been in his shoes, or something like it, nearly 10 years before, when I represented the United States armed forces at the Natchitoches, Louisiana, funeral of a deceased young Marine who went by the improbable name of Forty-Five. To present the flag and represent the nation to a family who gave their very son is an awesome and sobering duty. The officer or NCO usually has a standard line: “On behalf of a grateful nation and the President of the United States –.” But it rarely goes as planned. In my case, the Marine’s mother stared past me as I spoke, and then her upright figure crumpled, and she bawled. Others rage. Some weep quietly. All exist, in that moment, as a reproach to the price of the profession of arms. Men who do not fear battle fear this –and our Sergeant First Class had a mother waiting for him in Sacramento.
Before takeoff, the pilot came on the intercom to announce a “very special passenger,” and he named both the fallen and the sergeant accompanying him. The passengers fell silent, paying attention as they never do for the preflight safety briefings. But then we flew, and a cheap romantic comedy was shown to keep us quiescent. Flight attendants served mediocre food, and I opened up e-mails downloaded that afternoon. One of them was from a college acquaintance with whom I had long been out of contact. He was not in ROTC with me, but he later went to OCS and distinguished himself: now he is an officer, about to head to Iraq for his first tour and first war.
“I opposed the invasion of Iraq right up until the minute the first bullet was fired,” he wrote, “[but] being a student of history I knew that the only thing worse than fighting a war and winning was fighting a war and losing.” And so he did what too few patriots now do: he signed up for a war he did not believe in, for the sake of a country he does believe in. But then the troubling part came:
"[T]he more of the ‘other America’ that I see that does not serve and does not consider service in any form … the more I am repelled and disgusted. This war has long ceased to be a national focus of attention and has instead some kind of bloody reality show that the American people have seemingly decided has lasted a few seasons too long and become tiresome. It seems to me that I don’t need the support of the American people to continue this mission because as a Soldier who understands Duty that is not negotiable. I cannot help but wonder if the American people are deserving of my support as someone ready to give up everything for their behalf."
I looked about at my fellow passengers. Businessmen clad in Polo shirts and khakis dozed. The woman to my right giggled at an onscreen exchange between Mandy Moore and Diane Keaton. Athwart the window, an athlete doing his best to look like a thug preened over his snakeskin sneakers. In the row ahead, a fat matron paged through a banal novel. Flight attendants fore and aft made small talk about airport bars and cheap hotels. Throughout the aircraft, the only men with a visage of seriousness and reflection were the SFC in row four — and, one hoped, the pilots. I began writing to my acquaintance:
America does deserve its military — and still more deserving is the Constitution that you swear your oath to. Fortunately, our country is not merely the aggregate of its people, but the functional expression of the ideals that created it and bind those people, however imperfectly, together. Those ideals are worth fighting for in themselves, even if not a single American honors them.
But we would honor them, surely, at least in one small thing: we would honor the fallen soldier belowdecks. The man who slept forever in the dark, cold hold had experienced the last of life’s certainties, but he could count on one more — that we who accompanied him en route to his final bit of earth would do well by him.
On the tiny screen above, an actress took a pratfall, and my seatmate guffawed.
Westbound aerial descent into Sacramento is beautiful. The aircraft begins its swoop to landing somewhere over the Sierras. If you’re lucky, you’ll see brilliant Lake Tahoe below; even in the worst case, the final high range of the American west rises to meet you beneath your plane, and you have a few moments of awe before the Central Valley rolls out its carpet of green and brown, increasing in detail and apparent speed before the runway. “When we land,” announced the pilot, “please remain in your seats even after we reach the jetway.” I expected this: surely they would not let us disembark before our soldier did. “We must let the Sergeant get off before anyone else,” he continued, “and then we can let you off.” Well. We would disembark before the fallen after all. I said nothing.
We landed, and waited on the runway for a quarter-hour. The soldier’s mother was running late, and we were not to pull up to the jetway until she arrived. We sat and waited in the stifling, recycled, sticky air of the aircraft, until the pilot’s voice announced that the bereaved mother was there, and we could proceed. “Finally!” said an exasperated voice from behind. I turned about to see who it was, and saw only dozens of blank faces looking back at me. We taxied to the jetway. The pilot reminded us to keep our seats. The aircraft door opened — and along with the SFC, about half a dozen passengers, most in first class, leapt up and began collecting their things. The SFC, looking even more stony-faced now, pushed past them and left. They attempted to follow, but were blocked by flight attendants belatedly enforcing some order. The passengers stood and waited, and expressed annoyance at a yet further meaningless delay.
Meaning, though, is where you choose to find it; and that choice has moral content. In time, thanks apparently to the protests of the passengers who did not wish to wait for the SFC, we were let off the aircraft. We filed down the aisle, and through the windows to the right, I could see on the tarmac a hearse and an honor guard beginning to assemble. The fallen was still beneath our shuffling, fat feet, as we fled the confines of Continental 1889, because we could not wait for this man whose eternal wait was entered into on our behalf. Shame washed over me, and when I strode into the passenger lounge, I rushed toward the crowded window, where several watched the flag-draped coffin emerge from the hold. The honor guard received it smartly. The aircraft ground crew stood in silent formation. The world came to a stop, punctuated only by a woman’s quiet sobs, as our soldier slid into the dark hearse, and out of our view forever.
Not for the first time that day, I looked about. The crowd by the window was small. Most of our fellow passengers were talking, laughing, or walking away with no apparent care, toward baggage claim, and then home. I remembered my Iraq-bound friend’s words: I cannot help but wonder if the American people are deserving of my support as someone ready to give up everything for their behalf. I assured him that they are — what else could I say?—but in the impatience and disrespect of flight 1889, I felt that the American people had made me into a well-meaning liar. I turned back toward the hearse and its flag within, and away from my fellow passengers, thinking only that theirs was a long road to comprehending, and still less deserving, this young soldier’s death.
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